My Uncle’s Bicycle – part 1
the peculiar story of my uncle’s bicycle
It was the end of a weekend. Could have been the start. It could have been the middle of a week. Come to think of it, it was towards the end of the week; but definitely it was a fine day in a fine week in a fine year.
There had been much drinking the previous night. What was the occasion? There was no occasion. It was just the celebration of a fine day in a fine week in a fine year.
My uncle woke up this particular fine morning and going out into the alley found – or more correctly, he did not – that his bicycle was gone. It was a fine bicycle, the best, the finest, a green, heavy Hero bicycle, bought with the proceeds of the fine harvest.
He remembered having put it between the other two bicycles, identical to his, but not his.
There, he pointed at the place he had stood it, imagining that if he pointed at the phantom it would materialise before him. But the bloody thing was not there, it did not re-appear.
He was sure it had been there, just there where he had left it last night. He scratched his head, hidden beneath the blanket he had wrapped himself in, and looked around.
The alley contained two bicycles, neither of which was his. He tilted one of the bicycles aside to see if his had slipped, somehow, somewhere, anywhere, between them. He waved his hands in the space where the bicycle should have been. It was not there.
He stood legs apart contemplating the piss stained wall, spat out the stench from his mouth. Perhaps he had left it in the courtyard? To be sure that’s where it was. It had been a drinking night. Still scratching his head he turned back into his courtyard. To his left was the fodder for the cattle – their lowing came faintly from the back room – and leaning against the kitchen the stack of firewood, the brooms, hiding the gas bottles awaiting collection by the agency, then the beds stood up in the verandah, the mats hanging to air, the open yaw of the door into the house, the clothes line, empty expect for his good vest, the one he intended to wear to the doctor’s later that morning, and then there, by the outside wall, to his right, by the gate in whose frame he was standing, the bathroom.
-Sacred Mother! I have never lost my bicycle, he muttered. I cannot lose my bicycle. No! I cannot.
God had been kind to my uncle; he had a fine drooping moustache, a thick beard and most of his teeth, though, recently, they were constantly paining him. Some of his friends had had all of their teeth pulled and replaced with dentures. But that was for old men, not my uncle. He was of a certain age, certainly not old, just the right ripe age when he could swear gently in front of his daughter-in-law, even on occasion let wind after a particularly fine meal. He never mentioned his age, but now these days he was always complaining about his teeth.
-This tooth, he would say opening wide his mouth and holding the offending molar between grimy fingers, is one hell of a mother. Night and day it plays hell with me, night and bloody day.
-It’s retribution for the nights and days you’ve played hell with me, his wife would respond whenever he was foolish enough to complain in front of her.
My uncle Pargan lived in the alley just behind our house. He shared the same plot of land as my other uncle, Darshan. The latter was older than my father but younger than my uncle Pargan, and had died in a freak accident when he slipped on a cowpat while chasing his wife through the village, with a drawn sword no less – and I will come back to that later – for not performing a sexual act of which he was particularly fond. Slipping he castrated himself on the naked blade and while rolling in agony and endeavouring to re-attach his manhood he was bitten by a scorpion. In this late uncle’s mud plastered house now lived his widow and six strapping but totally useless sons. Each of these six strapping sons was the apple of their mother’s eye, though the whole village wondered how she could possibly not see the maggots that crawled from the cores of these apples. But I digress. One of these apples had stolen my uncle’s bicycle. At least that is what my uncle Pargan thought.
Bawa was the youngest. Small, but finely built, the attraction of many a marriage proposal, he spent his time borrowing my uncle’s, the one who had had the bicycle stolen, son’s, thus my cousin’s, scooter. This he would use to travel up and down the Palahi Road, a singularly fine piece of civil engineering that joined the village to Phagwara, and proved near nigh impossible to cross in no fewer than five places, around which the enterprising drivers had created their own diversions – in fact the routes they cut through the fields proved to be so soundly built the government had offered them a contract to build a road from Delhi to Lahore, this providing a link between to the two cold shouldering brother nations.
Everyone, no, that is an exaggeration, nearly everyone of a sufficiently ill repute knew Bawa. He spent his days with these colleagues singing the latest film songs and learning the latest dance moves, as demonstrated so startlingly ineptly by the brown sahibs on the blackmarket tapes that landed on his lap. He was a particularly good dancer – this I can vouchsafe myself, having witnessed a spontaneous combustion that left him writhing, quite rhythmically, upon hearing that a mutual cousin, the eldest son of the uncle who had had the bicycle stolen, who was now living in New Zealand, had just become the father of a healthy four kilo boy.
