We’re extremely pleased to bring you this wonderful excerpt from Mridula Koshy’s new novel Bicycle Dreaming. The novel tells the story of one year from the life of a young girl in life. Noor dreams for a green bicycle and for her father a kabadiwala to be not outstripped by other kabadiwalas and her brother to be not at odds with her family. Most of all in this year the thirteen-year-old longs for Ajith and for her friendship with her best friend Haseena to be restored. At the point that this excerpt begins nothing is going as Noor wants its to go.
* * *
Noor was right about the end of her friendship with Haseena. Long after her mother explained to Noor that the periods that had come to Haseena had nothing to do with the many periods the school day was divided into, and that she, Noor, would have her periods soon, as well, and as a result grow up – long after Noor understood that pinching Haseena had not precipitated the crisis resulting in her stay in the sickroom – Haseena was still not speaking to Noor.
Of course neither was Noor speaking to Haseena. It was an impossible situation. They still shared the same two-person bench and desk at school. But now Haseena had drawn a line down the middle of her bench and desk, scoring the soft wood with her ballpoint pen to do it. Afterward Noor saw Haseena struggle to get the pen to write and nearly reached into her pencil box to hand Haseena her extra pen. But already Haseena had turned to Poonam, who was handing her a pen from across the aisle.
In her diary, Noor wrote Haseena a very short letter:
October 15, 2012
I am sorry I pinched you.
Your loving friend,
Then she wrote to her father:
October 15, 2012
How are you? I hope you are fine. Today I want to ask you to buy me a green cycle. I will grow up and become a kabadiwala like you. But you will not call me kabadiwala because I am not a boy. I am a girl. I will be India’s first kabadiwali.
Your loving daughter,
Noor took out the four-coloured pen her aunt from Pune had given to her on her eleventh birthday. It was a pen that two years later still looked new. Selecting the black point, she drew the wheels first. Then switching to the green, she connected the wheels with a flourish of lines and then sat back contemplating her dream cycle with satisfaction. In the old days of her friendship with Haseena she would have given Haseena a quick kick to draw her attention to the drawing.
With some remorse she realized – I am a kicker as well as a pincher.
She returned to her drawing. To conserve the green ink which was running low she wrote in blue below it:
My Friend The Green Bicycle.
It didn’t look right in blue. Then she underlined what she had written.
My Friend The Green Bicycle.
Writing time was not over yet. She spent the next few minutes fiddling with her pen, switching colours till she had the idea that she might write to her aunt.
Dear Shabbi Mausi,
Shilpa Ma’am promptly announced the end of writing time.
Walking home she trailed behind Haseena. Haseena walked alone, but purposefully, as if the way home from school was not meant to be dawdled over, was not a distance strung over the perfect amount of time in which to trade ghost stories. As if she didn’t know Noor was right behind her. For a bit Noor matched her steps to Haseena’s and assumed the haughty air she imagined Haseena wore as she strode ahead. But very quickly she caught up to Haseena and before she could stop herself, her shoes spiked the back of Haseena’s ankles where they emerged from her dust-covered shoes. Haseena spun around.
Noor had nothing to say.
‘You.’ Haseena quivered from head to foot. The word spluttered from her again. ‘You.’
Noor saw Haseena’s eyes were filled with tears. And she realized that the tears were not recent. Her face was streaked and her nose a mess of wet. So she hadn’t been walking with the haughty expression on her face Noor had imagined. Noor was filled with satisfaction. She stuck her nose even higher in the air. Now it was her turn to ask, and she did it coolly.
She flicked the word from her. It was hard meeting Haseena’s eyes for longer than a second. So she looked down at her hands. Too late, she realized her haughty expression was quite ruined by this action. She compensated by flicking some dirt from her fingernails.
Haseena spun around. The next moment she was gone, sprinting from Noor. But not before she flung over her shoulder: ‘Careless.’ Noor thought, ha, that’s the best she can manage, ‘Careless?’ She said the word out loud, testing it, and then, ‘So what? It was an accident, wasn’t it?’ But she wasn’t convinced. She felt like crying herself. She didn’t. ‘Am I so bad?’ she asked, voicing what had been rising in her for days. She sat down not far from the cows chewing outside the kooradan. She gave herself a few minutes to get used to the smell of garbage rising all around her. She opened her rough copy notebook and tearing a sheet from it she wrote out the letter to her aunt she had been working on in her mind ever since Shilpa Ma’am interrupted her writing it in class.
Dear Shabbi Mausi,
How are you, Shabbi Mausi? I hope you are well. We are also all well.
Here Noor paused. But she wasn’t truly well, was she? She was a pincher and a kicker and most recently a spiker of heels. She chewed at the end of her pencil and then wrote some more:
Thank you again for the pen you gave me on your last visit for my eleventh birthday. You never came after that visit for my twelfth birthday or for my thirteenth birthday. My thirteenth birthday was on July 16, 2012. I enjoyed my birthday very much. Only I was sad you did not come. I only wanted to see you and talk to you. I did not mind if you did not bring me a present. The present you gave me last time is very special and I take care of it. People all say about me that I am a very careful person. The green ink is the only colour I have used too much so it is finishing. Sometimes I have to shake the pen to make the green colour come out.
