By GANESH SAILI
Believe it or not, it’s good to see that there is life beyond Tik-Tok and Instagram and as I look around, I see that more and more people have taken to pedalling around our hills on bicycles. For instance there is grey-flecked Manoj Ahuja, now in his fifties, whom you can catch logging over fifty kilometres a day on wheels in any kind of weather.
When I last wrote about this cycling fever, I was not ready for the feeding frenzy that I had unleashed over who had the first bicycle in the hill station. Several claimed: ‘Mine was the First!’ I guess it was their Kilroy was Here moment.
‘By-the-way I would like to state while patting myself, and my late father (on his ghostly back) that I owned the first bicycle in Mussoorie, post1946,’ claimed copy writer Shiv Sharma, now relocated to Mumbai. He remembered having an imported Armstrong, ‘unlike the heavy Hero cycle that made an appearance a year or two later.’
Considering that this was the first time I had heard of it, I kept my silence.
And he careens on: ‘Atlas cycles were on the scene much before Hero put in an appearance!’ He stops a moment, wondering where his old bicycle had vanished? Shall I tell him that after half a century, if not more, it had perhaps gone the way of all flesh? At the draw of stumps, all that is left are our memories.
Just as I begin to breathe easy, another schoolmate, Danny Phuntsog, says: ‘BSA were there much before – best of all bicycles – I rode one all over Dehra and Vikasnagar during my childhood.’ He should know, after all, his grandfather, Reverend E. T. Phuntsog lived in Landour’s Dahlia Bank in the 1950s. Just next door is Kellogg Church which looks like any American Midwest Church. It was consecrated in 1903 in memory of Dr Samuel H. Kellogg, who, just in case you’re curious, did come from the famous cereal brand owning family and also wrote A Grammar of the Hindi Language in 1875.
It is said that he collapsed and died after a massive heart attack while cycling around the Upper Chakkar. That would make it our first fatal cycling accident and he was laid to rest under the deodars in a quiet corner of the Landour cemetery facing the eternal snows.
Snow was not an issue on the southern face of Laxmanpuri’s Patram Das Building built in the 1940s. Next door was Khachchar-khana where mules were especially trained to accompany Scott of Antarctica on his expedition to the South Pole.
That is where I had met the old contractor Patram Das, who used to pedal his Raleigh bicycle through our narrow lanes in the manner of a man far ahead of the times, while commuting between his home in Landour to the distant bus-stand in Kincraig.
In a tearing hurry to catch the early morning bus, he zipped downhill and must have been at quite a lick down the steep incline that takes the traveller from the Picture Palace to the old bus terminus, when the bicycle skidded sending him over the parapet into the Clareville defile below Big Bend. The road had claimed its first fatality.
As I write, it’s reassuring to hear that years later his only grandson, who had joined the army, went on to become a distinguished Major General and eventually retired in Pune.
In the good old days, at St. Helen’s Cottage that was home to Martand Singh, I managed to sneak a peek at his leatherbound family photo-albums, which had old pictures taken by the legendary Julien Rust. Among them were several taken on the grounds of the Chateau De Kapurthala with the young princes gingerly trying out their Penny-farthing bicycles. But I prefer a two seater because it gave birth to Harry Dacre’s famous lines that we had once hummed in school:
Give me your answer, do.
I’m half crazy, all for the love of you,
It won’t be a stylish marriage
I can’t afford a carriage But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two!’
(Ganesh Saili, born and home-grown in the hills, belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition worldwide.)