The following is an article authored by the Services Marketing Prof S Ram Kumar and has been reproduced with his kind permission. It is quite long and therefore brace yourselves for the ride of your lives –
NIRVANA ON THE PONY TRAIL
S RAM KUMAR – AUTO INDIA (AUGUST 1997)
I slide steel into his belly and nudge him to a drowsy rumble. Astride one score ponies and eight, I point him to the long black ribbon that takes us out to the sea, a long way off. Sleepily, almost grudgingly, his staccato beat picks up my spirit – synchronicity. His Cyclops eye splits the night apart – left and right, like Yin and Yang. With a flick of my wrist, I can let them meet, but not yet. I twist his ears and caress his mane, his hooves, dig in harder. A 162 KG machine, 20 Kgs of gas and oils, two riders at 130 Kg, 100 Kg of fishing and camping gear – almost half a ton whispering imperturbably down the NH8 in the eerie silence of an early winter morning – some kind of motorcycling!
Duck you terrible 100cc toddlers, the granddaddy of all them Indian motorcycles is here. But let’s face the truth – the Royal Enfield 350cc “light roadster” as a 1960 Army Manual terms it, is a granddaddy, no contest. In terms of figures – those numbers the techies love, the Bullet is a part of history – somewhere between the Golden Age of the Guptas and the time I forgot when, when the someone the terrible son of what’s his name the invincible else ransacked “Cawnpore” and stole the Royal Cushion of the Pasha, Emir of all he surveyed, leaving him with a terrible ache in the bottom which persisted until his kingdom was declared non-polluting and given great subsidies in fertilizers.
No contest. In terms of anything to do with performance – measurable in numbers, the Bullet would lose miserably against any other brand of motorcycle, scooter and moped, the Luna TFR’s headlight has more lumens/watt than the Big B’s. In acceleration, top speed, braking distance, no – no contest from any gear/any speed, the Bullet stands a good chance of being beaten hollow.
And the Bullet is a marvel of engineering design. Engineering Colleges which charge capitation fees could do away with the idea of building a mechanical engineering laboratory – and buy a single Bullet 350cc instead. Every mechanical device/linkage known to man since Hannibal crossed the Alps is represented. A bewildering array of gears, carps, shafts, rockers, swing arms, chains, pads, bolts/nuts, washers, spindles, bearings, drives, springs, tensioners, seals and rings assails the senses. The frame and its supports are veritably an Eiffel Tower. And every material except carbon-graphite and buffalo horn is used somewhere or the other. The electricals resemble the sadhu with the matted eight feet locks from Jaipur in the Guiness Book. Wires of every description, length, color with connectors to match. Twenty types of greases and oils, 22 seals, 5 cables, two chains, 9 switch positions and two utility boxes on the side spacious enough to store small change and impress your mom – make up the Bullet. Almost all parts are linked – you fill up air, it affects ignition. You lower the handlebars, it dims your rear lights. Don’t believe it? Ask any Bullet owner. It is a continuous miracle that a Bullet rolls at all. Neil Armstrong was asked what were his thoughts on the moon landing flight when the Apollo 11 blasted off. He said, “This rocket assembly contains 500,000 parts and each has been supplied by the lowest bidder.” One gets much the same feeling before one slides keys into his belly and heads off on the NH8. Will it, won’t it.
As you pick it up from the showroom the 350 is a pathetic sight with a sheet of metal to which is attached a micron or so of metal – this is called the seat. The handlebar grips are spiked rubber. The battery’s white gleams like the sore produced by “the mysterious disease” that has struck fish in the 24 Paraganas district in West Bengal leading to immediate pouring in of assistance from International and National agencies. As an element of sexuality, a black G-string like contraption holds the battery in place. Enfield logos on the side of the gas tank are of tin and look like they are made from discarded Ponds Dreamflower Talc containers. Two soft drink bottle caps hold the utility boxes closed. On a vehicle built like a Vijayanta tank, a plastic fuel cock is the Enfield equivalent of Readers’ Digest’s “Lighter side of life”. Pulling it off its centre stand is a perplexing experience with one hand on the handlebars and the other wondering what to hold. There is no battery cutout, dangerous – remember it won’t start without a battery assist and more than two kicks ensures a type of hernia that’s almost hereditary. After YOU install corrective measures like grips, rear view mirror, battery cover, seat padding, side handle, kill switch, the bike is ready to go. The next shock is when you sit astride the machine. The brakes and gear are on sides opposite of what is expected. But one gets used to it, like shaving in front of the mirror.
