“Why a cycle dear, why not a Mercedes?”
“Because I am too young to have a driver’s license.” Rajani said innocently. “I want a cycle like Shikha. Please Mamma.”
“Nothing doing Rani. No chance. Haven’t I explained to you that we don’t have money for useless and unnecessary things.”
“It’s not useless Mamma. I can learn how to cycle.”
“And what good will that do? Will you be able to go anywhere on that cycle? Like the market? Your father would never allow it. Suppose you had an accident? No no.” Nisha was categorical in her refusal.
But Rajani wasn’t going to give up so easily.
“But Mamma, that Aunty with the red hair comes to the market on a cycle doesn’t she? I could also go to the market?” seeing her mother’s darkening expression she added hastily, “when I am older.”
“That’s because her husband allows her. When you are married, if your husband gives you permission, you can cycle to the market, I will make no objections.”
“But Mamma, I could still have an accident.”
“Oho Rajani, how you eat my head. Didn’t I say no? Go and pester you father.”
“Ok I will ask Papa.”
“Rani!” Nisha hurriedly called her back. “Don’t bother your father. Not unless you want a scolding. Didn’t I explain to you we don’t have money for frivolous expenses? It is high time you understood you can’t have everything that Shikha gets. Now drop the topic will you? And don’t bother Shikha. It’s her cycle, let her play with it.” Nisha’s tone brooked no argument.
Desolate Rajani wandered off. She stood by the gate watching as Shikha wobbled her way through the grassy lawn separating their houses. Oh I am sure I could do better than that – if only I could get my hands on it just once.
“Shikha,” she called out softly afraid that her mother would hear, “can I try?”
Tongue sticking out Shikha was busy concentrating on maintaining balance. She didn’t reply.
Rajani gave a cautious backward glance and quietly unlatched the gate and crossed the Lakshman rekha. She edged closer to Shikha “Shikha, can I ride it once just once?”
“Oh oh ouch.” Shikha toppled over. “Uff. What did you do that for?” Shikha was annoyed. “You made me fall.” She got up and dusted herself.
“I didn’t touch you.” Rajani defended herself. “I just asked if you would let me ride it.”
Shikha put a foot on the pedal and rolled the bike. “Maybe in a little while.” She swung herself up with a smoothness that sparked envy in Rajani’s breast, oh that was smooth she couldn’t wait to try it.
She slowly walked back to her watch post by the gate and waited patiently.
For about 5 minutes.
“Shikha.” Rajani called again.
“In a little while.” Shikha’s voice was breathless. “Oh this is so much fun Rajji. I wish you could also…” her voice faded as she cycled away to the furthest end of their enclosure. “When I learn it well, you can sit behind. It will be so much fun. Aren’t I looking grand?”
Rajani climbed her gate and swung on it.
“Shikha.” It was Kirti. “Come on in. Enough of playing.”
“Coming Mummy. Bas last round.” She swept across at top speed.
“Shikha.” Rajani called once again.
“Later Rajji, later, I have to go now. Mummy is calling. Bye.”
“I could ride while you…” but she was talking to thin air.
Dejected, Rajani walked back in. “Mamma.”
“Not again Rani.” Nisha said in a warning tone.
“No I was just wondering where’s Bhai’s cycle? He had one didn’t he?”
“That’s in the garage. I don’t know what state it is in.” Nisha fussed. “Besides it’s too big for you. And a boy’s bike.”
“Never mind Mamma. I will manage. I have seen how the others do it under the bar. I just want to learn how to do it. Please Mamma.”
“Okay. Let me see what I can do.” Nisha agreed reluctantly.
“But mind you, it may take some time. You may have Diwali vacations, I don’t. In fact I have more work than usual. So just have some patience will you? Don’t eat my head, otherwise I am warning you I wont…”
“Promise Mamma, I wont bother you.” Rajani assured her mother. “Can I do something to help you?”
“No you go and study. Don’t waste your time. Time is precious. Go on, exams will soon be here.”
Rajani spent an agonizing next few days alternating between staring longingly at Shikha and casting silent but pleading yet reproachful looks at her mother. Shikha did allow Rajani to use her bike but then she fell down a couple of times and the paint peeled off from one corner and the handle was also a bit twisted – Shikha naturally flew off the handle. “Look what you did!”
Rajani screwed up her face as she hobbled to her feet, “Ouch. Lemme see. Oh that is nothing, we can easily straighten it.” She proceeded to hold the wheel between her legs and with a little bit of help from Shikha managed to achieve wheel alignment.
“Hmm,” Shikha said grudgingly, “seems to be ok now. How did you know how to do that?”
“I saw Bhai do it once with his bike,” she said airily.
“But I think you should wait for his bike to be taken out from the garage Rajji, you learn on that bike then you can ride mine. See the paint has chipped off here.” Shikha pointed.
Rajani was offended. “I didn’t you that. You did it. You fall down more often than I do.” She accused her hotly.
Shikha put her nose in the air. “Well I can do what I like. It’s my bike.” She wheeled it away.
