In the old days dominated by the Licence Raj, it was an offence to wheel down the roads on a bicycle without a valid permit. Though traffic was sparse, one had to apply to the municipal offices for a licence to enable one to hit the road. It came in the form of a small tin plate with a number inscribed and a hole punched in the middle. Once this adorned the ‘chariot’, you were ready to go!
‘Halt’ boards stared at riders on the major roads in an age when there were no traffic lights. The board was a sign notifying the drivers to come to a complete stop and then proceed if the way ahead is clear of vehicles and pedestrians. The police would lurk around corners to check if the riders were halting. Many errant bikers paid for their follies with a fine or were marched off to the nearest police station.
In the pre-dynamo age, the classic lamp with a wick and kerosene adorned bicycles, as riding without light after dusk was an offence. It had an adjustable wick. One could turn the flame down or up. The lamp was detachable and kept indoors during the day. Some vintage bike lights had a convex lens on the front to improve visibility. They also had a small red rectangular glass on the left and a green one on the right. Periodical cleaning of the lens and the glasses made the flame appear bright. One had to be cautious not to ride over a bump as this caused the oil to spill, and result in an inferno. If the policeman caught you when the light died midway, he would often accept your explanation that the wind put it off, provided the lamp felt warm to his touch!
The inventive among us manufactured paper or cardboard cone lamps. These were half-filled with sand and a lighted candle placed in the middle. Holding the light in one hand, we navigated the cycle with the other.
A maternal granduncle who possessed a rickety old cycle always carried a matchbox in his pocket. Whenever gusty wind or pouring rain blew out the kerosene fuelled-lamp, he stopped, struck a match and reignited the wick before proceeding on his way. He would repeat the exercise countless times during the ride if windy conditions persisted. Dynamo-fitted bikes spawned a new breed of thieves who plucked out the small electrical generators and made a minor fortune by selling them in the scrap yard.
In the 1950s, owning a cycle was a luxury few could afford, and therefore considered a status symbol. Factories in Bengaluru ferried their employees in buses, easing the need to possess a bike. The bride’s family gave away bicycles as dowry. My late father received a Raleigh bicycle as a wedding gift from his in-laws. The bike cost an unbelievable Rs 200 then, and he considered it priceless, taking care of it as if it was his child. Those were the days!
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