Why a machine that costs Rs 40,000 + cannot have these little extras costing a couple of hundred rupees is something that has consistently escaped my most labored efforts to understand, to cope. It seems a complete mystery. Why do the Armed Forces, the Forest Departments, the BSF, the Police and legions of other buyers swear by the Bullet when the manufacturer doesn’t even bother to install absolute basic equipment like Mirrors. The amount of mechanical uncertainty, the level of maintenance, the initial cost and a manufacturer whose hobby is sadism makes one wonder what prompts the choice of a Bullet.
But I can answer. As one who’s dreamt of owning one since the day I gave up on my feeding bottle, I can tell you. Owning a Bullet is not owning a bike – it is participating in a kind of mystic religion. It has to do with moh-maya, nirvana and all manner of cosmic experiences. Will the techies pay attention. The Bullet is not meant to perform, to set the roads on fire. A 60mm carb feeding a 35cc bore X 70 stroke makes it clear. The Big B is not a speed fiend – was never meant to be one. Just as plastics are criticized for being non-biodegradable, funny considering that their greatest strength is resistance to the elements. The mistake is in using them for packaging rather than storage. The Bullet is not a cat – quick screamer machine. It is a stately, super stable long distance cruiser. Anyway, under Indian highway conditions anyone driving a bike at over 70 Kmph ought to have their head examine or better, replaced. So who needs lightning disc brakes? The Bullet is not high on modern conveniences like electronic ignition, fool proof electrics or even electric starters – even the RTO compulsory blinkers look a little out of place. The Bullet is like loving a woman, one doesn’t measure, one senses. If a 0-60 Kmph in 7 sec is better than an 11 sec bike – techie, you have a tough love life ahead. It’s like saying Apsara at 38-24-36 is better than Swapnika at 36-24-36 and besides has more lustrous hair. One doesn’t love that way, the chemistry is more complex.
The Bullet is not about statistics or performance. It is about old world qualities – those in such short supply today. Qualities like dependability, stoicism, grace under pressure and companionship. On the hill roads of Kerala, the Bullet’s grace is poetic – like Ninjisky he takes the twisty mountain roads, a ballet dancer doing his routine. Weight is a great companion of luxury. At a 162 Kg plus rider, the suspension is too stiff – forget the 5 way rear suspension that only changes preload. But with another rider and luggage, the ride is luxury car soft. And on the wind swept vistas of Saurashtra while the terrible tiddlers are picking themselves from ditches, trying to get on to the road, the Bullet whispers by, arrow straight. The enormous wheels and their inertia ensure that every scheming pothole and arrogant bump will be summarily smoothed out without the rider even being questioned. And as the others scream “Roll on or roll over”, and whiz by, one makes a fundamental discovery. The other bikes get you there faster. On a Bullet, the ride itself is a part of being there. The soft slap of the chain sets up a taal-mel with the characteristic 4 stroke beat and a while later you discover that you have traveled a long way indeed. After a 400 Km ride when others are walking around like they wore poison ivy underwear, the Bullet rider saunters away impatient to get rolling again.
The Bullet is a handsome vehicle – wide chested and narrow waisted. You should look at it from a height to appreciate it. From the ground, it looks massive. A friend of mine researching in the Gir National Park was advised against a Bullet by his wild life colleagues. With its characteristic silhouette and clutch/front brake positions, they pointed out, it would look like a bull and increase the chances of attack by lions!!! Homage indeed!!!
There is no such thing as a great bike with a bad engine. A bike may look a little ugly, steer with a mind of its own, have bad electrics or bad suspension. But if its engine performs, all is forgiven. In the Bullet, the engine dominates the machine. Eye-catching and arresting, the enormous engine and crankcase look powerful even when the machine is standing still. And while it produces just 18 Bhp, they are produced with will, grit, determination and dependability. Tractor pulling first gear ration, a decent second, a reasonable third and a decent fourth push the Bullet far past 100 Kmph if required. Given enough highway, the cool running Bullet could take you from one end of the country to another – effortlessly. And if stirred enough by a spirited rider, acceleration can be quite hard. But your average Bullet rider is not a hot head who wants to whiz by – that can be done on these disposable 100cc machines. The Bullet is a bike to be seen on, and so one chugs by at a pace almost in synchrony with heartbeats. The range of settings, tappets, points, plug gaps and else can make you climb the walls, but if you persist – silk smooth rides are all yours – with the priceless Bullet beat that is almost erotic.
