As our blog evolves into a growing archive on writing the city, we are keen have people write for us on their very personal experiences of cities and unique ways of seeing cities. As an anthropologist interested in the realm of the quotidian, I am fascinated by stories of ordinary city dwellers, which is why I nudged Namrata to write hers. This piece is as much about the practice of cycling as about the city of Ahmedabad, seen through the unique lens of a woman new to the city, grappling with the stress of her job and being an ‘outsider’. It is interesting how much of Namrata’s experience of Ahmedabad, and the writing of it, is mediated through the city she comes from, Delhi. A place is probably never seen in itself but associatively and relationally to an ‘other’—another place, another time or even another self. So this piece is as much about Ahmedabad as about Delhi, as much about being a ‘Delhiite’ in Ahmedabad as about becoming a part of Ahmedabad by letting go of some bits of the ‘Delhiite’. It is as much about the pain and pleasure of cycling in the city as of the process of getting to know a city.
The introduction I originally wrote to this piece ended up becoming an independent piece on the relationship between cities, infrastructure and practices (of cycling and walking). We have decided to publish it separately on the blog, but it is a response to and in conversation with Namrata’s piece.
‘Stay on the either side of the road—you will be safe on the sides.’
‘Aaraam se chalana; kabhi bhi jaldi mein mat chalana—ride slowly; never ride in a hurry.’
This is the sort of advice I got in Ahmedabad, the city I decided to ride a bicycle in. Apart from a few looks of amusement or puzzlement, I mostly received encouragement for what I believed was a crazy endeavour. On my first visit to the city, I went to the Sabarmati Ashram, a go-to place for every new visitor. After exploring the ashram, which is now mostly a museum, I sat in a quiet corner overlooking the Sabarmati River, a river that divides the city into the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’.
As I sat contemplating whether I should shift to Ahmedabad from Delhi, the city I had lived in all of my life, I watched the nice pavement alongside the river, also called the Sabarmati Riverfront, where cyclists were passing by. And that is it; I decided to move to this city. Gujarat would probably be somewhere at the bottom of the must-visit places for most youngsters, even less a place where they would like to live, mainly because of its alcohol prohibition policy. Being neither young nor much of a drinker (even though some would want to construct an alternative reality), I hoped it would not be very difficult for me to acclimatize to this city. Oh well, how wrong was I!
Perhaps, it is the same with every city; the way it treats an outsider. It is an unnerving and alienating experience to be bombarded with language, food, culture and local meanings completely unfamiliar to you. In Delhi you could possibly escape to a ‘ghetto’ of your choice in seeking people and places that are ‘your type’. In Ahmedabad, except perhaps in the case college students who do not need to fit in, you have to undergo a process of change. Otherwise, you will find yourself running away often to some place elsewhere over the weekends, for instance, Mumbai or Bengaluru, in order to escape and live. For a long time, I resisted change like a true blue Delhiite who always expects the ‘other’ to change, but after a while, the transformation did happen. Overcoming the excessive sweetness in food and the people was the first level to cross. Soon, khaman, patra, fafda, thepla, bhakhri, gota and khichu and the numerous kinds of farsans and chawanas (no, I am not telling you the colours, flavours, shapes and textures of each of these) became a part of my life. And the tea. The tea in Ahmedabad is simply divine. It is a source of energy and nourishment for some, while for others, it gives a reason to live.
The language might sound familiar at first, but it is actually downright confusing. While everyone speaks fluent Hindi, Gujarati is the preferred language in social interactions. For a city that does not house as many ‘outsiders’ as other cities, you are quickly relegated to the position of a Hindibhashi when found conversing in Hindi. Much later do I appreciate to learn the language that is informal, direct and to the point. Ambiguity and circumlocution is very hard, if not impossible, when speaking in Gujarati.
For someone from Delhi, what is actually difficult getting used to in Ahmedabad is the everyday kindness in people. Strangers actually smile at you when exchanging glances. Road accidents rarely provoke glares, forget the shouts, abuses and gun shots that are commonplace in Delhi. Strange for a city located in a state that is defined by the riots that occurred over 16 years ago. Well, yes, Ahmedabad can be difficult to comprehend, but I am not here to help you with that. Through this piece, I just want share a slice of my experience of the city—the experience of a Delhiite.
