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by Katy Sundararajan
Just before we left for India a couple weeks ago, my husband, JP, bought a motorcycle. A friend of ours was selling it for a price that he couldn’t resist. He didn’t even get to pick it up before we left. It stayed quietly, patiently waiting while we travelled the railways and roadways of India, and now we’re back. It was JP’s immediate obsession to get the bike into his possession, into our garage. This may go without saying, but the purchase of this motorcycle, the subsequent possession, and the eventual driving of this bike has met with a wide and passionate range of opinions. People freak out about motorcycles.
JP and I met in seminary, and dated during our last year of seminary. We graduated. I took my first job as a college chaplain, and he went back to India. It was not easy. It was especially stressful when he almost immediately told me that he was going to buy a motorcycle. I freaked out, the way people do. That was August, or maybe September.
It was December the first time that I visited JP in India, Christmas Break for a college chaplain. JP only had a learner’s permit for his new, indigo blue Thunderbird. There was a big red “L” taped over the light on his bike indicating to all that he was just learning to ride. In the meantime, I had to ride on the back of a moped with JP’s brother, or maybe on that back of JP’s dad’s scooter. We weren’t married then. I wasn’t “related” to these people. I was scared of so many things. Motorcycles were just the initial fear. There were also Indian roads in general that raised my anxiety. (Have any of you every experienced that blaring, chaotic movement?!?) And then, to be required to ride behind one of these near-relatives… Americans, I think, find sitting behind someone on a motorbike to be rather intimate. Are you supposed to wrap your arms around the driver, and if not, where exactly do you put your arms or hands, or legs. Where exactly do you hold on to be safe, but also polite? It was an odd quandary to find oneself in, still feeling worried about motorcycles but destined to marry an Indian road-driving, motorcycle-owning husband, and told to sit behind my barely known to me almost brother-in-law.
I do clearly remember riding behind my future brother-in-law on the office-owned moped to pick up a pizza (ordered to impress me, the American girlfriend). It was my first ride of this type, and honestly, the only one that I ever worried about. I’m not sure if I was more scared of the traffic, or just befuddled by the lack of places to hold on. I remember the pizza less than I remember the awkward ride.
After that, after marriage, and many years of hosting thrill seeking Americans who gleefully take one ride or two around the block behind my husband, I have learned not only to appreciate the motorcycle in India, but truly love its functionality. The Bike became my favorite mode of transport. At first it was largely because it meant I could sit and gawk to my heart’s content at all the sights and sounds without having to pay much attention to what kind of gross thing I might be stepping in on the Indian streets. I could happily just ride and watch. I became even more grateful when we lived in India for months at a time with babies, that I could easily hitch a ride on the back of JP’s bike to quickly and easily go pick up more diapers or my daughter’s favorite yogurt. It was convenience at the max.
We never drove fast since Bangalore roads neither allow for nor necessitate speed. For me, the bike has meant balance, and calm. It is convenience, and wonder. It means sit, observe, and enjoy.
Shortly after I learned the arduous task of tying my own Indian sari (one long piece of material that is folded, draped, and pinned into a dress) the family car broke down as we were headed out to a wedding, so then I learned to sit side-saddle on the bike in the manner of so many proper Indian women. (In fact, all motorcycles in India have a “sari-guard” installed for this reason, so saris and other flowing clothing do not get sucked into the wheels.)
Several years later, when we had no choice, we learned how to ride a motorcycle as a family of four, with mama side-saddle and baby on lap, and our toddler on the fuel tank in front of dada. It was a short trip, and it would not prove to be our norm nor our preference, but we learned quickly and easily why so many Indian families travelled en masse, one bike per family.
My experience with motorcycles has been almost entirely India-based, but still, I have grown from fear to affection, and from morbid-fascination to great appreciation for the absolute functionality and enjoyment of a motorcycle. I clearly recognize that US roads and attitudes are drastically different from those in India, and this will take some wise adaption. However, I trust my Indian (now also American) husband to explore and to navigate the roads with equal parts experience and wisdom, care and caution.