The Black Bicycle

-Richa Manu


Pihu is making a birthday card for her best friend Natasha. Her crayons, sketch pens, and coloured papers are spread all around her. Her mother has bought her sparkles in three different colours that she would use in the end to put in the final decorations on the card. Inside the card, she would pen a simple, heartfelt poem for her dear friend. Her baby sister is sitting by her side and watching her work with her big, curious eyes. The card is shaping up nice.

Pihu gets good grades in most subjects, and especially in Hindi and English. She reads all the stories and poems in her Hindi and English books before the session even begins. Her father, who works for a children’s magazine, is very particular about spelling and language—not so much for anything else in the world. Pihu doesn’t understand why he loses sleep on finding a spelling error in her book that the teacher had left uncorrected. He keeps correcting her punctuation marks. Small things like a space added before a comma or a period—and not after it—bother him. As a result, she has got very good at spelling and punctuation. Whenever they go to the market and he spots a spelling error on an advertisement board, he asks her to identify it. It is their fun game. She would think and think and then tell him what the corrected version should be, and her father would feel immensely proud of her and buy her an extra jalebi[1].

When he comes home from work, he dives deep into his writing till late in the night. Mother tells her and her little sister to not make too much noise as father is working. She wondered what he keeps writing on his corner desk of their one-room house. Stacks of papers lie above and under his table scribbled with his messy, scratchy handwriting as if his pen were racing to keep up with the pace of thoughts running in his mind. Engrossed in writing, he would sometimes smile, laugh quietly, or break into quiet sobs. He is writing a book, mother had told her. The hint of solemnity in her voice had left a knot in her belly. She wondered why he wrote that thing every day if it made him smile, and laugh, and cry all by himself. She wondered if any of her classmates’ fathers were as strange. She feared she was the only one with a father like that and she felt alone.

Apart from his writing, he mostly seemed normal to her—just like other parents. He gets her into the school bus every morning, goes to his office, brings home jalebis and samosas[2] once a week, brings mangoes in the summer evenings, makes sweet lemon juice with ice for all of them when the heat became unbearable. Every once in a while, he brings a small toy for her baby sister and a jasmine veni[3] for mother.

She has always seen her mother dressed in a cotton saris. She has two—a white one with small blue flowers and another with a green chequered pattern—that she washes and wears alternately. Mother helps her with homework. Once when mother was helping her write the explanation of a Hindi poem on the reunion of childhood friends Krishna and Sudama, her eyes welled up, but she didn’t stop. Pihu kept looking at her, wondering what it was about the poem written in the book that brought tears to her mother’s eyes.

Mother is the happiest when working in her little patch of garden where she has grown lots of marigold flowers outside the window of their one-room house. There are also chilli, tomato, and pumpkin plants. Pihu is over joyous to watch a pumpkin fruit beginning to grow at the bottom of the yellow flower from no bigger than the size of her thumb, to enormous size and weight she couldn’t even hold with both hands. Whenever mother spots a new leaf in her ivy or money plant—a tiny, bright green leaf smeared with gloss and covered in wrinkles—she calls out Pihu to watch. Pihu watches the leaf all rolled up on itself and shying from the world just yet. She watches it unfold over a couple of days and present itself to the world in the most flamboyant green shade.

Mother is also the first one to respond to if an animal or bird has got stuck or injured. Pihu remains by her mother’s side and watches her up close helping animals and plants around her to live and flourish—like that day when the rain had quickly filled the den of new-born puppies threatening to drown them, and their mother dog was yelping helplessly but also angrily, mother had won the trust of the mother dog and brought out all her puppies to safety in the verandah and provided them food and comfort—or the day when a squirrel had fallen off a tree and straight into a bucket filled with ice cold water, Pihu had screamed in horror but mother had quickly brought her out, massaged her gently, kept her in a warm towel in the sun until it regained strength and ran up to her tree home.

Whenever mother sits down to peel green peas, Pihu and her baby sister surround her. Pihu picks put the most tender peas for herself and her baby sister. They two girls share their only toy—a stuffed teddy whose eye keeps popping off and mother has to doctor it back. Whenever Pihu returns from school, she tells her mother everything that happened. He baby sister sits in her mother’s lap and listens to Pihu with her big beautiful eyes opened wide in amazement.

There is a fifth member in the family, and that is her father’s black bicycle. Wherever they go, the black bicycle goes with them. Her baby sister in the front basket, Pihu on the small, green-coloured child seat, her father on the main black false-leather seat, and her mother on the carrier at the back. In the market, whatever vegetables and fruits are bought, they are brought home in the basket attached to the front of the bicycle. She wishes and prays every day for that bicycle to disappear. Pihu is thankful that the school, and most of the wealthy classmates are so far away in the other part of the town, no one from school would pay her a visit and see the ugly black bicycle.

***


Before she leaves for school, mother helps Pihu pick the freshest flowers in the morning from their small home garden. Mother ties them into a small bouquet with a piece of wool. Well-equipped with the flowers and her handmade birthday card, Pihu couldn’t be happier. 