The Bullet also has the human angle. With other bikes you buy, roll out of the showroom and zoom off into the distant mountains, to brood by yourself, breaking the speed of sound, and probably your neck, at least once every intersection. The Bullet is a people angle motorcycle. No man is an island, certainly not a Bullet owner. You can detect it by the crushing handshake after years of handling the tough front brake and clutch and an unusually muscled right calf from the kickstart. Every Bullet is a personalised dream. You can load it with tonnes of accessories. Headlight hood, crash guards, extra lights, basket carriers, heading, chrome trim, pedal covers – the works. Some nickel-plate the chrome parts. Some add brass trim. The list is endless. But never, never, ever buy a lock. A Bullet owner who locks his bike is a sissy fit to own only mopeds. Beware, never lock your Bullet. Also buy a heavy chain. This is to hang the ignition and battery cutout key from. The heavier the better. The most revered Bullet owner I know has his keys attached to 4 feet of Supertanker anchor chain. He wears a canvas sack around his waist to put his keys in, walks on hands and feet, and is much in demand when elephants run amuck.
And the great mechanic saga begins. It is not like you drive into the service centre, hand over you bike and get it the next day. Far from it. First you shortlist the Bullet mechanics, called Phoremen in town. No Phoreman would be caught dead repairing any vehicle but a Bullet – exclusive. They usually have weird WWF type names – BABA, Ustaad, Shetty Chettan and so on. All have legends attached to them. One works only at night since he needs peace and quiet and so the story goes he can assemble by touch as a commando does his AK-47. Another diagnoses by sound alone as you drive into his workshop and so on. After you select one, the drama begins. First is the interview where you have to give details of where you work, how many years you have had the Bullet, earlier problems, how you use it, your income tax number and so on. Then after your earlier mechanic’s work and reputation has been ripped into shreds to approving nods from other customers hanging around, the work starts. If the bike is new, then the manufacturer’s reputation is given the same treatment.
Half a dozen young men descend on your machine. The way the Bullet is constructed is incredible. On average for every part you want to access, six others will have to be removed. For example to see the rocker arms, you will have to start with the petrol tank. To replace the accelerator wire, you will have to take off the headlight. Therefore, when the boys have finished locating the “fault” your bike looks like a dinosaur skeleton at the museum with parts strewn around. The effect is not quite unlike the 9.30 Doordarshan news – “sources say a blast occurred when when the car was started.” Don’t shriek or faint. Attached the parts may be, with a frightening array of fasteners and thingammas. Standard tools to take them out include anvils, electric heaters, evil looking tongs and sledgehammers. Forget the instruction manual which says, “to take out the delicate glass brass pin use a feather.” A sharp tap administered by a 8 pound hammer on a meter long screwdriver will work in the mechanic’s hands. You try the feather and ….. tinkle, tinkle.
Then you are given an option. Not as in “it will cost Rs 400.” It involves a long discussion on how the conshun-rode meshes with the chippia. One of the listeners reminds the others “remember what happened to Trivedi’s bike.” Then you are given the technical talk. Every Bullet owner in the space of two years becomes a thorough half-baked mechanic using local lingo – wiser for washer, chiipia for fork, dismiss for screwdriver. Terculator is something I haven’t been able to figure out. I suspect the Phoreman is fibbing since every time a fault refuses to g away it is a terculator fault. While Bullet parts are fixed with more goodwill than mechanical certainty, the terculator should certainly not be capable of migrating from the front axle to the swingarm and then into the speedometer. But it is convenient. Whenever a techie friend with the latest in tiddlers asks me whether the Bullet will do a wheelie or fly at low altitude, I have an answer “as soon as I straighten out the terculator.” So there.
Forget the techies, forget the doomsayers. Forget even the manufacturer, they don’t know what a wonderful bike the Bullet is. All said and done, a Bullet will never let you down on the highways which are its natural habitat. On city roads, it rides in a lackluster, protesting way. Even if it does stop a village mechanic with a six pound sledgehammer and a crowbar can set it right. One doesn’t buy a bullet for transport show or for performance, one buys it because one loves what motorcycling stands for – individuality, independence, an eternal love of tinkering and of course adventure and the sound of the untrammeled wind in one’s ears.
Listen to the Bike Baba. What one needs is a disciplined right fist, boots, gloves, and a helmet. Someone to love, plenty of gas and eye for beauty in man, machine and wind. The wisdom of the age decrees to those who have this will travel far indeed and attain Nirvana on the Pony Trail.