Wheels of Time

Chongtham Narendra, Photographs and additional content from Chingkhei Sapam

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Rs. 1.5/-, 4.5/-, 20/- and 50/-are not amounts of money that four cyclists should be holding on to in their pockets when embarking on a journey from Imphal, Manipur to Shillong, Assam. But that was what presently 63 year old PhD holder in Law, Dr. Chongtham Narendra and his friends had with them back in 1976 when they embarked on their journey on steel frame bicycles.

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Long distance cycling in India has gained popularity over the last few years and Crank brings you path and sweat breaking stories of such long distance cyclists.

Our friend from Manipur, Chingkhei Sapam who runs Noren Cycles and Adventure Gear at Imphal told us about Dr. Narendra’s story, we found it compelling for you to read and understand their struggles and glories from their ride.

Dr. Narendra was born in 1953 to a family of 13 siblings to an athlete father and was a youngster bumbling with dreams and the energy and more importantly, the will to do what it takes to achieve his dreams. He narrates the story of making it a habit out of chasing his dreams.

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I have always been fascinated about the concept of how two wheels stay upright and how the bicycle is one of the most fascinating inventions of mankind.

I learned cycling like any other kid, “scissor style” by putting one leg through the frame triangle on a big cycle like Raleigh or Humber. In my opinion, a boy becomes strong and has lot of energy during the age of 17- 21 years. This led me to try and find out the outlet for the energy that kept me up at night. My other passion was to travel and see the beauty that mother earth has to offer and a cost effective way of achieving that was to use a bicycle as my mode of transport.

Since the day I got my first bicycle, an Avon roadster at Rs. 120/- in 1969 I rode it like a mad man in and around Imphal. I had travelled farther than Imphal completing 50kms in under 3 hours and rides up to 150kms on Sundays.

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Inspiration was easy to come by with stories of other long distance and professional riders and in some occasions mockery from one of them when I expressed a desire to ride out on my Avon bicycle on similar long rides.

In our locality there were two bicycle mechanic Thangjam Chandramani and Laishram Khogen. As a way of preparing myself for what I wanted to do, I spent a lot of time with them and learnt enough about bicycle maintenance and repair.

In late 1975, my father’s departure devastated me and his fond memories helped me realize that this is the time I should start my journey. A close friend, Mr. Maisnam Lekhendra and I charted the map from Imphal, Manipur to Shillong via Nagaland and Guwahati in Assam covering more than 800 km with steep climbs.

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Our sponsorship requests fell to deaf ears of bicycle stores and even the then Sports minister. The only help came from our mechanic who refitted my hubs, freewheels and gave me a new tube and new Goodyear tyre for free even though they had little for themselves.

Two other friends joined us Mr. Ch. Rajen and Mr. Y. Meghajit. We decided to leave early so that no one would see us leave and make fun of us or discourage us which had already become a demotivating factor up until now. I had only Rs. 1.5 , Lekhendra had 4.5, Meghajit had 20 and Rajen had 50. Day before the start we soaked channa and packed some 4-5 blocks of jaggery. We also carried some tools and sharp knifes with us since we would be crossing jungles.

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We set out on a rainy morning of 25th October 1976. From suffering the rains to one of the riders dropping off in 5kms into the ride and breaking freewheels we dared our first day out and stopped for some good lunch while fixing the broken freewheel. Another 80kms later along the ghats of Imphal, another rider Meghajit fainted and decided not to continue along. We found some teachers who helped us by giving food and place to sleep. After a rather adventurous start to our ride, we decided to hit the Mao Gate, the last check point of Manipur state and the border to Nagaland.

Mao was not a welcoming location and we had to ride straight to the police station to escape a mob that was attacking us. The Officer In Charge, Mr. Chaoba was excited to learn that two young boys were traveling from Imphal to Shillong. He arranged for lunch, encouraged us to carry on and even offered us security from the mob.

A 100kms later, we had entered Nagaland and took rest at my cousin’s home who was a commandant of Nagaland Armed Police, at Sath Mile near Dimapur, Nagaland. The next day’s journey did not start well with Lekhendra’s bicycle breaking a  freewheel. The Bengali mechanic who helped us fix it not only guaranteed his work, but also gave us a valuable tip of buying bananas and using it to wade off elephants that we were bound to encounter along the Assam highway.

Following his advice and steady pedaling along the hills, we reached Garampani, enjoyed our bath and headed for Numaligarh. This is when the journey turned out to be a spiritual awakening for me. It was Kali puja that day and by evening when we were about to reach Numaligarh, we stopped on a bridge to see a line of boats lit with diyas cross under us. The sight made us want to go with them. The beauty and spirituality that filled us made us consider our journey a blessed one. We stayed at a Manipuri person’s home Mr. Laishram Thambal who was a truck owner.

Many of the sections were roads under construction and we were riding on gravel and soft sands, maintaining control was very important as worng moves would have us tumbling along the sides of hills. The fork of my bicycle had developed a crack and since we had no money to set up a new one, we utilized bamboo branches and bandaged the fork to continue our journey.

There was no real plan to most of our journey. We would eat what we could and stay wherever we found invite to stay at. Along our journey, places like the Nogaoan polytechic college hostel and Guwahati university are hold find memories for giving us place at their hostels to stay, organizing a seminar to introduce or efforts to the students there and giving our tired souls and minds nourishment and encouragement to carry on with our objective. We received letters and certificates of appreciation from the administration here and are really all that we have as records of our epic journey.

Our journey would have been futile if we hadn’t met the people we did and the help we received from complete strangers who offered us places to rest, food to eat and great conversations. Our journey is, in a way dedicated to these people, like the students at the Nogaoan polytechic college whom we ensured to meet even on our way back, Mr. Sanajaoba Naurya who was the faculty of Law at the Guwahati University who stayed back to welcome us despite the Puja holidays and even took us to the Assam Tribune’s office to get us interviewed. Dr. B.C Das, Guwahti University’s Director of Students who certified our journey in his letter. And more importantly to officer Chaoba of Mao without whose support and encouragement, we would have abandoned our journey on the second day itself.

What I had learned and what I will never forget is that every pedal stroke I made from the day I learned to bicycle till today, is that bicycling has changed my life in manifold. It has given me a way to my discover myself. I have lived my dream to travel and see places, connect with people from different places. And yet, I will always be fascinated about the bicycle, the two wheels that turns a person into an engine

Dr. Chongtham Narendra (phd. Law)

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