By December 2015, the bicycle had been lying in our spare bedroom for over six months. Its tyres were flat, the chain stiffened with gunk and the seat missing the padding. Its mudguards were warped out of shape, as was the chain guard. It was, all in all, a rust bucket. A close Dutch friend who was staying with us, being from a country obsessed with this form of transport, could not fathom what this derelict piece was doing in the house.
On closer inspection, one could gather that the bike was in frequent use before it had been stored. A piece of card paper had been folded into a homemade gromé to prevent an irritant bracket and the parts it held from vibrating. There were similar instances of jugaad across the bicycle. A nail had been bent to replace the brake stay fastener. Other parts had been wound to the frame with wire. This was all very familiar. Before the days of open economy and cycling trends, cycles were rented by us kids at neighbourhood cycle shops. If you were so lucky as to own one, these shops could repair it for you. Often the rattling and clunking were dealt with by stuffing in card paper.
From its derelict appearance, the cycle should have been dumped in the parking of our apartment, not in it. But things acquire importance by association with people. Either those who make them or those who use them. In this case one could not be completely sure about either, but a single photograph and the library where the bike stood for 60 years before I brought it home was enough circumstantial evidence that it was exceptionally important.
When I told our Dutch friend that this was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s cycle, he let out a nervous snort, perhaps thinking that I was spinning a yarn without a charkha. Maybe his disbelief was cultural. Where he came from, the cycle would have been restored by experts. It would have been taken to a rarefied location for forensic study. I imagine it going through metallurgic analyses, with rubber and paint composition tests. A think tank of historians would have studied it: one on Gandhi, another on bicycles, a third on papers and the history of cigarettes in the subcontinent, a fourth on nails and fasteners, topped with a theoretician on the practice of jugaad.
I reckon if Gandhi was Dutch, restoring the cycle would have been a project of national importance, and not something that transpired quietly over a cup of the finest first flush in the office of the Sabarmati Ashram’s director. And yet I think the way the restoration did happen, organically, is closer to the rigour of Gandhi’s praxes than the rigours of museology.
About six months earlier, I had hurried into a meeting at the ashram. At the time, I was the Project Coordinator of Gandhi Heritage Sites Mission, a project designed to document the buildings that Gandhi had built, lived in or had been incarcerated in. It was a coordination meeting to review the status of the 34 identified sites. As always, there was tea and banter between Tridip Suhrud (Gandhian scholar and then director of the ashram), Neelkanth Chhaya (architect to the ashram and academic) and myself. It was in the midst of this conversation that the topic of restoring a derelict bicycle was gently thrown in as a natural extension of my interest in anything that moves on two wheels. A few days later, the cycle was loaded into an auto-rickshaw and delivered home.
I didn’t know what to do with it. My initial response was to put together something resembling the imagined Dutch forensic team – a group of experts. In India, where vehicles are involved, this usually means getting a Parsi on board. But this was merely a cycle, not enough to draw in the interest of that lot (internal combustion is the minimum requirement for them). Everyone else was there for the forensic reconstruction.
Tridip Suhrud is the among the foremost scholars on Gandhi, bicycle history is reasonably well documented and available, some recent literature on Everyday Technology in India was relevant to the project. So my hesitation stemmed from the fact that I was not convinced if the restoration was about preparing this machine for the Concourse d’Elegance, to make it look as it did the day it left the showroom. What if that folded card from the cigarette packet (God forbid!) had been put in by Gandhi himself? What if that nail was his jugaad? (Later research suggested this was unlikely. A lesser-known fact about Gandhi is his experiments with a wide range of materials, which he understood far too well to allow such shoddiness. His packing would at least have been in leather.) Were these indications of use to be considered important? Were the marks of maintenance and repair to be considered blemishes or signs of a life well lived?
The questions were not unfamiliar. The Gandhi Heritage Sites Mission required a set of guidelines for the upkeep, maintenance and repair of Gandhi’s buildings. For the pukka buildings, the ground rules were conventional, but the earthen buildings needed a more intimate cycle of care and involvement, a kind of constant nurture. The documentation of these buildings raised strange questions. If the mud and cow-dung plaster was to be applied each year as part of festivities, what should be considered as the correct or accurate dimensions of the building?
