Chapter 1: First Attempt

 

All the motorcycle dealers were in Old Delhi, past the sandstone arches of Kashmir Gate and down among the warrens of shopkeepers specializing in gold, sweets, and perfumes. I’d been given the names of two Royal Enfield Bullet dealers in Old Delhi, and had cajoled a friend and neighbor, Thomas, to go with me since he’d owned and ridden motorcycles for years. I, on the other hand, had only learned to ride a few months earlier in an empty parking lot during a one-week rider safety course in the United States, and then I’d barely passed.

I walked over to Thomas’ house – we both lived in Nizamuddin East – and together we made our way to the main road outside the colony and he flagged down a rickshaw. It lurched out of traffic and over to the shoulder, allowing us to climb in. I shouted the name of one of the dealers to the stoney-face driver, and he silently wheeled his contraption back into the flood of traffic – taxis, cars, busses, motorcycles, and bicycles – surging across several lanes of traffic without bothering to wait for openings. As a rule, drivers accepted others wedging in and out as part of the system; a practice I wasn’t sure I’d have the patience for once I joined their ranks on my Bullet. It was still morning and the city throbbed with movement and noise, making conversation difficult, so I slumped back into the seat and closed my eyes, blocking out the chaos swirling around me. The frenzy should have given my plan pause, one set into motion the first time I heard the rumble of a Royal Enfield, but I’d been telling everyone I knew what I’d planned to do. The actual utterance, I’m sure was born out of frustration, a reaction to years of being without wheels of my own, but once said, there was no going back.

I’d arrived in New Delhi in 1994 after criss-crossing Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and the Czech Republic by bus or train for two years. My first year in New Delhi I freelanced for Western papers and the Women’s Feature Wire Service, before taking a position as an editor for the wire service. Now two years had passed and my contract with the wire was ending in a few months and I was faced with the question, ‘Now what?’ I didn’t want to stay in Delhi but I wasn’t ready to leave India either.

Years of travel in Europe, tethered to timetables and fixed routes, plus living in India dealing with the never-ending hassle of taxi and rickshaw wallahs made me long for the freedom of my own wheels. Drivers refused to use their meters and instead insisted on a price three times higher than the normal fare, or drove me around in circles, racking up the price on the meter if I insisted they use it. Aside from this problem there was always an issue of territory. Some drivers only worked certain parts of town and refused to take me where I wanted to go, no matter what I offered to pay, if it was outside their jurisdiction. More than once I’d been stranded on the side of the road, left to stumble along in the heat and dust until I managed to snag a driver. But it wasn’t just India, since leaving the States I’d been at the mercy of public transportation everywhere. From the time I could drive, I’d always had my own wheels. Now, after four years on the road, I was beyond sick of dealing with drivers, sick of waiting for rides, and sick of being bound to fixed train and bus routes. No more fixed routes or time schedules.

Initially I intended to follow the coastline, but that felt uninspired, and sought a quest to organize my journey. I was still working at the Women’s Feature Wire Service, wrapping up my last weeks of employment and lamenting my dissatisfaction with the conventionality of my plan to a friend and coworker, Patralekha. She suggested I search out the shakti peeth temples. The idea of finding fifty-one temples dedicated to feminine power seemed a perfect pursuit for a woman alone on a motorcycle. I learned the temples sprang from the lips, eyes, nose, ears of the goddess as they fell to Earth in a random pattern after her grieving husband cut her body to pieces. Patralekha got her hands on a list of the temples’ locations and gave it to me. When I saw they were sprinkled along the edge of India, coinciding with my original inclination, I knew I had a plan.

© C.L. Stambush

 

When the rickshaw driver reached Old Delhi, I roused and looked out to see a thicket of people bustling between traffic, among towers of crumbling, centuries-old buildings draped with matted monkeys gnawing on the spoils from a raid on the streets below. Underneath the monkeys’ perch, shopkeepers’ emporiums spilled out onto the sidewalk: radios, cookery, and whatnots littered long tables blocking pedestrians’ path. Despite the congestion, every bit of space gets used in Old Delhi, and rows of sidewalk vendors hawked tin trinkets and sparkly bindis from blue tarps spread on the ground, while those who could afford carts served hot peanuts and warm, syrupy gulab jamun from rickety pushcarts stationed in traffic. My driver snaked through the heady life that made for an ordinary day in Old Delhi, along stone lanes that dove deeper into the heart of the old city before spitting us out at our destination. He pivoted his auto to the side of the road in front of the first motorcycle shop, nearly slamming into three women swaddled in silk saris. They stared at me, not the driver, as if to blame me for the affront, and I narrowed my eyes back. The driver snapped off the engine and tilted his coconut-oiled hair toward a dimly lit building. Inside a murky storefront window rested three dusty Royal Enfield motorcycles. The Bullets balanced on blades of chrome; their massive heads slumped listlessly to one side. They looked tired and seemed anything but reputed masters of the road. Instead, their cumbersome bulk gave them a slow dim-witted appearance compared to the lithe little Japanese models that whipped through traffic.

I paid the driver, and Thomas and I entered the dealership. The lights were out due to a routine power failure and the ceiling fans hung silent, making the room hot and stuffy. I wiped a slick of sweat off my forehead as a swarthy salesman approached us.

‘Yes sir. How may I help you?’ he said looking up at Thomas and disregarding me. ‘We have Standard and Deluxe models. Please, come this way, sir.’

