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The motorcycle diaries

  • Published at 12:00 am January 7th, 2019
Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

The usage of motorcycles in Bangladesh portrays the society’s evolution

During election time, the most noticeable thing were the countless bike brigades that went around, honking their horns and chanting political slogans. 

It was all part of a new era of campaigning. In previous elections, in the 90s and even well into the millennium, pre-election rallies usually meant 20 to 50 people walking unitedly on the roads. But things have changed. 

Without going into the politics, the many bike-based campaigns that I came across actually seems a reflection of how the motorcycle, once the ultimate dream possession of a young man, has become available to a large number of urban and rural youth, in a booming economy with an increasingly well off middle class.

Buying a bike for many means arranging Tk20,000 or so because once a down payment is made, the rest can be paid over time.

One may ask: How will the young pay the fixed monthly installments? 

Well, again we come to a Bangladesh with a plethora of earning options. This also involves using one’s motorcycle to enroll in one of the digital application based programs (think Pathao or Uber) to offer rides for a certain fare. 

If you have a bike, then you can have the income, the exuberance, and of course, the romantic rides with the lady friend -- says a university graduate who is using his motorcycle to deliver food within a five mile radius of his home. 

“It’s hassle-free work since I don’t have to go too far and my parents won’t have to worry either,” he added emphatically. 

The income he makes is enough to help him pay for the bike and have regular pocket money. 

And what about the political bike brigades? Well, let’s come to that later and first take a look at how the motorcycle usage in Bangladesh can be a very reliable portrayal of society’s evolution since the austerity-driven times of the 70s and 80s. 

Only ‘heroes’ ride on bikes 

I sometimes think that naming an Indian bike “Hero” -- also available in Bangladesh -- relates to a deeply entrenched perception of the motorcycle in the 70s, an era when celluloid heroes wore jackets and rode bikes. 

The Hindi film industry of the 70s with Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor and the lot glamorized the bike to such an extent that the aspiration of every middle-class person was to own one. 

In fact, I won’t be wrong in stating that hardly anyone ever wanted a car because, for most people, in those times of economic stringency, a car usually belonged to the super rich. The films also reinforced this concept. The aristocratic rich father and the unscrupulous villain usually rode in cars, while the hero was on a bike. 

Too many films’ last action scene began by the hero breaking through a brick wall on his “Honda” to save the heroine kept hostage in a dungeon. 

By the way, when I say “Honda,” I am not referring to the brand but to all bikes because, at one time, any motorcycle was called a Honda or “hoonda” in the local lingo. 

A dreaded line from the 80s if you were a rebel political activist: Six guys came on hoondas looking for you! 

The inner meaning of that line: Better run. Or else…

The best (coveted) wedding gift 

Now we are going into a rather contentious area here. One can call it dowry or simply regard it as a gift from the in-laws, but in the 70s and 80s, a lavish gift for the groom was usually a bike, preferably a Yamaha 100 or Honda CDI. 

The word joutuk or dowry was never mentioned of course, but when a girl from a stable middle-class background was married, the husband was given a motorcycle so the couple would be able to add some zest to their post-marital cavorting.

Jamaire hoonda dise” spread across the wedding ceremony plus the area like wildfire, which of course added to the prestige and the status of the girl’s family. 

To look at the grim side of matrimonial gifts, many marriages broke off at the last minute when the much-anticipated gift of a bike did not materialize. 

A reference can be made to the famous film Golapi Ekhon Traine by Amjad Hossain -- where a marriage is broken off when a bicycle as a gift could not be afforded by a poor father of the would-be groom. 

Would any middle-class jamai be excited with a bike in the current wedding scene? 

In the 80s, students could hardly afford a motorcycle and mostly used Phoenix bicycles. 

The home tutor came on a cycle, whereas today, they arrive on a bike carrying a smart phone, wearing “Ray-Ban” glasses. 

The 50cc bike was the trademark ride for journalists and for a long time, media people never aspired to own a car. I can name 20 modern-day journalists who move around in luxury SUVs. 

As for the political bike brigades, they are called “giving protocol” in the local lingo, and the idea is to make a presence with an aura of glamour, power, and youth. 

Just imagine yourself as a student political leader moving with a cavalcade of bikes around you -- the swagger of speed and authority was the main driving force of imperial powers, and it still works, drawing admiration and awe.  

Think I will watch Easy Rider and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man again this week. 

Towheed Feroze is News Editor for Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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