After we bought a car named ‘Jazz’, our housekeeper did one better and purchased a scooter named ‘Maestro’.
She has never ridden a bike before and it did not deter her that Bengaluru has five million two-wheelers on the roads and the city has the second-highest number of scooters in the world after Delhi (6.5 million). The scooters have exciting names such as Glamor, Passion, Pleasure, Fascino, Duet, Dio and Activa.
Indians fondly call their scooters, ‘scootys’.
During the next couple of weeks as she was learning the skill of riding a two-wheeler, she fell from the scooter a couple of times trying to keep her balance and the speed just right, but she did not give up as the other alternative, walking to our place from her home took over an hour and tired her.
Public transport in the city is still erratic and taking a taxi is expensive. She is the only breadwinner in the family as her husband is an alcoholic and refuses to work.
A two-wheeler was a middle-class luxury once, but today there are more blue-collar working women riding bikes as they are a cheap mode of transport.
Now the maid zips along the alleyways and crowded gullies in her scooty to get to our place, but has never travelled on the main roads because of the police campaign against two-wheeler riders without helmets and the massive fines they are imposing.
Driving in the city one night I saw a motorcyclist at the traffic light stop and frantically tell the pillion-riding friend to get off the bike.
The woman got off and ran through the line of cars and disappeared. Just ahead was a group of cops writing out fines and confiscating ‘fake’ helmets, as they easily crack and do not protect the riders in an accident.
Buying a helmet
“Let’s gift her a helmet,” I told my wife, after the maid said she couldn’t afford it as she had taken out a huge loan to pay for the scooter. “You buy her the helmet, she does not have the time to buy it herself,” said my wife, after speaking to her. “She’s working three houses now.”
Bengaluru is not exactly Rome and seeing someone riding a scooter here does not conjure an image of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck gliding along on the jam-packed Hebbal Bridge during peak hours and Audrey throwing her head back and laughing and Peck nodding his head like Bollywood star Dev Anand.
Traffic accidents claim more lives of scooter riders than motorists here.
You can buy a helmet cheap from many of the roadside vendors, but most of them are not ISI (Indian Standard Institute) stamped that show they are a quality product and durable and that you won’t easily crack your skull in an accident. I read a review from a buyer and found the fake helmets also have fake ISI stamps that come off when it rains.
Most of the cheaper ones called Beanies or Half helmets are also generally useless in an accident, look like round-headed helmets worn by the Nazi troops during the Second World War and are of the same olive grey colour.
I went online and found there are various types of helmets: Full Face, Half Face, Dirt/Motocross and Scooter. The European-styled scooter helmets have a visor that you can push up when stopping and speaking to someone, but it is difficult to speak as most everyone honks or buzzes you whenever they can and create a cacophony. All this was fascinating info for me because during my univ days there was no rule about wearing helmets when I was riding my Czech-made motorcycle. Those were the Wild West frontier days, I thought to myself, but looking at the traffic today, I realised it needs a ‘maestro’ to manoeuvre one’s way around.
Mahmood Saberi is a storyteller and blogger based in Bengaluru, India. Twitter: @mahmood_saberi.