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Long before he became Bullet Bose, a racer with near-legend status in the Indian biking community, Subhash Chandra Bose was a 10-year-old watching men whiz past on imported bikes along Marina Beach, Chennai. He would run after them, asking for a ride. It was his father who let him have a go, though only on the family scooter. His legs weren't even long enough to reach the ground. But he held on to the memory of the wind in his face and the thrill of doing something new—till he could set off on his own road trip.
Today, at 63, Bose is one of the oldest professional racers in India. He has the unique distinction of having participated in every major motorcycle race in the country, including tracks, rallies and drag racing. "When I ride a bike, I feel alive. It makes me feel younger. Even at this age, it gives me confidence because I know the amount of skill and fitness it takes," he says. The sight of him vrooming away on his Royal Enfield Bullet is so familiar that, over the years, he has come to be known as Bullet Bose.
Despite having retired from active racing in 2007, he rides across the country, travelling on arduous routes such as his 2010 trip to the Indo-China border in Arunachal Pradesh and another trip to the Khardung La pass in Ladakh, the highest motorable road in the world. "People don't understand why someone would give up the comfort of a car, with air-conditioning and shelter from the sun. But a biker wants to be one with the environment and feel every aspect of it," he says.
Dressed in a white kurta with flowing white hair and a beard, and a ready smile, Bose stood out like a gentle Dumbledore amid a crowd of leather-and-metal-studded bikers at the India Bike Week held earlier this month on Vagator beach in north Goa. The first independent national bike festival, sponsored neither by Harley nor Enfield, nor other brands, it saw around 1,500 visitors, and was a mix of the bizarre and the touristy. People stared at the gleaming bikes lined up outside the venue, as eager as birdwatchers on a sunny morning: "Look, there's a Kawasaki," or "That's the new Harley." At the bikini bike wash corner, bikers waited in queue to have their motorcycles washed by white girls in bikinis, while other visitors gazed at biking gear and rifled through T-shirts at the flea market. From speed devils to proud Harley owners, the professional stunt-rider and the law consultant who likes to bike on weekends — the many faces of India's biking culture were on the beach.
Twenty-four-year-old Urvashi Patole from Pune is an example of a growing diversity in the circuit. She started at the age of 14, trying stunts on an Activa. After spending months mastering the use of a two-wheeler, and breaking a few bones along the way, she began to go on long rides and stunting professionally. She was soon adept at wheelies (when you lift the front wheel of the bike and ride on the back wheel), doughnuts (spin in circles) and Christ (biking with hands held out). The idea of a female professional biker was unheard of 10 years ago. "I would go off alone on these rides, tie my hair and keep it hidden under the helmet. I would not take it off even when I got off the bike," she says. Now, though, Patole is the co-founder of an all-woman motorcycling club called The Bikernis. Two years old, the club has over 200 members.
While biking is famously about male bonding, a fledgling sisterhood is also ready to take off. Labdhi Shah is a 27-year-old corporate law consultant, who is focused on case studies and clients through the week. Over the weekend, her Harley offers the opportunity for a transformation. "I am two very different people at work and on my bike. At work, people can't believe that I ride bikes," she says. "Some men say that my place is in the kitchen. Even men within the biking community don't understand. Some think women have no right to ride, and others think we can't handle it. So many people have asked me, 'How can a girl manage a 300 kg bike?'," she says. She shrugs off such prejudice: "This is my way of proving I can do anything a man can." But, as Patole points out, some prejudices are deep-rooted — and was on prurient display at the India Bike Week. "Women bikers are fighting to prove themselves as individuals. The bikini bike wash did the exact opposite by objectifying women," she says.
