I first met Babu mesthiri, motorcycle mechanic and Bullet specialist, through my friend Sai. The only motorcycles around then were the Yezdi, the Rajdoot and the Bullet. There were some scooters and mopeds but motorcycles were few. Then the Japs came on Suzukis and Hondas, cycles which were modern and cheap, and liberated the masses, providing them a new, refreshing freedom of movement.
I learnt to ride on my cousin’s Lambretta Cento when I visited my father’s place during vacations. The Cento was gentle and tame and unreliable, but that didn’t matter. Later Sai got hold of a used Yezdi. One day we rode into Babu’s place. I had heard of him before. If you were Sai’s friend you heard about these men- Bullet Babu and Electronic Jyothi, and other members of the highway gang- Gym Mohanan, Oil Joseph and others.
Babu mesthiri was Bullet Babu because he repaired Bullets. He lived close to the airport, by the highway. You walked there from the road through half a kilometer of dirt and cattle-shit. Or you could ride a bike through some tough coastal streets which ended in a lane as wide as a man.
The house had a workshop behind it. Adjoining it was a gym made of Bullet parts. There were dumbbells and barbells made of Bullet engines, and bench-presses from Bullet seats. The ghosts of a hundred dead Bullets hung in the air.
Babu looked shorter than his medium height because of his width. He resembled Prithviraj Chauhan in the Amar Chitra Katha comic, dark, with a big mustache which curled upwards. He bulged multi-directionally with muscles. His forearms were as thick as a man’s thighs. But he had a benign smile, and he smiled often, though there were stories of knife fights and loan sharking, and always an air of violence beneath the facade.
Babu mesthiri specialized in Bullets. He built new chain cases and special hand rails for pillion riders, modifications much sought after. They were useful touches which didn’t change the bike’s “originality”. For Babuannan a bike’s “originality” was important.
Later when we were friends I asked him about the great Vadivelu of Coimbatore. Vadivelu, I now think he was one of Sai’s fictional creatures, sat at a desk in his huge workshop. He had numerous assistants, each attending a bike at a different station. Vadivelu would diagnose problems by listening to the sound of the engine, and prescribe treatment.
“Is this true, Babuanna?” I asked him once. “Is he better than you?”
He laughed and replied, “Me? I’m just an amateur, I don’t even have a proper workshop.”
He was being modest. I saw two new stripped down bikes in the workshop that first day. Bullets leaked. The engine leaked oil, so did the gearbox, the forks, the shock absorbers and everything else. People brought their brand new machines for Babu to take apart and refit. Bullet Babu made a Bullet as dry as a pathology lecture. His reputation spread.
We hung out at the old workshop inside West Fort. One wall of the workshop was the fort. This was Babuannan’s alma mater. He had learned his craft here with his friend Dathan from an old master. Dathan carried on after the master died with a team of assistants and a painter next door. This workshop was bigger than Babu’s specialist place. We sat there drinking quantities of tea from the nearby stall, talking motorcycles, watching the men work.
Sometimes we went to Babuannan’s workshop to spent the day with him, but usually would move on after a while to the nearby electronic shop where Jyothi pretended to work, surrounded by old televisions sets, always thinking about his next drink. Next to Jyothi’s were more sinister elements, Gym Mohanan and Oil Joseph and the rest of the highway gang.
Such days were usually eventful, like the time a policeman outside a bar demanded to see Jyothi’s driving license as Jyothi and the Gym were leaving it. The Gym hit the policeman on his nose and he fell down. Jyothi’s TVS-50 refused to start and they had to run wheeling it along. I took the Gym back home at night. The place teemed with policemen. His sister met us at the road. “Take the bastard somewhere else or they will kill him,” she screamed at me. We rode around town all night and I took him home again in the early dawn, when things had settled down.
Another night at a bar featured an arm-wrestling match followed by a fight when the Oil, the night’s champion, showed the waiter his biceps instead of paying the bill. I ran out with Sai and the Gym. The Oil appeared soon afterwards pursued by a few men, but not very hard because he had a knife in his hand.
The Oil was terribly strong. He once lifted a Yezdi with one arm and threw it down during a fight. But he used his strength unwisely and was cut down finally. I saw him last in a crowded orthopedic ward, both forearms broken, and muscles, tendons and nerves severed in all four limbs. “Those who live by the sword perish by the sword,” cliched Babu when he heard of this. Babu moralized a lot. He did not drink or smoke and disliked people like the Oil and the Gym. “You burn slow,” he would advise, “and you can burn long.”
A Bullet was beyond my reach. Yezdis were cheaper. It was satisfyingly loud if you removed its silencer flutes. It was fast, or so we thought, before the Jap hundreds came along, and the RD 350, and showed us what fast was.
I bought a new Yezdi and took Babuannan to check it out. The uniformed mechanics at the dealer stared at Babu, muscles straining out of his tight shirt and mundu. “Is this Bullet Babu?” asked one, and I nodded, yes. Babu listened to the engine for a while and said, “This will do, there is a noise in the third. It will not be a problem.”
The new bike had its first accident one night soon afterwards. Sai was riding it with Highway Shekhar behind when they fell into a ditch. The headlight shattered and the forks bent. Sai and Shekhar escaped unhurt except for a wound in Shekhar’s stomach where the hilt of a knife he carried cut the skin. I took the bike to Babu. I had no money but couldn’t take the bike home in that shape. I wanted it back by evening. He must have liked the challenge because he repaired it by evening and never asked me for money.
