A bicycle is often a revival of innocence for many of us. Those of you who have had occasion to watch the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid will surely not have forgotten the ride Paul Newman gives the beautiful Katharine Ross on his bicycle as he sings the BJ Thomas number, "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." It is a perfect scene of romance. Love drips from every word of the song as the breeze manages to give us a peep into part of Ross' seductive legs. How many of us have not wished for just such a moment of joy to come into our lives? Some of us, including yours truly, have tried that Newman-Ross scene, through the fields of rice in the pre-monsoon season. We were young. We were in love. The scent of all those women as we gave them rides on our bicycles was overpowering to the point of intoxication. We were not quite sure if the perfume was in the wind or in the hair of the paramour before us. We only knew life was one beautiful inebriation.
So, you see, there is this excitable thing about bicycle rides. To be sure, such rides may not always be about love and secret yearnings, but they can be just as exciting. That was the idea, this sense of excitement, behind the bicycle ride Professor AAMS Arefin Siddique engaged in a few days ago. The Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University was on a mission to promote bicycle riding, a habit we have over the years been compelled to abandon with all this 'development' around us. Too many cars and too many rickshaws clog our roads, which is a good reason why cyclists do not call forth the courage in themselves to take a ride in the open. The death of a cyclist would be, after all, the sure death of romance. Now that the DU VC has been on a bicycle --- and he appeared to be on a steady handle in those pictures in the newspapers --- we have that slight hope rising in us of the good old bicycle riding days coming back to us.
Have you noticed that people who ride bicycles are generally a happy lot? Millions of Chinese are on their bicycles in the morning as they go to work and return home in the evening. And those bicycle riding moments are the time when they are with themselves. A bicycle gives you freedom --- of movement, of thoughts, of the right to daydream. You cannot sing in a bus. You do not wish to sing in a car, for the chauffeur is there or you are too put off by the horrendous traffic out there to be in a mood for songs, your own or anyone else's. A bicycle, on the other hand, is a different proposition altogether. It must be ridden in open spaces; and open spaces give us open skies. It is in all that openness that the heart expands in us, the soul takes wing and we do what we will.
Politicians, in the years before they go to power or become famous, have a certain predilection for bicycle riding. Richard Nixon rode bicycles, with his family around him, in the days when he was a young US Congressman from California. And here in Bangladesh, we have been informed by no less a prominent journalist than the late Obaidul Haq, that a very young Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, enthused by the idea of a soon-to-be Pakistan and quite mesmerized by the man who had already come to be known as Quaid-e-Azam, once bicycled an unbelievably long distance to see Pakistan's future founder in Delhi.
There are the Indian movies where beautiful women are astride their bicycles, singing to their hearts' content or being serenaded by a passing Romeo. Asha Parekh and her friends take up an entire road as a smitten Biswajit croons a highly excitable love song for her. You can be sure that song and that bicycle ride will soon open up the avenue to an assignation and, eventually, to consummation, in every sense of the meaning. And then there is that other movie, with a devastatingly beautiful Nutan riding a bicycle and happily singing away. Her companions, on other bicycles, sing along. If only such bicycle riders could appear in our real world of sordid reality! Riding bicycles in teenage, at a time when girls are about to become women and boys are ready for that leap into manhood, is a most wondrous experience, even if it comes interspersed with embarrassments. The bicycle skids, you nearly fall and that girl with large eyes and long tresses in the school bus before you giggles. You have made an impression. You go home and pen a poem which you mean to pop in through her window at dusk. She will read it, she will blush. You will wait for a sight of the blush the next day. See what a difference a bicycle makes?
Ah, well! That day is gone, along with the bicycle. Those large eyes and that long hair now belong to a woman who has aged just as you have. But that day remains embedded in the recesses of memory. It is a day you have seized from the past, for keeps. Carpe diem? Or something like it?
Never mind the answer, if there is an answer. Only remember that bicycles excite us. Sightings of them, as when General H.M. Ershad rode one to work a few days after he seized power in 1982, bring in their wake a couple of lessons for us: first, those who run the affairs of state will be objects of our respect, even adulation, if they ride bicycles and abjure all those tinted-glass topped vehicles --- for bicycles have the quality of the human about them; and, second, bicycles inform us that for all our ageing, the heart inside our often lustful beings is forever a contraption the gods forged for us to keep as much of innocence as we can.
One last word about bicycles. In the early days of Eritrean statehood, its leaders, having struggled in the bushes and mountains for long years, decided that the bicycle would be their means of transport. And so it was that Issaias Afewerki and his colleagues in the government moved around on bicycles. Eritreans loved it all. One is not quite sure, though, that the practice has been maintained.
The bicycle is a song of life. Claude Pepper understands this thought better than anyone else. "Life", he said long ago, "is like riding a bicycle: you don't fall off unless you stop pedaling."
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer.
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