Edited version published in Royal Enfield Trip Newsletter
A few years ago, my girlfriend and I broke up. In order to displace my emotional turbulence, I took up biking. In that alternative ‘on the road’ state, I found freedom and tranquillity, mixed with excitement and the stimulation of discovery. In a way, it was the breakup that led to me start biking seriously.
It was no ordinary bike, but the legendary Royal Enfield. There is something unique about the time-defying piece of history that endears a Bullet to its owner. There is a sense of pride. When new, they are just like any other bike, but as they get older, the bullet acquires a character of its owner.
The Royal Enfield’s roots date back to the beginning of the 20th century when it was first produced in 1933 during the World War era. This makes the Bullet the oldest motorcycle in the world in continuous production. In 1967, Royal Enfield shut down its plant in Redditch, England. But by then, its subsidiary in India had already been stamping out Bullets for years, used not only by the Indian police and military but for upmarket civilians as well. In India, where there are millions of 125 and 250cc bikes providing transportation for millions of inhabitants, the Bullet in its 350 and 500cc sizes has proved to be an aspirational motorcycle.
I bought one such time machine in 2009. It was the afternoon, I was sipping hot tea in a roadside joint on a bright sunny day. There were a few vehicles on the road. I was lost in thought when from a distance I heard the dull thumping of a bullet. The thumping got louder as the bullet came closer, sounding magical. I could almost count the number of thumps in a minute. Then all of a sudden the bullet stopped just ahead of where I was standing.
I walked to the owner, a middle-aged man with a Veerappan style moustache, and asked about the bike. In broken Hindi, (with some Tamil thrown in) he told me a few details (manufacture year, riding comfort and so on) about the bike. Though I could understand little, I could make out that he loved his bike. After a short chat, I gave him my phone number and he rode away. That evening I received a call from an unknown number. The person on the other end told me “ohh bullet aap ka hai”. The bike is yours. In a split second, I made a decision. Without any further questions, I asked him to meet me at our previous rendezvous. The next day, after completing formalities; I was the proud owner of 350cc bullet worth only Rs. 21000.
My excitement was unbounded. I owned something that I had dreamed! My first ride was with my girlfriend as a pillion rider. After that first ride, I took the bike to a mechanic, for regular servicing.
Soon, it became an obsession and I began spending more time with my mechanic. I learned that a bullet is a simple machine. The tools, skills and parts are not at all difficult to acquire, but the knowledge and confidence are. I learned to repair a few things on my own. The largest stretch of road at Port Blair (in Andaman islands) is around 35 kilometres so I would do the rounds in an imaginary world of my own. Sometimes, I was a superhero with a magical bike, at other times I was a hero in a Bollywood film being chased by goons, and on some romantic evenings, I would ride with my girlfriend as a pillion rider – I would ride slowly then…enjoying the scenery, and always smiling. My first accident happened soon after.
It was in the evening during the Cricket World cup. My girlfriend was riding pillion. I was fantasising it was the last ball of a cricket match, with Harbhajan Singh and Irfan Pathan at the crease, going to steal a quick single run. So lost was I in this imaginary match, that I failed to see the bull approaching me. The bull hit the bike. We were all on the ground. Luckily, there were no major injuries to any of us.
In all those years there were no big repairs. In the meantime, just to add some ‘cool factor’ (and stability), I replaced the wiring, installed side indicators and side carriers and modified the seats. There was nothing left to be changed.
A few years later my relationship was in a turmoil. I went to the mainland for months. On returning to the islands my relationship with the girl I loved had changed, and so had my bullet. I had ignored my bullet for too long. At times the bike stopped in the middle of the road or at the signal in the midst of honking. Worse still, my bullet started giving back-kicks! Until then I did not know what a back-kick was. One day, the back-kick left me with a swollen knee and I was limping almost a week after…as if the back kick was sort of a response to my neglect.
Later, I learned that back-kicks are common with bullets. The starter kick builds up the momentum of the flywheel and the piston initially, and a part of that energy—yours as well as the bike’s—is used to compress the mixture during the compression stroke, slowing the piston proportionally. So, as the throttle opens, more air goes into the engine, the piston slows down, and the combustion-front hits the piston, resulting in the reversal of the direction of rotation: the back-kick.
I learned about back kicks by immersing into the functionality of its engine. Immersion gives birth to thoughts, tilling and ploughing the subconscious to bring a sense of renewal. We commit mistakes so that we learn, and in order to learn, we immerse ourselves in things and objects we love. After understanding the mechanism of back kicks, I learned the technique of avoiding them. Either you kick harder, or you retard the ignition timing.
Many things in life, so to speak, are like the “back-kick” of the Bullet: timid initially, but reciprocate if you don’t understand them. If you approach them with confidence and determination, you are bound to succeed. I learned that one should not underestimate the temper, or nature, of a person or machine. One shouldn’t jump to conclusions too soon or get disheartened when things go wrong, and most importantly—one shouldn’t discuss anything personal or bullet-related to non-sympathetic ears. The penultimate mantra is to be patient or not to care a damn, and if you manage to do so, you can live a happy life.
After that incident, I have had many special moments and special experiences with people and my bullet. From then on, I began to spend more time on my bike. I rode it wherever I travelled. I took it to Wandoor, to Chidiyatapu, to the swimming pool, and for all other chores.
I have occasionally met other bullet riders who say that riding the bullet allows them to reach new realms of spiritual, intellectual and emotional freedom. But such thoughts are not restricted to bikes. I have also met lots of people who proclaim a special connection with certain objects that are close to them. That experience of the back kick, the unravelling thread in my relationship, the experience from my past mistakes, has made me realise the importance of the things and objects that surround us.
There are moments sometimes that press us towards an ethical view of how we perceive things and objects around us, and there are big questions to be asked if the objects we own have feelings. For me, riding my bullet is the purest form of pleasure. Going through the ups and downs of maintaining my bullet, I have also learnt how to maintain the ups and downs of relationships and the mystery of how things function—be it a machine or a human being!