To learn about the Bullet and how to keep her running smooth, I turned to Nanna, my mechanic. He was sitting in his usual seat -- a half broken, cane-bottomed executive’s chair that he had rolled into the only shade available at his workshop -- when I arrived for my first motorcycle maintenance lesson.
“Hello, hello. Sooo... you came at last,” he said, nodding his gray head of hair. The remnants henna still fringed the tips of his hair, giving him an angelic look as the sun splashed through the neem tree rooted at his workshop's fence line.
I could tell by the tone of his voice he had doubted I would show up for the lesson and said so. 'Hmmm' was all he said, a smile teasing at the corners of his mouth.
I’d met Nanna through Thomas shortly after buying Kali. Thomas had been taking his Bullet to Nanna, a Muslim man of few words, since being introduced to him by a group of foreign diplomats who fancied themselves bad boys of the East. Nanna had a posse of foreigners -- men -- who claimed Nanna could pinpoint a bike's problem by cocking his head and listening to the engine. It seemed rather superstitious to me, but if he could teach me anything about keeping my Kali running, I was going to learn it.
Nothing happens in India without first taking chai, that sweet, spicy tea brewed over an open coal fire and carried to customers by chai wallahs and little boys working for the chai wallahs. As I dismounted and joined Nanna in the shade he sent one of his workers to get chai, and I could hardly wait. I loved taking chai, it was such a civilized thing to do in surrounding that were often anything but civilized.
I didn't know what Nanna had planned for me, but I knew it would do no good to ask him. When he was ready for me to know, he would tell me. In the meantime, I took in his place of business which was not one large building where the work was done, but a series of disconnected buildings: one for painting, one for dismantling bikes, one for storage, and a large, weedy lot in the middle of it all that any one but Nanna would call a motorcycle grave yard. In it were a jumble of bikes, some broken down others with weeds growing out of every orifice of the bike. Nanna swore they all worked. "They just need a little repair is all," he would say.
When the chai arrived I began to relax. I was more nervous about the lesson and journey head of me than I wanted to admit.
“That belongs to an old friend of mine,” Nanna said when he caught me staring at an old Norton leaning against the fence near where one of his mechanics was tugging a tube out of a tire. I asked Nanna how long the bike had been there and he casually replied, "fifteen years."
For fifteen years that bike had sat waiting for the owner to return and rescue it. Spiders had taken over the tank and the rubber in the tires had begun to break down. To leave behind your bike was unforgivable to me. The owner had relied on that bike as his sole companion I imagined, just as I would be relying on Kali to get me through the coming months. I could never, would never, leave her behind in India while I went on with my life elsewhere. How could he? How could he? I must have shouted it out because Nanna gazed at me and calmly said, “He had to leave India suddenly, but he will return." I looked at the Norton leaning against the fence, no longer the great steed, no longer able to hold itself up. It was forgotten, a long ago memory in the mind of the man who'd once rode. It was the saddest thing, and I had seen many sad things in India.
Anis and Poppy poke and probe their screwdrivers into the bikes they were working on, tightening cables and overhauling engines. Sprinkled between their thonged feet were nuts and bolts and shallow pans of gasoline to clean the oily things. Nanna swiveled his chair pretending not to watch their every move while watching them like a hawk. If Poppy tried to skip a step in his repairs or tighten a screw too much and cause damage, Nanna caught him and corrected him.
Poppy, never that serious about mechanics, liked to bide his time in front of a mirror waiting for a director or modeling agent to discover him. He loved to look run his slim fingers through his swooping black hair. His dewy, dog eyes bulging heavy under his lids as a smile played across his lips in a do-you-like-what-you-see look sort of way. I found him fascinating to watch but not necessarily attractive. Too skinny for my taste.
"Well.... Are you ready to work?" Nanna said putting his empty chai cup on the ground.
I nod and go to move Kali into the work area. Anis quickly tries to do it for me and is slightly distressed when I lift her off the side stand and begin rolling her in. If Nanna notices, he makes no comment as he begins listing the things he plans to teach me. First, he will demonstrate, then I’ll do it. Poppy and Anis go to lunch, leaving the workspace to me.
I scribble elaborate notes, drawing -- with a skill that has not improved since first grade -- crude diagrams illustrating engine parts. Nanna’s method is holistic and comprehensive, explaining each interconnected part and its relationship to the others. He explains the basic principals of how the four-stroke engine works, its pistons and valves gliding up and down. With the intake valve open and the exhaust valve closed, a mixture of fuel and air is sucked into the carburetor. While this is going on, the piston (once down) is on its way back up, squeezing and trapping the mixture in a small space between the top of the piston and the cylinder head causing compression. As the piston nears top dead center, the ignition system is timed to ignite a spark when the kick-start lever is pumped, causing a fiery nymph to leap across the gap between the electrode points of the spark plug. With this synergy, fuel begins burning and the gases that form quickly expand in the inferno. Pressure mounts and pushes outward on the cylinder walls, the cylinder head, and the top of the piston. The piston is the only part free to move so it pushes down in the cylinder, turning the crankshaft. The enormity of the power keeps the piston moving through the other three strokes, while a heavy flywheel helps smooth out the surging forces and keeps the crankshaft in motion. As the piston moves downward at the end of the power stroke, the exhaust valve begins to open. When it’s fully opened at bottom dead center, the piston traveling upward on the exhaust stroke pushes the burned gases past the exhaust valve and out the muffler.