If small changes or additions had been made in the process of maintenance to replace, strengthen or add an element of the building, how should one treat these? Are they blemishes or signs of long life? There were uncanny similiarities between the questions raised by architecture and the hobby project of the bicycle. And yet, these questions had never been bothersome before. My father had restored many antique motorcycles and there had been no deep angst about such issues. I thought back to all the bikes and his approach. Yes, originality was important, but authenticity more so. His logic was simple: you were meant to ride the damn things.
Lulled by the thought that these were important clarifications to be made for such a significant project, no progress was made for months. Friends who could have been part of the team were busy and by the new year the pressure to deliver the restored bike was increasing. A call from the director of Sabarmati Ashram set the deadline for Republic Day 2016. The urgency put everything into focus. The cycle would be restored in a manner that it was rideable. The broken parts would be replaced by those easily available in the bazaar, as if Gandhi himself had taken it to his local cycle walla to get a new chain and a set of tyres and rode it back home.
For my own cycle, I go to the cycle walla Sendhaji Thakore. So he was requested to come home and dismantle the Gandhi Bike. Each part was laid out and cleaned with kerosene and then a spray of WD-40 (I wonder what Gandhi would have thought of its rumoured fish-oil origins). In the dismantling of the cycle, it became clear that the rust had permeated deep into the steel of the wheels, the carrier, the handle and other smaller parts.
Strangely, there was little rust on the frame and only a film of it on the mud and chain guard. Cleaning the cycle manually would remove the rust unevenly and leave a patchy residue of the old paint on the frame. The spokes could not be opened, but thankfully the wheel alignment was amazingly still fine. The bearings were removed and later replaced. It seemed the right thing to do was to bare all the metal and then consider the issues of paint and chrome. All the parts were to be sent for sand blasting but not before the mud guards, and the chain guards had to be straightened by a good denter.
The one area of restoration that was proving to be difficult was the metal work. Denting, as this work is colloquially called, is often misunderstood to only require the skill of hand. But with denting of curved parts, it is the eye that is much more important and so much harder to find. On receiving the bike from the ashram, it seemed unwise to open it until one had found someone who could do the denting work. I spoke to friends interested in automobiles and they recommended travelling to Rajkot or Indore. My fear was that I would be asked to leave the parts with someone I didn’t know well. This meant risking losing them, as is so often the story in the restoration of vintage machines.
Even before the bike was opened, there were two parts on it that were truly intriguing. The first was the metal label of the monogram, which was bare. Any engraving, enamel or paint had been worn down. It was flat with no indication of the manufacturer. The second fascinating detail was the pedal, whose rubber steps were embossed with the word freedom. The serendipity was for the ages: Gandhi’s bicycle and its pedal branded freedom.
The mystery only deepened as Sendhaji began dismantling the cycle and revealed the front sprocket (crank set) from under the chain guard. An open upright palm, centred on the hub, with a set of 12 spokes radiating out, sunburst like, aligning with every fifth tooth of the 60 teeth of the sprocket, is a mudra, which in various spiritual traditions (venerated by Gandhi) symbolises ahimsa, fearlessness, strength and unity: all often used as rallying cries towards freedom. The fact that Gandhi may have only borrowed this cycle from Amrutial Shelat, a student, for a ride across Sabarmati Ashram to attend a meeting seemed immaterial. Symbols of time and a promised nation were at the heart of this machine. There was now a physicality to the relationship between Bapu and this bike, however fleeting their actual encounter may have been.
I think it was a month before the deadline when Mukeshbhai, the mechanic who fixes my Enfield motorcycle, and I were drinking tea under the flyover at Gujarat College. I was bemoaning the fact that I could not find a denter to straighten the metal parts of a bicycle. Just down the road, right in front of the gate of Villa Shodhan, sat Nazirbhai, the best known denter, world famous in Ahmedabad as they say.
But Nazirbhai had already refused me point-blank. It took Mukesh six months and several cups of tea to disclose that Nazirbhai had but one student, Anis, and if there was anyone who could help me it was Anisbhai. Apart from being Nazirbhai’s student, Anisbhai’s other credential was that he was the owner of a Royal Enfield motorcycle, for which he had hand-made several parts, including the mudguards, in brass. The workmanship on the bike was legendary, and when I saw it parked outside his workshop, I at least knew I had found the right man.