Pihu is waiting at the bus stop with her father. She smiles looking at the card and flowers in her hands. A cool winter breeze is blowing and making the sun feel pleasant. But how come she is the only one there? Where are the other children who board the bus with her every day? Just then she sees her mother coming towards her and tells her the bus has broken down. She had received a call from the school on the landline phone of their neighbours. Pihu was immediately saddened to hear this.

“Don’t worry, Papa will drop you off at the school. Come on, hurry.”

They go home and her father quickly brings out his black cycle.

“No, not that cycle!” Pihu wanted to say, but did not want to hurt her father. She knew the school was far and the autorickshaw fare was expensive. Reluctantly, she sat on the carrier seat of the cycle, hating every minute of it.

Her father started pedaling the bicycle. It was a long distance to the school.

She looked at the card and the flowers. On her own birthday last year, Natasha had gifted her an expensive double-decker pencil box with lights and music. Pihu was happy with the card but at the same time, wished she had asked for money to buy something expensive for her friend. Her classmates bring pocket money to school every day and often buy candies, sugar-coated jellies, and expensive stationery from the school shop. On every parent-teacher meeting, her classmates come to school with well-dressed parents in their cars. She wondered why her parents found even the autorickshaw too expensive to the parent teacher meeting?

She thought about Chetna’s pilot pen. Now that she is in Class 5, “No more writing with pencils,” the teacher has said. Pihu’s cheap fountain pens often leak or get clogged when dry and fixing them spoils her hands, her teeth, and her notebook. How beautiful and fuss-free are the pilot pens that Natasha uses, which keep the copy and her hands clean, and produce beautiful handwriting. When Natasha sees Pihu struggling with her pen, she sometimes lends her one of her own pens.

Pihu wanted to ask her mother to buy her a pilot pen, but knew that her mother would remind her to use the two fountain pens she already has to the best of their capability. In her home, nothing is discarded. A picture of Gandhi ji hangs on the wall. Apparently, he has taught her mother and father to not buy things they do not need. He is the one to blame. Why did he not teach this to her classmates’ mothers and fathers? Why he teaches this to her parents alone, she wonders.

The sun was turning brighter. The rickety, old black bicycle was making “churr-churr” sound. His father was breathing heavy while pedaling. His shirt was soaking wet. Pihu asks him to drop her at some distance before the school gate. Her father was puzzled. He insisted to drop her till the school gate, but she made to get off in a hurry so her father had to put brakes suddenly and helped her get off. When her father asked why she wanted to get down here, she angrily turned away and waved him “bye” in a hurry. As she walked quickly to the school, she hears her father telling her to study well and enjoy the day with her school friends. Her ears were burning. What if Chetna or someone else saw her father and his bicycle! She ran to her classroom.

She put the card and the flowers inside her bag. Other children soon started to arrive. Another friend, Neha, showed her a box wrapped in a pink gloss paper—"gift for Natasha, what have you brought?”

Pihu bit her lip. She thought for a while and then said, she had forgotten all about Natasha’s birthday and so, didn’t bring anything at all! When in truth she had worked for hours the previous evening making a card for her best friend!

When she met Natasha, she could not gather courage to bring out the card and the flowers. Natasha was sad that she her best friend completely forgot her birthday. But soon, everyone got engrossed with the day’s activity.

Pihu sat quietly on her desk sad and confused. Unable to concentrate, she kept looking out of the classroom window at the hibiscus shrub. After the first period ended, before the teachers switched, all around her children started playing and fighting and jumping with each other. But Pihu sat still, lost in her quiet zone.

She felt a knot tightening in her stomach. Her stomach started to hurt. Pihu puts her head down on the desk again. She is very sad and dizzy. The world starts rotating around her. The Math teacher is teaching division and asking questions to any child she feels like calling. She is scared of math, and being unwell, it becomes even worse. She began to daydream. She saw her father is standing in her class with his old, rickety bicycle and all her classmates are making fun of her and her father.

In the lunch break everyone left the classroom and went to the school park to have their lunch. Pihu remained in the classroom. She lay down on the desk and closed her eyes. She starts missing her father. Soon, a teacher woke her up and asked her why she was sitting there all alone. Realizing that Pihu had temperature, she asked her about her parents’ phone number. They do not have a phone connection.

“Neighbour’s number?” She did not remember that, she said and started crying. The teacher is discussing the matter with another teacher at the door of the classroom.

Most likely she will have to wait till the end of the day and go back home in the school bus. Sitting on her desk, she dreams of her father coming to rescue her. And very soon, she sees the shape of a restless man emerge coming to the door where the two teachers were talking. He was walking to the door of her classroom and asking about his daughter. It really is her father! How did he come to know that she wanted him to come and pick her? This was magic! She instantly picks her bag and bottle and runs and hugs him. She was so happy to see him and cries “Papa, I want to go home.”

Her father and her teacher have a small polite conversation and then her father leaves with her.

