Chapter 2: Buying the Bullet

The man in the first shop may have been willing to sell me a motorcycle, but Sahib Singh had no such compunctions. He smiled, showing a neat row of tiny red-stained teeth, and nodded his turbaned head as if he sold motorcycles to women every day.

‘Please, madam. Sit,’ he said, waving a hand toward a chair before snapping his fingers at one of the shop’s numerous boys and shouting ‘chai.’

I dropped into a seat next to his desk and looked around the showroom while Thomas wandered off to look at Bullets. Singh’s shop stood in stark contrast to the other one; his brimmed with dozens of shiny new Royal Enfield motorcycles standing at attention across the front of the shop. Buffeted shoulder-to-shoulder the sleek silver, red, green, blue, and black 350cc and grey 500cc Bullets seemed as eager to get on the road.

A boy in tatty shorts and bare feet arrived at Singh’s desk bearing a heavy tray ladened with chai in china cups and a plate of cookies. As he slid the tray onto the desk his eyes flinched between Sahib Singh and me, confused to see a woman in the shop. Singh handed me a cup, the scent of spicy tea mingled with gas and oil fumes, and I inhaled deeply several times. I’d always loved the smell of gas and oil. Singh watched me take it all in as leaned back in his chair before asking, ‘Now, madam, tell me what you want?’

I knew I wanted: a 350cc Standard Bullet with upgrades poached from the 500cc Deluxe––its dual-drum disc brakes, larger fuel tank, and locking toolboxes. She (motorcycle, boats, and nations are “she”) should be all black, so a paint job would be necessary since the 500cc parts would be gray. There was another thing I knew about the bike but didn’t tell Sahib Singh, that I already had a name for her: Kali, after the Hindu warrior goddess whose fifty-one pieces I intended to find.

Despite my growing confidence and excitement in what I was about to do, I was more than a little nervous to be on the road alone, completely cut off from every one and every thing I knew. Living in New Delhi I’d had a sense of place and was comfortable. I knew my neighbors, knew the streets and where to shop, but on the road it’d be different. Out there I’d be unmoored; my sense of place would swept from beneath me. I wouldn’t have the sanctuary of a home to retreat to, Patralekha to confide in, or the familiarity of my bed to comfort me. I needed a confidant with me, if for no other reason than the psychological comfort she would bring. By naming my motorcycle Kali, I was deliberately concocting a particular kind of partner, since over the years I’d learned a woman alone sometimes needed a little venom, and the goddess Kali had more than a smidgen to offer. She wears the severed heads of her enemies as a garland around her neck and their hacked-off arms fashion a skirt cinched around her waist. Despite her menacing appearance, she’s only half warrior. Four of her eight arms gesture peace while the others brandish weapons. Her blackness represents the absorption of all things. She bits her lolling red tongue in shame because she’s inadvertently stepped on her husband Shiva, who’s laid down in the battlefield in an attempt to stop her dance of destruction. In other words, she wasn’t all bad (although she was a bad ass) and when she got carried away she felt remorse for her actions. Hindus believe she has the power to enlighten the unenlightened by breaking them down and allowing them to be reborn. But I’d hoped that by naming my motorcycle after her I wouldn’t feel so alone on the road, and if I did get into trouble some of the goddess’ grrrr might rub off on me.

kali decal large_3

I told none of this to Singh – and instead stuck to the motorcycle parts – which nodded as I detailed my requirements for the Bullet. When I finished I smiled nervously at him as he said, in a rather flat tone, ‘Yes, madam, I can provide such a motorcycle.’ He dipped his hand into a drawer, pulled out a calculator, and punched in some numbers. The tally for my new Bullet, with upgrades, came to 25,000 rupees ($1,400 U.S.), including a warranty and accident insurance for a year––a bonus considering what I knew about India’s traffic fatality rate.

Two weeks later, Kali was ready for pick up and I talked Thomas into going with me to pick her up. I’d never ridden in traffic before, and I knew I wasn’t ready for Delhi’s. At the shop, Singh had Kali wheeled out and I felt a flutter in my chest. She was stunning. Her black body curved like a dancer’s, her handlebars flared like nostrils, her headlamp stared unblinking. She embodied every inch of the goddess.