Anisbhai has a hole-in-the-wall workshop behind CN Vidhyalaya. As we approached, I could see the fanciest cars parked together on what should have been a footpath. BMWs and what not were masked and were being dented, repaired and repainted. All this was happening on the side of the road, next to a Laari Bhojanalay (lunch stall), where several men were taking a break. Anisbhai arrived about half an hour later. Mukeshbhai introduced us and explained to him the work that needed to be done. I added that it was “Bapu’s bicycle”, and in my enthusiasm to convince him to take the work, re-iterated that it would only take a few hours, but as it needed to be done with the utmost care, I had searched for nine months to find the right person.
Anisbhai is quiet at the best of times. He didn’t say much, saw the photographs on my mobile phone for a while and then announced that he was willing to do the work on three conditions. First that there would be no money involved, that this was for Bapu. The second that when the cycle was displayed in public, his name and contribution should be stated in a newspaper. And third that I should not presume I could tell him how much time the work should take or how he should do it. Anisbhai worked five straight nights after his usual shift. It wasn’t just the mud guards that he worked on. He started with the alignment of the frame, then each bracket on it was heated and straightened. He re-aligned holes, filling, re-drilling and rethreading those that needed adjustment. Once the stays were fixed, he worked on the curves of the parts themselves. He was slow, careful and meticulous, but one could see why his work was so respected. It was a full week later that all the parts could go together for sandblasting.
Sandblasting is a ruthlessly abrasive process. We needed someone who would understand the nature of the project and work with us, allowing us to make suggestions and control the pressure of the blast. Ajitbhai Jain ran a sandblasting workshop not far from our office. On hearing that the effort was for “Bapu’s cycle”, he readily interrupted a large order to take up our work. He called us on a Saturday and some tests were carried out on the smaller parts. Anisbhai was there too, as was Sendhaji, while Praveen from my office was doing a lot of the running around. Everybody was chipping in with suggestions. Anisbhai with his understanding of the metal, Sendhaji with the challenges he would face in re-assembly if the apertures were sand clogged, Praveen with common sense ideas. Suddenly this felt like a team. But a very different one from that Dutch expert team I had first imagined.
While the dismantling of the cycle had brought the open hand symbol to light and opened up possibilities for symbolic readings, the result of the sandblasting added a new dimension. With all the rust and paint blown away, the bare metal showed itself clearly. Intriguingly, the joints of the frame seemed to be brazed together by a reasonably crude form of brass welding. The work was not bad, but neither was it something you would expect to come out of a factory, certainly not one in Nottingham or Birmingham with the brand of Raleigh, Hercules or BSA stamped on it.
It was known that, by the first decade of the 20th century, frame parts were joined together at Raleigh through a sophisticated process of dipping each joint into molten brass. The roughness of this joint and the open hand symbol on the crank set had largely ruled out that the machine was of British provenance. And yet Anisbhai was certain that the tubing of the frame was not steel but an alloy that would have been difficult to forge in any of the indigenous workshops of Ludhiana or Bengal. His conviction came from the forensics of his welding torch.
Another clue was the date. The photograph I mentioned earlier of Bapu on his borrowed Bicycle at Sabarmati Ashram is from 1928. The first Indian-owned cycle works was set up in Calcutta in 1903 by the polymath Hemendra Mohon Bose and his brother Jatindra. H Bose & Co exuded the excitement and entrepreneurial energy around machines that was partly driven by a swadeshi spirit. Apart from bicycles, they were pioneers in printing, photography, gramophone manufacturing and later in importing automobiles (from France to their iconic Great Eastern Motor Works).
The swadeshi movement didn’t last long in its initial form, and the Bose brothers were symptomatic of the movement’s failure as much as its euphoria. Still, along with others, the brothers were instrumental in opening the gates for Indians to become dealers in foreign goods. By 1910, dealership had extended to manufacture. Two small cycle manufacturing units were established outside Calcutta and by 1920-’21 the demand was sufficient for the import of 47,000 bicycles into the country. This number would more than triple in the decade ahead. From this, one can assume that at the time Gandhi took the ride in the photograph, a hundred thousand bicycles were entering the country annually.