The Yezdi was primitive. It’s cables broke all the time and the brakes were nonexistent. But the bike kept rolling for seven years. The clutch cable broke most often although that was not a big problem- you could ride it without a clutch cable. Babuannan invented a way to reuse broken clutch cables, a reflection of my financial situation- a clutch inner cable cost just ten rupees.
The only sour note during that time came when our friend John bought a Bullet. It rode well for a couple of months but then broke down. We took it to Babuannan and he said he would have to take it apart. Its an engine problem, he said. How long and how much? asked John. John was too practical to be a Bullet man.
John’s bike was stripped down into a wooden box. Months passed and John became more and more bitter. He visited every week and stared at the box for hours. He began drinking heavily, and when he got drunk would lash out at us. “Does that idiot even know how to put it all back together?” he would ask. But he was always polite to Babuannan. Violence is not an option with someone who is five feet wide and has lots of muscles.
“It isn’t how long it stays in a box,” Sai explained one day over a drink, “or how much it leaks, or how often it breaks down- it is a Bullet. That is all that matters.” We never could convince John. He sold the bullet when Babu finally returned it after a year and bought a Hero Honda CD100. I told Sai that John was an idiot and Sai agreed. We didn’t have a bullet but we belonged to the tribe.
I got myself a used Bullet after leaving college. Babuannan said it would be good for five years. There would be the usual problems like oil leaks but these do not matter to us tribesmen.
The promised five years were a mixed bag, with a few good days and many not so good days. There were a few really bad days when the bike would break down in the middle of nowhere and I would have to push it for kilometers. But the good days were good. I remember a few early mornings on the stretch from Erumely to Kanjirapally- sun piercing through the trees with daggers of light, mountain mists rising from the valleys, the bike thumping smooth through empty roads.
Five years later, right on schedule, it broke down. It entered the dreaded box. I remembered the old Bullet owners who visited, enquiring after their bikes. I understood now how they felt. Babu was an amateur, I realized. He had always been an amateur and that had been alright for me earlier but now I had changed. The bike was not a toy now.
I went to his place every week. “Next week,” he would say, and I would stay for a while before leaving. This went on for an entire year. I decided I had to do something when he began avoiding me. “He has been gone since morning,” his son told me one day. I knew he was in the house somewhere because I had seen him in his workshop as I walked through the muck from the highway. The next day I hired an autorikshaw and loaded the box onto it. I took it to Dathan mesthiri who did the job in a couple of weeks.
Dathan looked after my vehicles from then on. He was as professional as Babu was amateurish. Deadlines were sacrosanct. Steadiness replaced flair. Dathan was Gavaskar to Babu’s Srikanth. I didn’t let the matter affect our friendship, however, and I remained in touch with Babu. But he was falling behind in his work. There were fewer clients now, Dattan told me, and he had no interest in the job. He was now into moneylending, said Dathan.
I saw Babu rarely now, a glimpse sometimes when he passed by on his beautifully maintained ancient Royal Enfield Bullet. Then unexpectedly he came to my house with a bandage around one knee. The kneecap had fractured in an accident, he said. That was when I learned he was a diabetic. His sugars were wildly uncontrolled. Babuannan looked older. He was still huge but sagged a little. He didn’t trust doctors and was into alternative medicine. I talked to him but could see he wasn’t interested. He was not looking for difficult control, he wanted a cure for his condition.
My own Bullet finally broke down in the middle of the road one day. It was time to get a new bike, one which I could actually ride to work. I called Babuannan and told him to sell it and got myself a new Japanese bike. I was busier now with the job and family. The bike ticked along and there was no need to visit the workshop. But one day I passed by the workshop and thought I would drop in.
“Babu is dead,” Dathan said. He had taken an ottamooli for his diabetes from some quack which had wrecked his kidneys. It all got worse from there. “He should have called me,” I said, “I would have helped with the treatment.” Dathan shrugged. Babu had plenty of money rolling around, loaned to no-one knew whom. He had left everything in a bad state. What disturbed me most was that he had started drinking towards the end. Someone had told him whiskey was good for diabetes. A useless, sordid death, I thought, for someone who wished to burn slow and long.
Babu died young. So did Jyothi, in an accident riding his moped when fully drunk. The Oil is also probably dead by now. The Gym made things too hot for him and disappeared suddenly from town. Perhaps he is dead too. People like the Oil and the Gym die young. So, apparently, did people like Babuannan. It was all senseless, random.
Shekhar is fine. He is a politician now and doing well. Dathan still runs the workshop. He has survived a heart attack and the death of his only son. His workshop is quieter now. The assistants have left, all except one. Business is dull because people prefer authorized workshops, but Dathan turns up for work on time everyday. Babu’s son works in an office, he said, when I met him recently. He has restored Babu’s old Royal Enfield. He spends a lot of money on it, he added disapprovingly.
They were different; one an amateur and the other a professional. Dathan would come to work on his worst days. Babu would not turn up even on the good ones.
In many ways Babu was like one of the Bullets he loved. Most modern motorcycles do their jobs well. One gets a vehicle and expects it not to breakdown in the middle of the road. But with the Bullet one is never sure. The newer ones are said to be more reliable. They break down less and leak less. They have become more professional.
Babuannan would not appreciate this change, this lack of “originality”. He would prefer the mess and the breakdowns and define it as the bike’s character, the same character he exhibited himself- flashes of brilliance illuminating a background of unreliability. If he had been more dependable he could have become much more than what he was. Babu mesthiri could perhaps have breathed life into Sai’s Vadivelu, that fictional Osler of the motorcycle. He might have lived longer too.