***

 

Her father carries her bag and bottle. She instantly feels better after holding his hand. There is a little shop on the way, and he asks her if she wants anything. She keeps looking lovingly at the colourful jelly-sticks for some time. But she thinks for some time and asks for a pilot pen instead. To her surprise, her father buys it for her and asks her to use it with care. She nods happily, and father puts it in her bag. They walk to the parking lot where her father had parked his bicycle. She hops on the bicycle, and he walks the bicycle out of the school. Outside the school, her father buys her a lemon juice from a shop. She sits in the shade of a tree and sips it slowly. Her father sat by her side and waited for her to finish. The cold lemon juice was beginning to make her feel relieved.

“Pihu, did you not gift your wonderful poem to your friend? The one you wrote inside that beautiful card?”

Pihu sat silently. “It’s not good.”

“But I read it yesterday, and I really liked it. You wrote it from your heart.”

“But it is not something expensive,” she said scrapping the grass at her feet.

“A valuable thing may not always be expensive, Pihu. On the other hand, an expensive thing may be cheap if one didn’t put in thought and care in it.”

Pihu looked at him puzzled.

“Thoughts, love, care, and creativity are things that are extremely valuable—so valuable that they cannot be bought or sold. I feel you put in a lot of heart and soul in the card you made. You planned it for a week and then spent four hours making it. You penned a beautiful poem for your friend. It takes remarkable creativity to do that. It also shows how much you care for you friend. One can put in that much time and effort and creativity only if one truly cares.”

“Never feel ashamed of yourself, Pihu. The measure of a person is not just the things they have, but the beauty of the heart and mind they have. And we make our hearts and minds beautiful by our actions—like you did—by penning a beautiful poem and making a beautiful card.”

Just then, her classmates saw her from the boundary railing and came to wave her bye. Pihu took out the card and the flowers from her bag and gave them to Natasha from between the railings.

“For me?” Natasha screamed with happiness.

Pihu nodded. She was still feeling very shy.

“Flowers too? How lovely!”

Natasha smelled the flowers and then read aloud the poem from inside. Other friends clapped. Pihu broke into a big smile. Natasha drew her hands out from inside the grill. Pihu held her hands for sometime and they both laughed.

Pihu started the journey back home with her father. On their way home, the road is lined with trees on both sides. She feels the wind on her face and smiles. Her remaining belly ache also vanishes. She starts to enjoy the bicycle trip home and starts dangling her feet. She looks up. The trees are reaching high and arching over the road, making a dome. She looks at the sunlight filtering through the leaves. She points at trees and says, “Papa, look, orange marigolds on the tree!”

Her father looks up at the trees and laughs. “Those are not flowers. Those are Kadamb[4] fruits, Pihu.” 

She looks at the trees with orange fruits in wonder. She is reminded of the poem they are studying in class these days. “Papa, should I tell you the poem of the Kadamb trees?” Sitting at the cycle carrier, she starts reciting with aplomb: “Yeh kadamb ka ped agar ma hota Yamuna teere...[5]” Her father smiles and helps her whenever she forgets a word.

On their way back, they buy half a kg fresh lemon, some ice, a cotton candy for her baby sister, and a mogra[6] veni for her mother. They put the things in the bicycle basket at the front. Looking at all these things kept in the basket, she feels immensely happy, loved, and at peace in her heart.

As they continue to cycle home, they pass through a chemist shop on the road side. Father asks her to find out the spelling error in the word “Dawaiyan[7]” on the board outside the shop. She spots the error and says, “Badi E ki nahin, chotti E ki matra lagani chahiye na?[8]” He smiles and continues peddling the black bicycle. 

In the evening, she makes a small card and sticks it inside the basket of the bicycle. The card contained a short poem thanking “My dear friend, bicycle.”

**



[1] Jalebi: traditional Indian sweet
[2] Samosa: traditional Indian savoury snack
[3] Veni: string of white jasmine flowers traditionally worn in hair
[4] Kadamb: an Indian flowering tree
[5] Yeh kadamb ka ped agar ma hota Yamuna teere...: a Hindi poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan describing Lord Krishna’s childhood desires about playing flute sitting on the Kadamb tree
[6] Mogra: jasmine flowers
[7] Dawaiyan: medicines
[8] Badi E ki nahin, chotti E ki matra lagani chahiye na?: Pihu has correctly pointed out a spelling error in the Hindi word printed on the medical shop’s board  

***

Bio: Richa Manu is a publishing professional based in Delhi NCR. She likes to write, paint, read books and watch films. Recently, she has begun to enjoy reading fairy tales to children. This is her first short story in the press.
 

No comments :

Post a Comment

We welcome your comments related to the article and the topic being discussed. We expect the comments to be courteous, and respectful of the author and other commenters. Setu reserves the right to moderate, remove or reject comments that contain foul language, insult, hatred, personal information or indicate bad intention. The views expressed in comments reflect those of the commenter, not the official views of the Setu editorial board. प्रकाशित रचना से सम्बंधित शालीन सम्वाद का स्वागत है।