To be sure, a large number of these did not arrive assembled – along with kits, imports included a considerable volume of bicycle parts. The demand for the parts was fuelled by the large number of small cycle workshops that were mushrooming across the country, in towns like Malerkotla, which was part of the homonymous princely state near present-day Ludhiana. These workshops were the machine tool equivalent of the “chaar-aana dukaan”, street-side distributors in the bazaars of the subcontinent’s small towns and villages that sold the “iron horse”.
Knowing our ingenuity and knack for jugaad, one can imagine that in order to be competitive, many workshops would have developed a supply of locally manufactured parts – copies of the British, American, German and Japanese parts made at a fraction of the cost. The parts not only made the indigenous bicycles more affordable but also fuelled the first wave of “Make in India”. Besides, the basic parts of the bicycle could be re-configured to perform a number of other works and create vehicles that were local and unique.
As David Arnold writes, “Bicycles were adapted by local blacksmiths to make three- or four-wheel carts for transporting and selling goods as well as to make cycle rickshaws. In the 1920s one enterprising Calcutta firm offered for sale a ‘patent water cycle’ whose only use appeared to be for duck shooting. The bicycle’s saddle, pedal, crank, and chain could provide the mechanism for an experimental foot-powered loom, and one can still see today, on the streets of Mumbai or Ahmedabad, a knife grinder who raises his bicycle onto its stand and then uses the pedals and crank to turn a grinding wheel attached to the frame. The bicycle became a front of further local inventiveness.”
I imagine these hybrid machines being put together with the intelligence of the likes of Anilbhai, Anisbhai and Sendhaji, their experience deciding which parts needed the industrial quality of the videshi and which the indigenous ones. I have an image of the machines starting out as imports, but slowly being localised into an affordable concoction of parts from across the world. I can also visualise a playful imagination like that of Bapu’s recognising the symbolic relationship between the freedom of movement afforded by the bicycle and the larger freedom that so many at the time were fighting for. It is not difficult to see why this everyday machine would lend itself so well to the propaganda symbols of the freedom movement. That eternal symbol at the centre of the crank-set with a pedal embossed Freedom.
The sand blasting turned the construction of the bicycle visible. It seemed appropriate to leave it bare, half-naked, not unlike the man with whom it is now forever linked. Given all the evidence, including circumstantial, one might guess that this is a Hind Bicycle, manufactured in Bombay by a company that was producing 150,000 bicycles a year by the late 1940s. This, in spite of the World War setting back production.
The company stressed its swadeshi credentials, urging customers to buy bicycles that were “built in India, built for India, built by Indians”. However, the earliest reference I could find to its inception is 1939, more than a decade after Gandhi’s ride. So, could this then be a 1925 model of the American Freedom brand of cycles that were imported from California? But what then of all the Indian iconography? Is this a bits-and-pieces bicycle, conjured up in some village workshop? Perhaps an open story is more important than a conclusive history.
The assembly and the remaining restoration took little time and the bike was ready before the deadline. The director, true to his word, energised the local press into carrying a front pager on the restoration. Each of our team members, especially Anisbhai was featured in detail. Later that October, a wooden pedestal was made for the bicycle in honour of the prime minister’s visit for the annual celebrations on the Mahatma’s birthday.
The entire process of restoration had cost Rs 13,310, of which the pedestal’s cost was Rs 7,500. I have a sense that Gandhi would not have approved of either. Neither, I think, would he have approved of the institutional processes that had taken over the story of the bicycle. The multiple strands inclusive of the stories and intersections of so many people – Sendhaji, Pravin, Ajitbhai, Anisbhai, Tridip Suhrud, Neelkanth Chhaya, others at the ashram and an architect – all flattened into a singular symbolic narrative in his name.
A year later, the bike was shipped to the Netherlands to be part of an exhibition titled “We have a Dream. Gandhi, King and Mandela” at Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam. Following this, the cycle was once again made a part of Gandhi’s birthday celebrations. To mark the anniversary, 1,500 people joined a Gandhi March from the Grote Kerk in The Hague, where the bicycle was on show and had strangely become part of the iconography of the event. But then this was the Netherlands.
Our Dutch friend sent me pictures of the bike in its rarefied setting with the words, “Freedom Machine”.
Riyaz Tayyibji is the principal architect and partner at anthill design, Ahmedabad.
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article misidentified the open hand symbol on the crank set as possibly the insignia of the Indian National Congress. The error has been corrected.