One of the primary pleasures of good literature is the way it immerses us in the lives of others. Mridula Koshy’s nuanced, poignant new novel, Bicycle Dreaming, does this by introducing us to 13-year-old Noor, the daughter of a kabadiwala who lives with her parents and brother in their one-room home in Chirag Dilli. To write about the inner world of a young child requires empathic skill, and Koshy rises to the challenge and raises the stakes further by setting the story within a subtext of near-poverty. For the kabadiwala’s profession is fast fading out under pressures of a modernising society and with it will go Mohammad Saidullah’s way of life and means to sustain a family.
As a result of this, everywhere that Noor steps, as she journeys through her day, the reader is conscious, even if Noor isn’t, of the implications of her socio-economic background. Gender isn’t yet destiny for the growing child, but geography and economics have caught up with her. Thirteen is a delicate age, and Noor is a first-rate example of the uneven maturity of the young adolescent. Her wants are basic yet important: She wants a happy family where her father and brother get along and her mother is proud of her; she wants an easy friendship with her best friend Haseena; she wants to spend more time with her curiously attractive school friend Ajith without setting tongues wagging; and she wants, with great urgency, to own and ride a green bicycle.
The story world stretches like a tent between the poles of her 13th and 14th birthday, from her dream of the bicycle to the realisation of it. The dream of the bicycle may be born in a moment of childish fancy, but it becomes a metaphor for far more than a way to get from one point to another; it symbolises Noor’s loyalty to her bicycle-riding kabadiwala father and his profession, her desire for independence of movement and even her growing taste for the mysteries and allures of adolescent attraction.
Noor, both poised and vulnerable, makes for an engaging heroine. She stands at the threshold of puberty and yet she cannot shake off the old Noor — the Noor that childishly pinches her best friend, or succumbs to reading another’s diary. The minutiae of childhood desires are worked into the story at every level. The delight in the birthday gift — a green anarkali dress that is quickly outgrown, its seams straining at the underarms; the taste of sooji halwa with puri; the joy of new copybooks in school.
What’s more, Noor’s childlike acceptance of the world around her allows Koshy to seamlessly engage with many issues that could have easily overturned a less delicately crafted novel. Even a simple classroom debate highlights the chilling manner in which national-level rhetoric about progress and green initiatives rebounds catastrophically in the lives of the unseen masses who eke out a bare-minimum living. Blind adherence to ideals of progress becomes the juggernaut that can crush the vulnerable minorities. In fact, the ill-equipped, badly run local school is a classic case of everyday corruption with teachers fixing exam results and school inspectors turning a wilful blind eye.
Yet there is redemption in the spirit of the children and the inflexible machinery of the school system. The girls and boys are entertainingly at odds as they grow into self-conscious puberty and Noor, despite her attempts to stay under the radar, is an attentive chronicler of the little battles won and lost within the group of popular girls.
A teacher who offers the chance for children to maintain their own diaries at school is a ray of hope in the otherwise helpless situation most of the children are in, subject as they are to the exigencies of their parents’ lives. That is apparent with Haseena who seems perpetually in need of intervention.
Motherless as she is and raising younger siblings, her father suddenly sends her off to the ancestral village with seeming arbitrariness. Noor herself is uprooted sooner than she might have imagined, but for most of the novel we see her travel a familiar path, tripping between winding lanes, amongst stray dogs, in unlit compounds, through garbage-strewn dumps, or simply to queue for basic amenities like water and toilet facilities.
Noor is surrounded by children who have it worse than she has: Haseena, or Ajith who comes from an even lower class of scavengers. Her family drama is also in its own way fairly commonplace: Her brother Talib is seduced by new money and new thinking in his call-centre job and her kind-hearted father cannot reconcile to that. Her mother is perpetually caught between the two and takes sides. Yet Bicycle Dreaming elevates routine experience and brings us surprisingly close to really understanding what it must mean to be Noor Saidullah. It is literature like this that takes us somewhere new.
Karishma Attari is a Mumbai-based book critic and author of I See You