Noor was embarrassed when she read over what she had written. It sounded like she was asking Shabbi Mausi for another present. Yes, possibly it sounded that way. This was not what she had imagined writing. She crossed the letter out and began again.
October 15, 2012
Dear Shabbi Mausi,
You told me you know how to ride a bicycle. I want to ask you to advise me how I can ride a bicycle.
Satisfied that she had gotten the bicycle into the letter right away, she readied herself to bringing the letter to a close. Should she sign it Sincerely or Lovingly?
The previous week Shilpa Ma’am had asked them to write letters to the chief minister of Delhi. Of course these were just practice letters but thrilling nevertheless. They had addressed the chief minister as Honourable Madam Chief Minister and Noor had signed off at the end of her letter with:
Student of Class VIII
Shilpa Ma’am had asked everyone to include in their letter one positive and one negative aspect of their neighbourhood. The students brainstormed a list of positives and Shilpa Ma’am wrote the list on the blackboard.
Poonam said, ‘Ma’am we are proud of our school.’ Shilpa Ma’am promptly added a tick mark.
i. School ✓
Students scrambled to be heard, each speaking out of turn.
‘Ma’am, Ma’am we love our school.’
‘Shilpa Ma’am, please put how we painted our school during break.’
‘Ma’am, put we love our teachers.’
‘Ma’am, my favourite is Drawing Class.’
‘Mine is English.’
Laughing, Shilpa Ma’am added a dozen rapid tick marks next to the first one.
i. School ✓✓✓✓✓✓✓✓✓✓✓✓
‘Children, think. We must have many other positives we can share with our chief minister. Is there anything in your neighbourhood that is fun for you and your family, or maybe something that makes life easier for your parents?’
‘Ma’am, cinema hall.’
‘Yes, Yes. Movies.’
The classroom was filled not only with the voices of students speaking out of turn but also with the noise of students coming to their feet in their excitement. Some students were jumping up and down in an effort to have their raised arms noticed.
Santosh rolled up his sleeves to better demonstrate his admiration for a favourite actor.
‘He has so many muscles, Ma’am. Like this. Hrithik Roshan, when he flexes his muscles, he rips his sleeves, like this.’
Before Santosh could pull at his sleeves to rip them, Shilpa Ma’am hurried to ask, ‘And how does Hrithik Roshan having muscles, or even having enough muscles to rip his shirt sleeves – I’m sure that’s not something his mother likes him to do – how does all that help your neighbourhood, Santosh?’
‘Ma’am, it’s fun, Ma’am.’
‘Yes, movies are fun. But I want us to talk about what our government is doing in our neighbourhood to make this a better place to live. Poonam?’
‘Ma’am, we have elections. Since India is a democracy, we choose our leaders through a process of elections.’
‘Yes, that’s right. And what do elections do for us?’
‘Ma’am, it lets our parents vote for the lotus or the hand.’
Ajith spoke scornfully. ‘My parents don’t vote for the lotus or the hand.’
Shilpa Ma’am looked warningly at him. She took a deep breath and began again,
‘Okay, let me ask you something. Whether your parents vot efor the lotus or the hand or some other party, what is it that your parents want from the party they vote for?’
‘Ma’am, please Ma’am, we want onions to be cheap.’
The class laughed. Someone punched the boy who spoke for cheap onions on the arm.
‘So shall we put that on the list of positives? Is food easily available in your neighbourhood and is the price fair?’
Shilpa Ma’am pointed to Ajith. He looked confused for a moment, then shook his head. No. Her hand moved quickly, pointing from Ajith to Santosh to Jitender to Shahzad to Rajveer. But at the tail end of a series of ‘no’s’, Manoj, never one to contribute a single word in class, given he was new, given he came from somewhere in the south, given he spoke no Hindi and his classroom English was as limited as that of everyone else, now spoke haltingly:
‘Teacher, my father sell. But he cannot sell cheap. First he buy from Azadpur mandi. It is no cheap for him.’
‘Why do you think it is expensive for him to buy from the wholesale market in Azadpur?’
Very shyly Manoj offered, ‘Petrol?’
Shilpa Ma’am explained to the class that when the price of petrol and diesel went up, the cost of transporting food from faraway fields went up, as well.
The class remained silent as they digested this bit of understanding. Some students nodded in recognition of what they had just learned. Why, they had known it all along. Didn’t their uncles grow bananas high in the hills of the villages from which their parents had migrated long ago? Didn’t they haul those bananas to the roadside where they waited impatiently for trucks to come haul them away to the city? And trucks – yes, they ran on diesel.
Shilpa Ma’am is strange. Contemplating this thought gave Noor pleasure.
When Noor had next looked up at the blackboard the list of positives was much longer.
ii. Cinema ✓✓✓✓✓
iv. Market (but food is expensive)
vii. Kooradan (but it is smelly)
viii. Naala drain (but it is very smelly) ✓✓✓✓✓
ix. Water taps
The rest of the period was devoted to a discussion of water rationing: neighbours who cheated and drew more than their fair share from the communal tap; the inconvenience of having to draw from the communal tap; and what about how some people – the rich – had endless water in their homes; wasn’t water free for everyone to have; no, but the convenience of the communal tap, but how horrible it tasted from the tap, oh but the sweetest water could be had near the kooradan where the main leaked, yes, that was sweet water, but far away unless you wanted to share the cost of a redi to transport water home, not so free then was this sweet water, back in the village water was sweet and free, but then it could only be gotten by walking a long distance to the talab, what about that? And wasn’t the government good to send a tanker twice a day for extra water for those who wanted more water?
Noor had not raised her hand during any of this discussion. She had wanted to – to somehow get the word bicycle on the list. Her aunt in Pune rode a bicycle that was given to her by the government. But Noor couldn’t figure out how to connect that to water. Her aunt used her cycle to gather firewood far from where she lived.
Noor had been surprised when her aunt told her about it. ‘You mean you burn a fire in your house?’ Only after getting this question out did she grasp the import of what her aunt was telling her: ‘You mean you know how to ride a bicycle?’
Her aunt had nodded in answer to both questions. ‘You are lucky you have a gas cylinder. But your uncle says as long as there is wood to gather why rely on the cylinder. “It is expensive,” he says. But he doesn’t realize how far I have to go to get firewood. To the edge of the city. If I am late going, there are no proper lights. And before I had the cycle, walking in the dark, Ameena…’
This last bit she threw at her sister, Noor’s mother.
‘Thank goodness you have a cycle,’ Noor’s mother replied softly.
But not so softly Noor hadn’t heard. Noor had been eleven when her aunt paid them a visit and was only just then beginning to hatch her bicycle dream. She had stared open-mouthed at her mother’s support for the idea of riding a bicycle.
‘Your uncle,’ and Noor’s aunt returned to speaking to Noor, ‘insists food tastes better from a wood fire. But we have one room to live in, same as you, maybe a little smaller. I cook inside and the walls are black and I cough all day. Make sure you marry a man who grew up eating food cooked on a cylinder.’
‘Did Baba grow up eating roti cooked on a cylinder stove?’
‘Shush now,’ her mother had said.
Sitting on the ground by the smelly kooradan, chewing on her pencil till her tongue developed minute cuts, Noor formulated her plan afresh.
She would rewrite the letter to the chief minister. She would tell Madam Chief Minister that her father was a kabadiwala who hauled away the discards in the area. He did the work easily and well on his cycle.
But, Madam Chief Minister, she continued in her mind, the kooradan and the naala in our area are filling up with garbage. Noor thought of her neighbourhood’s waste – vegetable peels and tin drums of chemicals used in the treatment of wood – discarded in the naala for lack of any other place to haul it away. The richer neighbourhoods employed people from her neighbourhood to haul their garbage away to the cement kooradan which filled up daily as fast as it was emptied of the previous day’s haul. Some people in the area raised pigs that rooted in the naala and kooradan. Their neighbours next door, Ashish’s family, used to keep pigs but they stopped after one of their pigs died getting at garbage tied up in plastic bags. A bag stuck in its throat and it died choking. Noor’s mother had been happy when she heard the news.
If only everyone in their area was to receive a bicycle from the government the waste from each family could be carried far away by a member of the family – a son or even a daughter could do the carrying away. Just as her father carried away old newspapers, cans and bottles. Just as her aunt carried firewood home from faraway places.
For a happy moment Noor pictured the faraway places her bicycle might take her. Perhaps on the edge of the city there was a forest like the one at the edge of her aunt’s city. And there they could leave their garbage. Instead of her mother handing her plastic bags of garbage to throw in the naala, in this new era of the bicycle her mother would say, ‘Noor, would you ride this over to the forest on your new cycle?’
Noor paused again at the vision of the forest filling with girls riding their bicycles, sailing bags of garbage through the air, landing them in growing heaps under trees. It would soon look like the naala. And what if there are women who, like her aunt, come there to collect firewood?
Too much thinking, Noor admonished herself. After all, what matters is our naala will become clean. After all, our naala is nearer to us than wherever the forest might be. And soon the water in the naala will be so clean we will swim in it. And ride our bicycles just for fun alongside it.
Excerpted from Bicycle Dreaming by Mridula Koshy, published by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2016. Rs 350.
Mridula Koshy is the author of If It Is Sweet, a collection of short stories. The book won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in 2009 and was shortlisted for the 2009 Vodafone Crossword Book Prize. Her next book, Not Only The Things That Have Happened, a novel, was published with HarperCollins in December 2012. It was shortlisted for the Vodafone Crossword Book Prize in 2013. The international title for the book is Lost Boy.