In his 45-year-long career, Bullet Bose says he has seen immense changes in the public perception of motorcycling. Though they still get looked upon as tough and tattooed wayfarers with no strings attached, more youngsters are willing to join them on their journeys. "Most people assume that bikers always wander without their families. But my family goes everywhere with me," says Kunal Bhaskaran, a 33-year-old professional biker from Pune. It's a way of life and a passion that connects him to his childhood sweetheart and wife of 12 years. The couple biked to Goa for their honeymoon all those years ago, and have done road trips all the way up to Leh and Ladakh. "I'm so used to her weight behind me, on the bike, that I feel much safer when she's with me. I'm attuned to a particular way of riding or turning around curves when I'm with her," he says.
Bhaskaran believes that the biking culture picked up in the country in the last decade through the influence of television shows, films and biking events. Biking clubs such as city-specific Harley Davidson and Royal Enfield clubs, or more inclusive clubs such as XBHP and The Bikernis organise weekly and monthly rides. Over the years, track racing and rally races such as the Raid de Himalaya, a gruelling seven-day race across mountain terrain, from Shimla to Srinagar, have helped bikers and introduced new enthusiasts to the community.
The freedom that a lone figure riding into the horizon evokes sums up the appeal of biking. For Hubli-based Ajay Handa, riding his Harley Davidson is a way of letting off steam. As an entrepreneur in the hospitality industry, his workdays are challenging and stressful. Once a week, though, he sheds his corporate suit for his biking gear — leather jacket, jeans, sunglasses and bandana — and takes off on a long ride. "When you're riding, there is only one goal — to let go. Restrictions at work or at home don't matter. When I'm on my bike, I feel like Superman," he says, raising his sleeve to reveal a Superman tattoo.
"There is no doubt that bikers come from a completely different blood group. But contrary to what people think, it's not about tattoos and piercings," says 43-year-old Deepa Malik. For her, it has been about the spirit of survival. Malik has been paralysed from the waist down for 14 years due to recurring spinal cord tumours. She was an avid biker before she fell ill, and after the tumours immobilised her, everyone wrote off her biking career.
But her determination lifted her out of the initial depression and she began to look for ways to get back on a bike. In 2007, her dream to ride again came true, through the intensive exercise that rebuilt her upper body strength and after her friends in the biking community built her a customised all-terrain vehicle. Her story has given hope to so many that she has been honoured with several awards and is now also a part of the TV series, Roadies. "Bikers are eccentric people; they give up the comfort of regular travel and choose to tough it out. They endure cold winds, the hot sun, backaches and have to compromise on the amount of luggage they can carry. A biker does not carry baggage of any kind, neither physical nor emotional," she says.
You can tell a biker from the machine he rides. Even within the community, says 28-year-old rally racer Ashish Moudghil, there are different classes of bikers. Best known as the first biker to claim hat-trick wins at the prestigious Raid de Himalaya rally, Moudghil belongs to the racer category. "A rally racer faces unexpected challenges on the route, which can be a fallen log on the road, or a rough dirt track. We try to make the best of everything," he says. He recalls an evening during the Raid de Himalaya rally, when he and his brother had nothing to eat but bread. "My brother had one screwdriver and he used that to spread jam," says Moudghil.
In complete contrast are the hard hogs, so named because of the association, Harley Owners Group. According to Moudghil, they are most often the bikers who best fit the typical biker image, with tattoos, metal accessories, leather biking gear and bandanas. "For them, biking is leisure. They ride slowly and their bikes are always clean. For a racer like me, if the bike is clean, it just means it hasn't been used enough," he says. According to Patole, who first began as a stunter but has moved to off-roading, stunt groups have their own dynamics. "They are generally wilder and have less discipline. They are extremely competitive amongst themselves because there are so few paying jobs for them," she says.
Though bikers may not agree on which motorcycles are best or what riding style is better, they agree that their experiences have enriched their lives. "In my opinion, there are only two kinds of people — people who ride bikes, and people who wish that they did," says Handa. Malik believes that the experience of riding is what sets them apart. "Anyone who has never tried biking is definitely missing out on the fun, missing out on life even," she says.