Nowadays, every other job is stressful and unpleasant, and mine was a bit of both plus a little odd too. While I spent some days of the month in Ahmedabad, I would spend other days living in the ‘field’ in a rural district. While in the field, I would be out in the day most of the time, travelling sometimes in a bus, at times in a tempo, sometimes by auto and at other times by foot, in Ahmedabad, it was pretty much like a nine-hour regular job confined to the four walls of the office. It was stifling and there seemed to be a gaping difference between the two lives I lived. When I would find friends who would be game, I would rent a bicycle in the evening at the Riverfront to ride away to unwind. The ‘bicycle ride test’ was also my secret test of friendship—if you do not appreciate the experience, I’m sorry my friend, but you’re no longer a friend. But these Riverfront escapades were too occasional, and I wanted to cycle more frequently. I decided to buy a cycle and ride to work. Before I tell you more about my cycling experience, a word about Ahmedabad traffic. Although road rage is not so common, the city has no traffic sense. Red lights do not work, people flout traffic rules and riding on the wrong side of the road is all too common. The traffic police do not stop and fine people, but these acts of bravado along with the vehicle number plates get captured on CCTV cameras and a challan or what is called a ‘memo’ gets delivered at people’s homes. And so, yes, before I ride my cycle, I am always conscious that I shouldn’t kill myself in the process.
I don’t think any city in India is friendly towards cyclists and pedestrians. City roads are built for motorized vehicles. No one feels the presence or absence of gravity as much as a cyclist does. The first time I felt a little adventurous, I decided to ride up the flyover near Dharnidhar Derasar and within a minute, I regretted my decision. The pressure on the knees and thighs was unimaginable. Nobody can ever enjoy such a ride unless one is on a severe weight loss drive or desires to die while cycling. Having made the uphill journey over the flyover, the bike propelled forward on its own as gravity turned into a friend, provided that I remembered to remain in control.
What I cherish the most about cycling is that it enabled me to see what I had never seen before even though it was always before my eyes—the other cyclists on the road. Early morning, they would be more visible because of the absence of other vehicles, but they would be there throughout the day. When crossing over the flyover, the cyclists would sometimes get off their cycles, walking with it instead (a prudent thing to do, I later realize). They do the same when crossing busy crossroads and dangerous circles. Cycling also gave me a chance to strike conversations with these people with whom people like ‘us’, more often than not, share transactional relationships. So now I could exchange memories and experiences of cycling with the guard uncle at office, the chaiwale kaka and others.
One day, as I made a stop to buy tea, a bhai sitting at the chai shop and chatting notices my cycle and asks, ‘Do you cycle often? How many kilometres do you ride everyday?’ I say, ‘Well, about 10,’ to which he says, ‘Oh, that is it? I work as a driver and my sahib who is the owner of a major bookstore in Ahmedabad has only one hobby—cycling. At five in the morning, he cycles on the ring road. During weekends, he goes all the way to Udaipur cycling and I trail behind him in the car, which has all the necessary spare parts and tools, lest the cycle needs repair. He also goes cycling with a bunch of other cycling enthusiasts from Karnataka to Kerala. I also went along once and we had to take a flight from here to Bengaluru first to reach there. His cycle is no ordinary cycle; it is worth 2 lakh rupees.’ I am bewildered.
While, like any other city, Ahmedabad may not treat its cyclists very well, people here truly mind their own ‘business’, which I greatly appreciate. Fortunately, when I ride my cycle I only invite a few glances and glares but no sneers or uncomfortable stares. Often, when I would ride in my office formals, my dupatta would dangerously swing near the tyre and gears, many passersby would call out to me warning that my dupatta (or dupatto) might get stuck so I better pull it up. Once when I was riding on the Parimal Underpass, a car came up really close to me. The driver, a young man, pulled down the windows. I felt really creeped out, anticipating an unpleasant obscene comment like ‘cycle kyun chala rahi hai, aaja meri gaadi mein baith ja’. But instead, he told me in Gujarati that there is a cycling track beside the underpass that I could use instead of the main road!
Cycling means different things to different people. For some it is a passion, for many others it is a necessity; for some, it is a reminder of the days of struggle, but for most, it evokes a whole host of childhood memories. Balancing and riding on a cycle seemed to be an impossible task until my father let go of it while I was riding without letting me know. I would like to relive those memories and make new ones till my knees give up!
Cover image: Namrata with ‘cycling friend’ Hena Faqurudheen at the Sabarmati Riverfront; photograph by Hena Faqurudheen. The second image is also of the Riverfront; photograph by Namrata Acharya.
Namrata Acharya currently resides in Ahmedabad. After a master’s in economics from Delhi, she worked for a few years as an editor at Oxford University Press, Delhi. Post her MPhil in development practice from Ambedkar University Delhi and her stint with the development sector, she continues to delve on alternative ways of doing development ethically, focusing more on the process rather than the product, by way of research and practice. She loves to read, travel to meet friends and, of course, cycle.