Ten-year-old Mansi looked at the gleaming network of spokes in her father’s bicycle. She imagined riding on it, passing her friend Billu’s father’s cycle repair shop into the fields at the end of her village, where farmers would be busy ploughing their land in tow of their black, hairy buffaloes. How happy she’d be!
“Bitiya, get me my satchel and ask your mother to serve breakfast quickly. I’m late,” said Biraj, the village postman and Mansi’s father.
Mansi quickly shook herself out of her reverie and went into the kitchen. “Ma, Baba has asked for his breakfast,” she said and went to fetch her father’s satchel. It was hung on a rickety nail, plugged into the pale cream walls that hadn’t been lime-washed in years.
With the satchel in one hand, she took the plate of chapattis and potato curry with the other. “Be careful, it’s hot!” said her mother Vibha.
10 years younger than her husband, Vibha had plans of graduating and doing a job. Her father’s untimely death warranted that she did neither and was left with running a household, nursing Amma (her sick mother-in-law) and getting harassed by relatives to think of birthing a son. To add to that, her six-year-old younger daughter Meenal was a menace. In this ruckus, Mansi was always the forgotten one. She was expected to look after her sister and help Vibha.
A dreamer, Mansi would try to keep the balance and often tip over, making her mother angry and get beaten up. Amma saw the pain in everyone’s eyes – Vibha’s resentment, Biraj’s helplessness in making ends meet and Meenal’s attention-seeking behaviour – but, she was particularly sensitive towards Mansi’s desires, gradually diminishing into acceptance of her reality.
After finishing his breakfast, Biraj called out to his wife, “Vibha, I’m leaving!”
Mansi gathered courage and asked her father, “Baba, can I ride your cycle when you get back home?”
“But you don’t even know how to!” giggled Biraj.
“I can pedal a little, Baba. I’ve tried it on Billu’s old cycle before,” she pursued the idea.
“Hmm, we’ll see,” said Biraj and went on his duty.
Mansi was thrilled. She went indoors, happily skirting the little pool of water that Meenal was pouring from the tumbler that Biraj left half-drunk.
The sun had set three hours ago. The post office had shut down even before that. But Biraj hadn’t arrived home yet.
“He never gets so late,” mumbled Vibha to herself as she lighted the oil-lamps.
“Maybe, he went to meet his friends,” said Amma and quickly regretted it.
Vibha’s forehead curled into a frown as she went inside murmuring to herself, “He must be meeting his drunken friends again!”
While her mother let her worries escalate into anger, Mansi stood at the main door of the house, disappointed. No bicycle ride today, she thought.
It was two hours short of midnight when someone knocked the door. Vibha opened the door, ready to take her husband to task. She stopped when she saw Biraj standing outside, his clothes covered in dirt and his face crestfallen, without his bicycle.
“What’s wrong? Where is your cycle?” she asked, looking left and right.
“I was robbed!” he said.
“What? How?” asked Vibha, alarmed.
“Billu’s father told me about this blood donation drive at the village hospital. Five hundred for half a litre of blood! I had to wait in a long line after work. It was already dark when I took the money. So, I decided to take the short cut home. A few local boys were drinking and gambling on the road. They robbed me of my cycle and money and beat me up when I tried to fight them. I had to walk home.”
“Did you report the police?” asked Vibha, feeling guilty already.
“Yes, I did. But I don’t think I’ll get anything back,” Biraj replied.
Just then, Amma called out, “Thank god you got home safe! Vibha, get him something to eat.”
Mansi stood next to a pole, thankful for her father’s return but also sad about losing the bicycle. She knew they couldn’t afford another immediately.
A month passed. Biraj took to teaching the girls for their exams after work, while Vibha had taken a part-time stitching job with the local tailor.
One afternoon, someone knocked at the door.
“Mansi, go open the door!” said Amma.
“It must be Ma,” said Mansi.
As she opened the door, a confused Biraj walked in with a man holding a new bicycle. “Whose is this?” he asked the man.
“I was asked to deliver it here,” the man replied.
“But I haven’t…” he said, when Amma interrupted, “I asked for it.”
“Amma?” asked Biraj, bewildered.
“I had told Billu’s father to get it for you,” Amma said.
“But Amma, how can you ask someone to buy something for us? This is really embarrassing,” said Biraj, almost fuming.
“He just chose one from the shop. I paid for it,” Amma said.
“But how?” asked Biraj.
“With your father’s pension money,” she replied.
“But that was for your medicines, Amma!” said Biraj, his tone, sharp with confusion and worry.
“Look, I will not live too long. These medicines can hold me just enough. So I thought, why not spend on something that is going to make things easier for you and Vibha,” she reasoned.
Biraj was speechless. Mansi hugged her grandmother while Biraj touched his mother’s feet. Listening to the conversation with moist eyes, Vibha kept her work-bag at the empty stool next to Amma and said, “I’ll do the aarti.”
Biraj went to inspect the brand new cycle, standing in his courtyard, Mansi following him. “It looks nice!” he said, as he rang the bell.
“But I have a condition!” said Amma to the inquisitive faces, continuing, “This cycle is not just for you. You have to let Mansi ride it too. “
“But Amma, she cannot even…,” Biraj tried to argue.
“How can you know, if you don’t let her try?” she said.
Biraj looked at the expectant eyes of his elder daughter and said to her, “What can I say? Amma’s gift, Amma’s conditions!”
Excited and thankful, Mansi promised her father, “I will take care of it.”
That afternoon, Mansi took her first ride. After an initial stumble, she quickly picked up the pedalling and rode away from their street.
“Arrey, she just went off like that!” said Biraj, worried.
“Let her go,” said Amma, pacifying her son with a reassuring smile.
Mansi rode along the village by-lanes, across a flock of startled chickens, passing the village square. Soon, she reached the big plum tree at the end of the village, overlooking the luscious green fields. She stopped her cycle and parked it on the tree trunk. She picked a few ripe plums from the ground, rested her back on the bicycle and bit into the softness of the plum. As the first tang of sourness touched her tongue, an inadvertent smile broke into her face. She’d have to get some salt next time, she thought to herself, as the tree leaves swayed in the afternoon, blowing a warm breeze on her face.
(First published as a winning entry of Women’s Web — http://www.womensweb.in/2017/01/the-bicycle-shortstory/)