The phone-call announcing the birth came in the afternoon, quite late in the afternoon; my grandmother was shelling peas for the next morning’s parathas. Within half an hour all the village was aware of the new arrival. One by one they stepped down the shared alley going past our house, stopping to pass on their good wishes to our grandmother who lived with us. My grandparents, when the land had been divided among their children, decided to live with my father, even though he was the youngest son, and despite the mutterings of the old heads in the village. Since the death of my grandfather my grandmother, assuming his mantle, spent the day, though she was into her nineties, walking through the village and giving everyone the sharp edge of her tongue. It was a peculiar sharpness; people opened their doors and windows to be cut by her, and even when she flung my late grandfather’s “tails of rancid dogs” at them in passing they felt no desire to close their doors to her, instead offering her tea and sweets which she accepted, according to her own rules, at every tenth house. She was feared and respected in equal measure, though that measure was often tilted in favour of the latter, and through her her family was also feared and respected.
The phone-call, having prompted Bawa’s delight, then burrowed under his shock of black hair and germinated as a full-blown celebration. The band consisted of a drummer, one of his companions, a dancer, another acquaintance. A bottle of the finest home brew fuelled their sense of rhythm and they were soon joined by members of the family, those that weren’t still out in the farm working, and those that had no grudge against my uncle; this amounted to thirty people, old and young and a lot of noise.
Most of the noise came from Bawa, who lead the singing, and the drummer, whose monotonous beat had all the rest stamping their feet, but with the rest of their bodies firmly wedded onto the beds and into the chairs. With Bawa’s prompting at least half stood up and began to move grotesquely in a loose circle unaware that the music was meant to guide their heavy limbs. Whenever they wavered Bawa would start a new chant and fling himself into their midst, clearing a space for himself as he enthusiastically allowed his body to flow.
Tota, the eldest of the totally useless sons was there too, with his eldest daughter. He was a thin man, prematurely wasted by a well-fed addiction to drink and hashish. He moved like a puppet, limbs pulled abruptly without regard to the music. His dancing provoked much mirth, especially with Raja, the second of my Uncle Pargan’s three sons. He nudged me, as I sat huddled in my blanket, it was the beginning of a cold night, and pointed at Tota, his laughter reflected in his shoulders dancing beneath his own thick blanket. From time to time he called out to Tota, encouraging him with fluid movements of his own.
I laughed with him. However my laughter was not directed at Tota, but at my eldest uncle, Jagat. I should clarify that I had three uncles, the eldest of whom, Darshan, had been the father of the six totally useless sons. Jagat Ram, was now, that Darshan had departed into the land of the sexually unfulfilled, the eldest. He held his head high, though that was no more than one metre sixty off the ground, having farmed my father’s land for the past twenty years. He had been ploughing the fields and raising crops for so long the whole village believed his tale that he had built up the farm from a patch of land just about big enough to provide a chicken with space to lay an egg. This story was given credence by the frequent purchases of property in Phagwara and further plots of land, as instructed, and using the money sent back from the UK, by my exiled father. Much of this money, as I was to discover, and shall relate, was used not to buy the lands as directed by my father but used for his own ends.
Jagat Ram had come to the party with his wife and his second daughter, the one studying for Masters in Hindu Deities. He was almost reduced to a skeleton, a condition he attributed to a rare disease that no doctor had been able to diagnose but which his family and the whole village knew was an inability to say ‘no’ to a drink and a hookah session.
I laughed at my Uncle Jagat Ram, not because he was drunk, nor because his wife was silently furious with him for making a fool of himself, but because he was simply my Uncle Jagat, the one who came to our house at midnight and called out my name asking when I was going to open his special bottle, the ‘honey’ sent over by my father especially for him. I laughed because he had the face of a clown – the big towel of a turban that hid his bald pate, the grand swirling moustache that hid his cheeks and licked curling up into the corners of his bullet eyes – and in moments of deep gloom his face acted like a panacea, the mask of a universal comedian provoking mirth by simply being there.
When he was not arguing with the drummer for not keeping the correct rhythm he was seated next to me. He asked me frequently to join the dancers but I gently refused; dancing was not an activity my body had been designed for; god had given me legs but not the ability to move them in a coordinated manner.
-Go, he nudged me. Show the ladies what a fine man you are. Let them have a look at you. Sitting there with your long face is no way to find a wife.