Biking with Brahmans: A one-hour adventure in the streets of Delhi

Credit: Shaun Botterill/Allsport
Maitreyi said I couldn't do it. Proper and respectable grown women didn't do it, and I might get in trouble if I tried, she said. It was a class thing. It was a culture thing. It was a gender thing.

I knew that my colleague was just concerned that I come back to the United States with my skin intact. But when I got to India, I saw that in Delhi, riding a bicycle is a part of daily life. Sure, people who ride bikes there get no respect on the roads and are in constant danger of being killed by overzealous motorists. This just made me feel more at home.

I didn't see any women riding in Delhi, but there were hardly any women riding on U.S. roads when I first started in 1989. Despite Maitreyi's well-intentioned warnings, I was going to find a way to ride a bike in India.

There were two obstacles in my way. One is the fact that I am of the female persuasion. Women apparently aren't supposed to ride bicycles in Delhi, due to traditional gender and class norms that are more rigid in northern India. The higher a woman's class status, the more restricted her movement.

But I was determined to ride, so I figured I would just have to transgress some norms. At worst I could use the "Crazy American" excuse that seems to work when one misbehaves while traveling abroad.

My second problem was that I did not have a bicycle. This matter was overcome through the help of Vincent, who was looking after me in India. After about four days of me gazing longingly at bicycles, Vincent said that he would arrange for me to borrow one.

We asked one of the neighborhood guards for his bike, and at first he just laughed. Vincent came back to where I was standing and said that I'd have to tell the guard myself. He didn't believe that I really wanted to borrow his machine. Since I couldn't speak much Hindi, I just gave him the "Please, mister, can I ride your bike?" look, and he obliged with a grin.

With great enthusiasm, I relieved the owner of his bike and attempted to throw my leg over the saddle. Much to the embarrassment of the modest guards, I heard a sharp ripping noise. Oops.

My salwaar kameez a long tunic and baggy trousers combination often worn by Indian women was too tight across my hips, and had given way at the seams. So, to the further embarrassment of the guards, I hiked up my tunic and gave it another go.

And I was off.

Broad grins and laughter sent me on my way. Lallu, the unofficial neighborhood guard dog, saw me to the end of the street. I turned the corner and I was gone. Gone to a completely new world.

I'd known the exhilaration of riding a bicycle, but never in India. Its breathtaking beauty had impacted me from the ground, but I hadn't fully experienced the fluid vibrance; that sensation arrived for me only as I pedaled through the dusty streets.

As Jor Bagh Market slid by, I couldn't help but giggle at the stares from the shopkeepers, the betel vendor, the women sweeping the sidewalks, the men on bicycles and those on foot. Soon enough, I was past the market, turning off the main road.

Finally, I was free from the threat of the kamikaze auto-rickshaws (the three-wheeled motorized mini-taxis that swarm about Delhi). It was strange to find a pocket of quiet in a city so saturated with the symphony of ripping motors, blasting horns and braying crows.

White, plastered walls rose up on each side as I traveled down the lane. Several yards ahead, a caramel-colored cow emerged from a littered courtyard. It stepped off of the sidewalk into the road and commenced an easy sauntering down the center of the street.

I rolled up next to the cow to have a bit of a chat. Side by side, shoulder-to-shoulder, we moved down the street together. Eventually, I was ready to go faster, but since the cow seemed tired, I decided to offer it a draft. It declined, and so I said goodbye and continued on my way.

I turned a few corners and found myself at the mouth of a busy street, Lodhi Road. I navigated a right turn onto Lodhi with great care, swerved around a dog and proceeded on my way, accompanied by regiments of stares. I narrowly missed being ploughed over by a light blue bus, gaily strung with orange ropes of marigolds in celebration of the New Year.

A grown-up sized tricycle passed me on the right, laden with bundles of sticks. In the opposite lane, five cows in a range of sizes sashayed down the street. Cars and auto-rickshaws came to a halt behind the bovine procession, leaning on their horns so that the cows would move.

After a sufficient number of near-death experiences, I decided that I should get off of Lodhi Road and back into a quieter neighborhood. I made a left turn and noticed I had company.

A man in his early 30s had turned into the neighborhood with me. He boldly looked me over once, then twice. He rode to my right and slightly behind me, and I continued to feel his eyes as we rode down the street. After several moments of discomfort, he decided that he would show off his athletic prowess.

He jumped, sort of, to the degree that you can "jump" on the unwieldy bikes that are standard in India.

But the poor guy didnt know what he was up against. As soon as I saw him accelerate out of the corner of my eye, I was on him. I started to step on the pedals, with that in-the-saddle stealth style you use in a race when trying to get up to sprint speed without alerting your competitors. Before he knew it, he was left behind in a cloud of swirling dust. Victory was mine.

Almost an hour had passed since I had left. It was getting late, and I decided to bring the bike back to its owner. I wound my way through the narrow streets, past a sweating labor crew singing a work song as they toiled, past the garbage bin where a cow, a goat and a dog had found their dinner that night. The air had begun to cool, and I felt at peace.

I made my way down Jor Bagh Lane and turned into our street. Lallu trotted over to greet me as I wheeled down the path, and smiles of relief washed over the faces of the guards when they caught sight of me. Even though I was half a world away from my life in America, I felt very much at home.

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Kiersten Johnson, a denizen of Silver Spring, Md., is an academic with a cycling problem. You can reach her at kjohnson@socy.umd.edu.

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