I took advantage of what I’d have considered a snub in my own culture, and wandered over to one of the three Bullets occupying the so-called showroom, swinging my leg over the saddle. The motorcycle didn’t feel solid or sturdy. It wiggled under me, feeling delicate, fragile, and frankly crushable. From across the room I heard Thomas say, ‘Don’t talk to me about motorcycles, she’s the one buying,’ while the salesman continued to encourage him with ‘looking only sir’ and ‘take one look sir.’ The sound of boots stomping across the room made me look up to see Thomas moving away from the baffled salesman toward the door.

I climbed down from the Bullet and approached the salesman, who rolled his eyes over me and pursed his mouth several times, as if encountering something foul, causing is mustache hitch up and down. After examining me, he flicked his gaze over at Thomas, still expecting him to make the deal. I pretended his disdain didn’t bother me and asked for a brochure, hoping to point to a picture of what I wanted if conversing was taboo. He didn’t reply, instead reexamined me, taking my tall slim frame, long blond hair, placid Midwestern face, and late thirty-something years of age before turning his back and disappearing through a panel of shabby curtains. I thought he might be going to get someone else to deal with me, and waited while Thomas paced the sidewalk outside the shop. When the salesman failed to return, I went looking for him. The shop was quiet and the mustachioed man was nowhere to be found, sending me a message: he didn’t sell motorcycles to women.

I’d known it might be problematic for me to buy a Bullet. The streets of Delhi were full of two-wheelers but in the three years I’d lived in New Delhi (1994 to 1997), I never saw a woman of any nationality handling her own. They were all relegated to the pillion. The fact that I saw so few women riding motorcycles – including the United States – seemed to me society’s way of implying women had no business operating them, that it was a man’s machine. Which wasn’t true. While they may have been designed with men in mind, women had been riding motorcycles from the get-go. Effie Hotchkiss and her mother, Avis, became the first American women to ride round-trip, coast-to-coast by motorcycle in 1915. They had a Harley with a sidecar. Bessie Stringfield refused to let her gender or race hamper her from braking barriers. As a young, black wife and mother devastated by the deaths of her three children, she turned to riding motorcycles in 1928. “I’d toss a penny over a map, and wherever it landed, I’d go,” she’d said. Fifty years later, stuntwoman Marcia Holly rode a Kawasaki-based streamliner to set a land-speed record of 229.361 MPH, becoming the first woman to break into Bonneville’s 200 MPH Club.[1] Being on a motorcycle was different for women than men because of the social taboos we’re breaking. I’d felt the same power these women had the moment I’d sat on one. Firing the engine had empowered me. I sat taller, planted my feet firmer on the ground, squared my shoulders and straightened my spine. A clear determination settled into my eyes. I felt invisible. Transformed. I felt sorry for anyone who tried to mess with me in my new incarnation.

From the beginning, people in India warned me that the roads weren’t safe for women alone. Some insisted I carry a weapon––a gun or knife––or at least take a man along. Everyone had a horror story. The newspapers were full of abduction accounts, and I had my own harrowing incident of which a Mrs. Bannerjee reminded me one day.

‘All women are knowing it is not safe to be on the streets unescorted. Did you forget already, what happened to you on Holi?’ she asked after learning of my plans.

I had not forgotten the assault, and never would. I’d been on my way to my friend’s home a block over from my apartment (in Nizammudin East) to wish him happy Holi, a festival that celebrates the coming of spring. People usher it in by throwing multitudes of colored powder on each other. It’s a free-for-all that strangers and friends alike engage in with each other, so I wasn’t too alarmed when two young men drenched in so many colors they’d turned black ran up to me. They appeared harmless, both smaller and younger then me, but I was cautious, having been warned the holiday was often a license to get stoned on bhaang and booze––bombed to the point of being dangerous––and grope women.

‘Be nice,’ I said to the smirking boys.

I can see now that there were signs that I needed to be extra cautious with the pair for beneath the smeared colors their wild eyes were dilated to the edges like bottomless pools. They panted hot rancid little gasps as they stopped inches from me. Keeping my eyes on them, I dipped two fingers into the red powder I carried and gently spread it on one guy’s cheek in hopes he’d mimic my careful behavior. In return, he dabbed yellow on me and I thought I was home free, but as I started to turn away I felt his hand grab my breast, squeezing it hard. An instant later, without thinking, my hand grabbed his throat and I began pushing him toward a wall. He retaliated by clutching my neck in return while brandishing a weapon with the other: a stick with two rusty nails driven through the end that he held inches from my eyes. The scene was incomprehensible. I felt my body shake with rage and confusion as I tried to get my head around what was going on. During it all though my hand never let go. The world around me seemed to slow and fall away, leaving me locked in battle with a boy I’d never seen before. The rational part of my mind demanded that I let go of the guy, as it recognized the severity of the situation with the stick quivering in front of me, but my fist refused to ease up. The guy had lost one of his flip-flops as I’d backed him against a wall and he now wobbled on one foot, an expression of hate and alarm consuming his dark face. I kept squeezing his neck, all the while aware of his own rough hand on my throat.

I don’t know how long it went on but it took the guy’s friend barreling into us to break us apart. The world snapped back into color and the sounds of horns honking and people shouting flooded back over me. Briefly, the two of us stood there trembling, then the boys turned and ran off down the alley. I stared after them for a moment before I returned to myself and began to cry.

[1]   Hear Me Roar by Ann Ferrar

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