How is it this same piece of earth was once scrub jungle filled with wild peacocks? Now it is Sillamarathupatti’s main street. Fifty four years ago the road was little more than a track paved with clay and crushed granite. A scattering of houses. An open well. A farming community making a living at a time when the water table still allowed women to pull up the day’s needs with a bucket and pulley.
It was then that a Goundar mother gave birth to nine girls in a row followed by twins which died. The long awaited boy finally arrived. He went to the local school with the other kids, faces scrubbed and powdered, uniforms neatly ironed. Modern India was still very new; the government was struggling to bring health and water and education to its vast rural population.
When the boy was sixteen a miracle happened. A thin man with specs rode into the village on the strangest looking contraption. It had two thin wheels and a seat and handlebars and pedals. People came running to look. How was it that the thing didn’t just fall over? And how fast he could go, this remarkable man!
The boy was spellbound. He found out that the contraption was called a ‘cycle’. And it had a bell! And a golden label on the front.
He sounded out the strange words: The, Raleigh, Nottingham, England.
The man was a government agricultural extension officer who was coming to teach the farmers about better seeds and fertilizers. Electricity had just come in. And pumps! They would be able to suck water out of the wells instead of having to haul it out with a pair of oxen and a giant copper pot with a leather spout.
The boy grew into a man and farmed until 1984 when so much water had been pulled out that he could no longer make a living from the land. That’s when he remembered the man and the bicycle. The road was paved by now, although still only a single lane that dipped into the dry stream beds. There was many buses and lorries. And bicycles. Raleighs and Sunbeams were gone, replaced by Indian Atlas and Hercules cycles. Dark green. Tough. Heavy and reliable. And prone to punctures from all the thorns. The man decided to set up the village’s first bicycle shop and that is how he raised his family. His son grew up and is now running the family business with him.
These two men are masters at fixing cycles. They cut old inner tubes to make the patches. A piece of emory paper stuck to a flat stick is the file to roughen the rubber. Earlier, they made their own glue by dissolving rubber in petrol, but now they buy MRF rubber cement. A small hammer. A chunk of rail for an anvil. A tool box made from a plastic oil can.
A punch and wooden spools to splice chain. A handful of spanners.
Last year, they invested in a wonderful air compressor so they can fill tires for one rupee each. Psssst! Finished!
They rent out nearly twenty cycles to villagers by the day. They work hard. Though the main street has traffic jams and is lined with shops that sell stainless steel and cell phones, one thing hasn’t changed.
The bicycle shop man and his son never overcharge. Never. Ten rupees for a patch, whether it takes ten minutes or a half hour and involves reconstructing the valve.
The bicycle shop man has two grand daughters. The ten year old comes by every afternoon to beg off coins for sweets. The older one isn’t interested in sweets or cycles. She’s learning to ride a heavy duty TVS moped. And after that, perhaps an electric Scooty. Or who knows? Maybe even a car.