Last evening while reading a book on social theory, I drifted away when a chapter in it opened with a mention of the maverick sociologist C. Wright Mills (dude wrote the legendary essay on Sociological Imagination). What made me remember him is not his ideas or contribution to social theory but the fact that he used to ride a motorcycle. The man on his BMW motorcycle was ‘the Leftist seer on motorcycle‘ and unapologetic for his controversial ideas. I think his roadie and rider spirit has something to do with the way his professional life was!
Drifting further, I was reminded of the homegrown rider who chooses to attend the 1950 International Ornithological Congress at Uppsala in Sweden on bike. Salim Ali ships his Sunbeam motorcycle (which I suspect was the legendary 500cc S7 model) to Europe and then bikes around the continent to reach just in time for the conference at Uppsala. I wrote about his memoir The Fall of a Sparrow in an earlier post.
Motorcycle and riders, get my attention immediately! Through these years as a rider now, I do find that there is a characteristic attitude or say a certain outlook to life and situations that is unique to riders. This is impressionistic at best, but essentially experiential.
Back in my extended family, I notice that uncles and fathers who rode bikes stand apart in their ways from those who didn’t. Their children, likewise. In 1980s, an uncle used to ride the popular 150cc Lambretta scooter from Nagpur to Pune which meant 800 km of average double carriageway highway. Later, with proven high mileage of Bajaj’s 100cc Boxer motorcycle, he’d do the same only this time in style with an FM radio installed by the headlight assembly for uninterrupted All India Radio broadcast all along his highway ride. His spirit remains the same. Let him know that you are riding or driving long and he should join, he’d be by the side of the vehicle in 15 minutes with his backpack. THAT spirit! The new age bikers of the pretentious biking clubs that I know of wouldn’t even venture out to the other corner of the city on a 15 minutes decision.
My father in his early days rode a 175 cc Rajdoot motorcycle and which was my first exposure to bikes and the unique exposed feel that it came with. Adding to this were the Royal Enfield riding Dispatch Riders (DRs) in Indian army whom I would spot scores of times all through the day. That was another inspiring form – olive green 350cc bikes with metal case panniers and men in olive green uniforms or camouflage fatigues riding around cantonments and the thump of the bikes echoing through the treeline.
A car came years later and by that time I had come too far along to appreciate the closed, bubbled confines of a car. I preferred to lean-in into the curves than lean away from them as in a car. The sense of being exposed and being out-there became an non-negotiable condition to travel and touring. There was this pleasure in being exposed and giving yourself up to the whims of nature. You’d get baked by the blazing tropical Indian sun or battered by wind or soaked to the balls by the same tropical Indian monsoon for hundreds of kilometers. The thrill is beyond what a hundred years in an automobile can offer.
I have been curious about motorcycles, riders and their place in public imagination. There certainly existed, I thought, more categories beyond the ‘outlaw motorcycle riders’ that have somewhat unjustifiably occupied people’s perception. That is when I did a quick search on JSTOR for published articles. A search for “motorcycle” yielded 400 results! With this post I begin pouring over these articles and will keep posting interesting stuff that I find. This is almost like hitting on a treasure for a motorcycle enthusiast. There are stories on motorcycle to anthropologist writing on motorcycle to women on motorcycle.
An interesting piece I found is – Death & the Motorcycle by Becky Ohlsen (gated link) who races vintage motorcycles. The piece is a reflection on her riding experiences and musing over death, which she ends with Stoic philosopher Seneca’s words.
Nobody rides a motorcycle in spite of the danger; they ride because of the danger. They ride directly into the danger. They may indeed be mad, but it’s a madness rooted in a peculiar rationality.
What is also amusing to read is the opening, which clearly is motorcycle in its European context, because in Asia motorcycles are pretty much used for the said purposes and much more –
Motorcycle is not, in other words, the most practical way to fetch a loaf of bread and a carton of milk. Motorcycles are loud, obnoxious, aggressive by nature. They cannot be ridden tentatively. They are not comfortable or convenient. They make easy things difficult.
Difficulty, obnoxiousness, aggression – as any nice girl can tell you, these things are seductive.
However, a stunningly romantic and endearing piece on motorcycle appeared in the Transatlantic Review in 1968 – Motorcycle Appassionata by Jeffrey Jones (gated link). This is nothing less than what can be dubbed as an ode to the motorcycle and the rider. This article was meant to be a song, and I can’t help quoting the opening paragraphs from it –
highway highway highway.
Downward down a sweep, upward coming out of the valley, rising a hill, over, away, around the bend, leaning, out and straight, away again.
He kicks down a gear for another corner, springs the clutch as he leans into it. The motor drags and slows, popping. Whips the accelerator around, shooting up and twisting his heard, listens down like a piano tuner for the right pitch. Hums with it and taps up with boot toe into third. The bike settles on its back shocks and jumps. Tone moans and whirs quickly, higher, washing away on the soft California night.
Road lays out ahead and behind in long coaxing curves and floating stretched grades. Twin lamps, chest high on the lifted vampire bars, lick out in front over new black road. Moon light powders blue and lush summer country around. Subaqua, pine tips sway languid as a current brushes across.
Presto is the rider. More lyrical prose follows until Presto rides into a town and enters a bar. Then this –
He turns his back to them so they can easily read DRIFTERS-S.F. stitched on his jacket back over a large white iron cross. He trades the old lady a quarter for his glass of beer and watches one of the girls walk to the juke box. She stands in front of it with a hip thrust out to the side and sweeps her long red hair back over her shoulder. Reading the selection she lifts a foot and rubs the toes over the back of her other leg. the old lady shouts to her.
“Here’s them hamburgers.”
Girl turns and comes to the bar next to Presto. He reads the look of curiosity around her eyes. When she picks up the plastic baskets with the burgersin them he looks down the top of her summer dress and notices a love bite above her breast. When she turns, he’s smiling and she sniffs before speaking.
“You’re one of those Angels aren’t ya?”
“Same sorta thing ennit?”
“you from L.A.?”
This for me speaks of how the motorcycles and bikers found expression in literature of the times. Many of these seem to end on a tragic note with ruined lives, dead bikers etc. However, they are all uniformly high on the spirit of the road, biker attitudes, details on motorcycle and the precarious lives that the riders lived.
As I write this and try to find a finish to this trip into literature on motorcycles, I am reminded of Lawrence of Arabia or T E Lawrence, another of my favorite biker from yore. He rode a 1100cc Brough Superior motorcycle. He died riding this British motorcycle in a crash. The 1937 speed record was made on this motorcycle. Not just this, every motorcycle came with a certificate guaranteeing that it could hit a ton (100 mph) within a quarter mile!