Drive through any Indian metropolis today and a strange sight might greet you as you look out your car window: spindly legs clad in iridescent spandex pumping furiously as their owner assertively zips past you on a device that, albeit a two-wheeler, has long since graduated from mere “bicycle.”
All around this quixotic figure are cars, trucks, buses, cows, auto-rickshaws and yes, other cyclists. Only, the latter are an entirely different, more ancient breed. They move slowly and deferentially on their iron contraptions, as they stake a claim to the last sliver of road before it descends into the gutter.
Not long ago, car ownership was the ultimate symbol of arrival in this formerly socialist nation. Legions of young engineers who cycled to class at their technical institutes daydreamed of immigrating to America and speeding down vast highways in their red convertibles.
And yet, in barely twenty years, that glamorous vision has been replaced by a far humbler one, not by necessity but by choice.
The rapid change in attitudes is even more remarkable when you consider that for over thousands of years, the artists of this civilization would not even depict kings and gods walking, so debasing and common an act was it considered.
Such is the speed at which ideas travel in our globalized world, for the prophets of the new age are typically those who have been West and returned home.
For Pavan Muthanna, the sight of these new romantic heroes made him question his life as a corporate drone. Figuring that there had to be more, the forty-four-year-old father of one quit his job to go to a school in Oregon that offered training in the mechanics of high-end bicycles. For four years now, he has been the owner of the Crankmeister Cycle Works in Bangalore.
“When my mother tried to explain to a great uncle what I was doing, his response was, wait a minute, your college-educated son just quit his lucrative corporate career to become a bike mechanic? He just couldn’t understand it.”
And who could blame this great uncle? After all, the pace of change is bewildering.
Mr. Muthanna is hardly atypical.
Another cyclist based in Delhi, Jai Venkatesan, was on his way to a cycling trip in the Himalayas when I spoke to him. He had just quit his job as the manager of a defense-contracting firm. It was his third career, after investment banking and private equity. Here he was, in his late thirties, without a thought of “settling down,” as would have been deemed appropriate for someone of his background.
“My clients fall into several categories: there are those who are in their late thirties, forties and fifties. They have made it according to traditional standards of achievement,” says Muthanna. “But, there is also a younger group of twenty-somethings, and what they are doing is an act of courage in two ways: first, of course, the roads are dangerous, but second, they are refusing to give in entirely to a status-obsessed society. The path prescribed for them is so narrow: study engineering, get an MBA, a corporate career, a car, marriage, family, and take care of your parents. For them, cycling is a small act of rebellion.”
Should cycling continue to increase in popularity–and already, Muthanna says there are forty high-end bike shops in Bangalore–of course, it will provide welcome relief from the twin problems of pollution and overcrowding.
And as more elites adopt this new form of transport, one can hope that it becomes aspirational for the rest of the population. The new class of cyclists is also better placed to demand exclusive cycling lanes, such as those introduced in other developed cities around the world.
The cycling trend could be symptomatic of another, deeper movement, however, that no longer conceives of work in terms of a career and that has different metrics for achievement. It envisions a different kind of modernity for India, that is not simply a mirror of the ones that have come before.