What could Rajani do but go inside and stand at the kitchen door with that reproachful expectant look on her face. Nisha sighed and gave up. She arranged for the maid to take out the bike from the garage and Rajani was thrilled. “Thank you Mamma. It’s so dirty. But don’t worry. I will clean it up.” She declared grandly. “Can I have a piece of rag?”
Dreaming lofty dreams of flying the streets of Chandigarh with her lustrous locks streaming behind, Rajani assiduously scrubbed the bike until it looked new – well almost. She gazed at his happily – if only Bhai were home, he would show her the ropes and then she would show that Shikha ki bachchi…
“Oh Bhai,” she fell on him the moment he arrived, “there you are! Why are you so late? I have been waiting and waiting. Look!” Eyes shining, excitement pouring from every pore, she waved to the gleaming bike as it rested against the wall.
“It has a tyre puncture.” Abhi burst into laughter at her punctured face. He walked inside whistling.
Thereon began another round of arguments, counter-arguments, pleadings etc. Finally Nisha got the puncture repaired taking the help of the neighborhood dhobi.
“Bhai, Bhai, now it’s all ok na?” Rajani asked with trepidation.
“Hmm let me see.” Abhi put his foot on the pedal, one push and he was off – Rajani was green with envy, that was what she wanted, such grace, such fluidity, such speed, oh would she ever be able to do it? “Bhai, Bhai, come back come back,” she yelled. “Show me how to do it.”
“In a bit.” He yelled back. His voice faded and he disappeared from view. Rajani was almost in tears.
“Mamma, look at Bhai, he vanished with the bike,” she returned to plead her case but Nisha had had enough.
“Bas Rani bas. Stop it. Let him ride a bit. Bechara has to study so much. Besides it is his bike. Have some patience. Where will he go? He will be back soon.”
“Rajani, one more complain and that cycle is going back into the garage.” Nisha glared at Rajani.
Suitably chastised, a dejected and downcast Rajani wandered back outside. She hung around the gate. She didn’t feel like swinging on it. She was too old for that. Besides, she had bigger dreams now. She averted her eyes from Shikha who was busy cycling expertly and confidently around the lawn – only she didn’t know how to ride a bike.
She perked up – there was Bhai.
“Show me Bhai, show me!” She jumped up and down in excitement.
“I don’t have time…” he caught sight of her crumpling face and yielded, “achcha achcha come let’s see if you can ride the bike. Here, hold it like this.”
And that’s when the futility of the entire exercise became clear. The bike was too big and heavy for her. After a few failed attempts to hold the bike, Rajani burst into tears. “Hey, hey don’t cry. See you practice how to hold the bike for a few days. Tone up your puny muscles, and then I am sure you will be able to hold it ok? It’s not easy you know riding a bike? You have to be strong, not fatty.” Abhi jumped out of her reach.
Not one to give up so easily, Rajani took Abhi’s advice to heart. She stood near the bike and tried to hold it on her own. The wall on the other side proved a convenient support whenever her arms tired which was often.
Suryakant came back to find his daughter too busy practicing to open the gate for him.
“What are you doing with the bike Rani?”
“Oh sorry Papa.” Her face was red with exertion. “I am trying to hold the bike.” She stumbled and let it rest against the wall. She rubbed her arms. “Now I can do it till the count of 10.” She said proudly. “Earlier I couldn’t even do it till 3.”
“But why are you doing this?”
“I want to learn how to ride the bike na. But this is too heavy for me. So Bhai said if I practiced everyday till I could hold it to a count of 100, he would teach me how to ride it.”
“How can you ride it? The cycle is bigger than you.”
“No it isn’t.” Rajani denied stoutly. “Besides, I have seen the dhobi’s son ride his father’s bike. He is just as tall as me. He does the ‘scissored’ way – you know leg under the bar,” she demonstrated.
Suryakant looked skeptically at her. Rajani vigorously nodded her head, “I can do it Papa. Don’t worry.”
Suryakant shook his head. “Easier said than done beta. This is an adult bike. It doesn’t have any trainer wheels either. Who will hold your bike while you learn to balance yourself?”
Rajani drew herself up. “If Bhai can learn how to ride on this bike, so can I. He promised to teach me.”
“Abhi is a boy beta. He is stronger, taller, bigger. Besides, these skills are useful only for boys. What will you do learning how to ride a cycle?” He waved his hand. “No, no, it’s a waste of time teaching you and quite impossible for you. Besides, Abhi doesn’t have so much time. He has a lot to study. Better drop the idea beta.” He kindly patted her head and went inside.
Rajani stared after him devastated. She had so much to say to him and he just walked away. So what if she was a girl – Shikha was also a girl. Who held the bike for Bhai? If there were no trainer wheels, somebody must have held the bike. And wasn’t it a waste teaching him to ride a bike? He wasn’t using the bike now was he?
But he was her beloved Papa. She couldn’t say all that to him could she? Besides she was a bit scared of him too. What if he got angry? What if he stopped loving her?
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