A bald man in his sixties dressed in spotless white and starched khadi (hand spun and hand woven cotton cloth) kurta and pyjama riding a bicycle with a ramrod straight back - that was my first glimpse of Bohreji when I came to stay in the moribund Gramodyog Vidyalaya Ashram or Gandhian retreat in Machla village thirteen kilometers from Indore in 1994. Like Gandhism the retreat had lost its shine in the hurly burly of modern development not to speak of its polluting gases. I had just come out from my idyllic retreat among the Bhil adivasis in the deep jungles of Jhabua district advised by my doctor to take time off from grassroots activism to get rid of the malarial parasites that, fearing displacement by the Sardar Sarovar dam being built on the Narmada river, had decided to make my body their home.
My wife Subhadra and I had arrived with our meagre possessions and even less money to stay at this ashram, which had become defunct. Bohreji was the caretaker and coordinator combined and spent his time chasing the children of the village out of the premises when they came to steal its many fruits, which ripened round the year(the kids would also come on the eve of their exams to steal the leaves of a christmas tree like plant which they called "vidya" because they believed that those and not studying would make them pass!). Bohreji welcomed us with open arms saying at last there would be some company for him. Many people had come and gone he said but no one had been able to stay long apart from him. He joked that only those people could survive in Machla who could not only ride to and fro to Indore on a bicycle but also cart their wives behind them on the carrier! Since we had no money even to buy a bicycle at that point of time and there was no other option so Subhadra and I too had to perforce ride Bohreji's bicycle to Indore when we needed to go there.
Bohreji and I were well matched. While I had the age advantage over him, he had the weight advantage in that his wife was short and thin while Subhadra was tall and plump!
That's how I began doing a lot of cycling for the first time in my life with Bohreji's cycle. Later on my friend Jacob Nellithanam who is into natural farming (it is quite another matter that since Jacob does not really do much actual farming on the ground Baba Amte, the great social worker and activist, once said that he would die a natural death trying to do natural farming!) came to stay in Machla also and do some farming. His farming experiment petered out after some time due to various reasons and that is a hilarious story by itself. So Jacob left Machla (he does not have a wife and so could not carry her on his carrier and that according to Bohreji's law technically disqualified him from staying at Machla!). But good old soul that he is Jacob left his bicycle for me to use. Now being a miser of the first water Jacob had bought the God knows how many hands old bicycle from a cycle repair shop for just three hundred rupees. But who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth at that time when even pennies seemed like pounds! That is the cycle that I have been riding ever since and I have spent many times its original cost to Jacob in keeping it in shape and despite my financial fortunes having improved considerably since, I have not abandoned this old horse.
Indore is a city of bicyclers. The labouring classes invariably ride on bicycles and many people from Machla commute everyday to Indore on them. I dont live in Machla anymore and have shifted to the city (primarily because my wife Subhadra does not want to ride on the bicycle carrier anymore and has forced me to buy a mobike to take her around on and that meant that we could not stay in Machla by Bohreji's law! Bohreji too has left Machla because his wife has departed to the heavens and so he does not have anyone to cart around on his carrier any more poor soul). But I love to ride my cycle around like the salt of Malwa do. Indeed the other day I came across the beautiful cameo picture-set which adorns the start of this post in a local daily. The small child dabbawala who transports food tiffins for people working in offices by cycle is a determined customer. He could not keep balance and one of the bags fell down and all the tiffins spilled out. But undeterred he collected all those tiffins, put them back in the bag, uprighted his cycle and went his way again. A poignant story if ever there was one of the fate of poor children sandwiched between the cars of the wealthy paralleling the sorry fate of the environment in this developed world of ours. For the poor masses in this country the bicycle is and will always be a fast friend and the sooner the rest of us follow their example the better -
The toiling masses pump their legs up and down
Riding their bicycles diligently all over town
They dont need costly petrol
Only a flour and chilli gruel
And they are quietly from nature earning renown