‘Please, madam. Sit,’ he said, waving a hand toward a chair before snapping his fingers at one of the shop’s numerous boys and shouting ‘chai.’

I dropped into a seat next to his desk and looked around the showroom while Thomas wandered off to look at Bullets. Singh’s shop stood in stark contrast to the other one; his brimmed with dozens of shiny new Royal Enfield motorcycles standing at attention across the front of the shop. Buffeted shoulder-to-shoulder the sleek silver, red, green, blue, and black 350cc and grey 500cc Bullets seemed as eager to get on the road.

A boy in tatty shorts and bare feet arrived at Singh’s desk bearing a heavy tray ladened with chai in china cups and a plate of cookies. As he slid the tray onto the desk his eyes flinched between Sahib Singh and me, confused to see a woman in the shop. Singh handed me a cup, the scent of spicy tea mingled with gas and oil fumes, and I inhaled deeply several times. I’d always loved the smell of gas and oil. Singh watched me take it all in as leaned back in his chair before asking, ‘Now, madam, tell me what you want?’

I knew I wanted: a 350cc Standard Bullet with upgrades poached from the 500cc Deluxe––its dual-drum disc brakes, larger fuel tank, and locking toolboxes. She (motorcycle, boats, and nations are “she”) should be all black, so a paint job would be necessary since the 500cc parts would be gray. There was another thing I knew about the bike but didn’t tell Sahib Singh, that I already had a name for her: Kali, after the Hindu warrior goddess whose fifty-one pieces I intended to find.

Despite my growing confidence and excitement in what I was about to do, I was more than a little nervous to be on the road alone, completely cut off from every one and every thing I knew. Living in New Delhi I’d had a sense of place and was comfortable. I knew my neighbors, knew the streets and where to shop, but on the road it’d be different. Out there I’d be unmoored; my sense of place would swept from beneath me. I wouldn’t have the sanctuary of a home to retreat to, Patralekha to confide in, or the familiarity of my bed to comfort me. I needed a confidant with me, if for no other reason than the psychological comfort she would bring. By naming my motorcycle Kali, I was deliberately concocting a particular kind of partner, since over the years I’d learned a woman alone sometimes needed a little venom, and the goddess Kali had more than a smidgen to offer. She wears the severed heads of her enemies as a garland around her neck and their hacked-off arms fashion a skirt cinched around her waist. Despite her menacing appearance, she’s only half warrior. Four of her eight arms gesture peace while the others brandish weapons. Her blackness represents the absorption of all things. She bits her lolling red tongue in shame because she’s inadvertently stepped on her husband Shiva, who’s laid down in the battlefield in an attempt to stop her dance of destruction. In other words, she wasn’t all bad (although she was a bad ass) and when she got carried away she felt remorse for her actions. Hindus believe she has the power to enlighten the unenlightened by breaking them down and allowing them to be reborn. But I’d hoped that by naming my motorcycle after her I wouldn’t feel so alone on the road, and if I did get into trouble some of the goddess’ grrrr might rub off on me.

I told none of this to Singh – and instead stuck to the motorcycle parts – which nodded as I detailed my requirements for the Bullet. When I finished I smiled nervously at him as he said, in a rather flat tone, ‘Yes, madam, I can provide such a motorcycle.’ He dipped his hand into a drawer, pulled out a calculator, and punched in some numbers. The tally for my new Bullet, with upgrades, came to 25,000 rupees ($1,400 U.S.), including a warranty and accident insurance for a year––a bonus considering what I knew about India’s traffic fatality rate.

Two weeks later, Kali was ready for pick up and I talked Thomas into going with me to pick her up. I’d never ridden in traffic before, and I knew I wasn’t ready for Delhi’s. At the shop, Singh had Kali wheeled out and I felt a flutter in my chest. She was stunning. Her black body curved like a dancer’s, her handlebars flared like nostrils, her headlamp stared unblinking. She embodied every inch of the goddess.