Nanna’s talking and talking, and after a while I'm not taking any of his words in. The workings-of-an-engine overview beginnings to sound like the foot bone connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone connected to the shin bone, the shin bone..., and I feel woozy trying to grasp the interconnectedness of it all, but I force myself to pay close attention. I might need to know some of this one day.
He’s teaches me to set the timing. I stop drawing my pictographs and fix my eyes instead on how his blunt fingers loosen the mounting screws and ease the cam in place, positioning the plunger to top dead center. He points to a gap between the breaker points.
“This is what you adjust,” he says, stabbing at the slot. “It is the width of this opening that is important.” Then he looks around and points to a discarded cigarette box in the dust and asks me to hand it to him. "You can't carry every tool, so you need to know how to use what is available," he says as he tears off a flap. “This is your gap measure since you won't have a feeler gauge but you will be able to find plenty of cigarette boxes on the road."
I like his way of teaching me to use what is handy, to use what the India provides me with, and I feel a subtle shift in my lifestyle beginning. A life based on availability and not possessions; things to be used and left, not owned.
I’ve got my hands in Kali's guts when Poppy and Anis round the fence, returning from lunch. Witnessing my stained fingers, they shoot horrified looks at me first, then at Nanna. I’m proud of my “can-do” accomplishments. But I come from a different world. In theirs, everyone has a position and to attend matters beneath your status is a dishonor, and a woman should never take on the role of mechanic. That is there world. In my world, if you want something done right, you do it yourself.
In India, every male with a hammer fancies himself a fixer. Some are good, others brutal manglers. This scares me as I’m already attached to Kali and perceiving her as, well... a “her,” not an “it.” I need to be able to do the simple stuff myself, the rest I need to know how to do so I can supervise it's being done right. Nanna builds my skills around emergency breakdowns and daily adjustments: flat tires, broken cables, a slack chain, soft brakes, loose bolts, leaking oil. Kali, as I mentioned, will need her oil topped off each day.
I spend fifteen days at Nanna’s workshop, often working beside Anis who does not speak to me, but keeps an eye on my struggles and rushes to help at the slightest indication I might need him. I try speaking Hindi to him and am rewarded with a bob of his wavy black hair and a bashful smile before tucking his head down again to work. Silently we share and pass between us the few tools needed to make most repairs and adjustments. My tool kit for the road will contain: a spark-plug socket; three screwdrivers -- small, medium, and large; needle-nose pliers; three wrenches graduating in size; one mammoth crescent wrench; sandpaper; spare clutch, throttle and brake cables; a foot air-pump; a spare tire tube.
On my last day, Nanna rolls out a vintage tire full of rusty spokes and nesting insects.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“It is for you. You must change the tube,” he says, tossing a new one at my boots.
I sound girly when I tell him it's dirty and he replies "dirt won't hurt me."
First, he pries the tire easily from its rim, working twin levers in a mechanical symphony. The tire pops with the sound of cymbals and he drags the old tube from its tomb. Then he reassembles it and grins at me.
“Your turn,” he says. I can tell from the twinkle in his eye that he has patiently waited weeks for this moment.
In my hands, the levers screech and twist uncooperatively like a pair of cats trying to get away from me. Over and over again I attempt to stab them between the rusted rim and petrified rubber of this ancient relic Nanna has provided me with. But each time, they slip, flip, and clatter to the concrete.
“Did you do something to it?” I joked, but only half a joke because I'm pretty sure he has done something to make it harder for me to get the tube out than it was for him.
Rocking in his throne, Nanna folds his hands neatly across his rounded stomach and smiles. “I have done nothing."
I continue wrestling with the wretched iron as a small audience gathers, watching me sweat and groan. Word spreads pretty fast in India, especially when there is a chance to see a white girl doing hard labor. Everyone from the boy who delivers chai to two women on their way to the market stops to stare, heads tilt, eyes wide, mouths pucker in silent, holy Oms. Poppy abandons his mirror, and Anis covertly steals glances from around the engine he is dutifully dismantling. Nanna enjoys my struggles. I am just about to give up when the tire pops off the rim with such force that I am tossed back on my butt.
“We are done,” Nanna says, an expression of serene pleasure enriching his brown sugar face.
“Now you are ready for the road.”
© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide