He was engrossed in tightening the bolt on the wheel-hub of a bicycle kept upside down. I had to go very close to him to draw his attention. He jerked his spanner a last time and spun the wheel to test if it had been fitted properly. His oil-smeared hand held and felt the rotating tyre, even as he lifted his head and looked at me through the spokes of the wheel. His eyes did the talking, “Yes, what can I do for you.”
“This bike has not been in use for two years; now, it feels heavy, and is very noisy. I want you to oil it and grease it; and adjust its chain, reset its gears and align its wheels. The brake shoes have become brittle, might need a change. And… just see if anything else is required. I want it to run smoothly.”
He tilted my MTB on its side stand so that the rear wheel was airborne. Mechanically, he pushed down the pedal, spun the wheel and checked the brakes and the gears. He also felt the sag in the chain. His inspection was complete when he lifted the ultra-light bike a few inches and dropped it, and let it bounce a few times on its tyres. “There’s practically nothing wrong with your bike. It just needs servicing. There may be a need to change some ball bearings.”
“How much time will you take?” I asked him. On my to-do-list was the purchase of a few items of grocery and some knick-knacks from Gupta General Store across the road in Indra Market. I was in no great hurry, yet I looked at the screen of my mobile phone and pretended to be short of time.
That apparently illiterate cycle mechanic sitting in Noida’s D-Block Market, must have held a Master’s Degree in Customer Psychology. Effortlessly, he demolished the non-existent urgency of my need, “Sir, I have a puncture to repair and some odd jobs on these two cycles. Your cycle is third in the queue. Servicing alone will take an hour. If, while at it, I discover some minor faults, rectification of the same may add to the time. He looked at the cracked screen of a vintage model of his Nokia phone and said, “Sir, it is ten now. Even if I leave all other work and take up your cycle on priority, it’ll be about 11:15 by the time I am done with it.”
“Please make sure you complete everything by 11:15. I have some commitment at 11:30,” I laid false emphasis.
The urgency part didn’t seem to bother him, “Sir, do you want me to use Chinese ball bearings. They’re cheap, but there is no guarantee whether they’d last even a month. The Indian ones are a bit costly but last at least three years of regular use. Also, do you want me to paint the tyres with this tyre paint? Not only does it make the tyres look as good as new, but it also softens the rubber and adds years to the life of the tyres.
“Use the Indian ball bearings and paint the tyres. How much will be the total cost?”
He made some silent calculations; his lips moved without uttering a word. Then he came out with the result of his calculations, “Sir, servicing costs rupees two hundred and thirty. The cost of the paint and the ball bearings would be about thirty to fifty rupees. All included, it’ll cost you less than three hundred rupees. Your cycle will fly.”
“Okay. Go ahead. I’m off to Indra Market. Do a good job and finish it in time.”
“Sir, this Chinese Covid has made life really very difficult. It is worse than being from hand to mouth. Could you kindly pay me a hundred rupees in advance to enable me to buy some tyre paint and ball bearings?”
I hesitated but, unmindful of my reluctance, he presented his open palm. Years of hard work had rendered his skin rough. It had developed deep cracks. The cracks and lines on his palm were filled with oil, grease and mud. It would have been impossible for the best of the palmists to discern which were the fate lines and which were the cracks.
When I paid him a hundred rupees, he requested me to save his mobile number, and call him and confirm readiness of the cycle before returning to him. His name was Ramkumar.
Just when I turned to leave, he hailed his little daughter who was teaching her sibling Hindi alphabet from a tattered book. She must have been barely nine years of age and her little brother, five.
“Laxmi, my child, come here! Let Munna read alone for some time. You sit here in my place. Don’t let any customer go away. I’ll be right back.”
My phone rang when I had bought my stuff and was about to leave Gupta General Store after settling the bill. It was Chhaya. “Shona, are you still in Indra Market. Please check with that embroidery wallah, if he has completed my work. The receipt number is L-7348 dated June, 27, 2021.”
“Gool, please wait a moment. Let me note down, else I’ll forget it.”
I borrowed a ball pen from Guptaji sitting across the billing counter and prepared to note down. Rather than asking for a piece of paper to jot down the number, I found it easier to fish out an economy pack of Dettol soaps, which I had just bought, and find some white space on it to note the receipt number.
“Okay Gool, go ahead. I am noting… L- 7-3-4-8… please repeat the date… okay, it is 27th June. I have noted the receipt number; will check at the embroidery shop. Anything else? Okay, then… love you… bye!”
Timing was perfect. It was 11:00 by the time I was through with my to-do list. On positive confirmation from Ramkumar, I walked towards his open-air shop. On reaching there, I took a test ride and found that the work had been done to my entire satisfaction. “How much do I pay you, Ramkumar?”
“Sir, two hundred and seventy-five rupees. Please ride it for a few days and let me know if you want me to adjust anything––the chain, the gears or the brakes.”
It was when I had paid Ramkumar and was about to leave that I saw his kids again; this time on, from close quarters. I realised that, Ramkumar and the kids were oblivious of the Covid Protocol, their clothes, hands and faces were dirty. They weren’t wearing masks and looked wretched. Swept by a gentle ripple of pity, I gave Ramkumar a fifty-rupee note to buy face masks for the three of them. Then, I called the kids and gave the economy pack of Dettol soaps to the girl. “Laxmi, you must wash your hands with soap and teach your little brother to do the same.” I thought that was the least I could do for them.
Two days later, I was back in Indra Market to pick up Chhaya’s embroidery work. Since I was there, I walked into Gupta General Store to buy some more soaps. It was a matter of chance that while Guptaji was preparing the cash memo, I looked at the pack of Dettol soaps I had picked up from the shelf. My surprise knew no bounds when I saw, scribbled on the pack, in my handwriting was the number “L-7348” and the date, “June, 27.” Guptaji was candid when I questioned him about the pack bearing the number scribbled by me. “Sir, Ramkumar, the cycle mechanic who sits across the road in D-Block Market, brought it to me the other day and begged me to exchange it for a kilogram and a half of broken rice.”