An Idli Mind Is the Devil's Workshop
So there I was: fifteen years old, sleeping in Grand Central Station with a 1978 Zeus Criterium, a smelly knapsack, and eleven dollars to my name. For three days, I’d wandered around Manhattan, exploring bookstores, bumming cigarettes, and trying to find a lift to Ithaca. I needed to get to Ithaca because, according to my careworn copy of the USCF newsletter, the city would host three days of circuit races followed by a weekend of crits - and I barely had enough money left for bread.
It was three weeks into the summer; I’d informed my mother that I was off to summer school, that I’d written a particularly persuasive essay, and I’d won a scholarship to Yale’s summer intensive in French language and literature. I kissed her on the cheek, she tucked four neatly folded twenty dollar bills into my shirt pocket, and I rode into town to catch the next Greyhound. Little did she know that my Greyhound was headed to Salt Lake City, not New Haven, for a three day stage race, not a six week program studying Molière with jerks from Hotchkiss and Exeter.
Things weren’t going to plan. It took a little longer than expected to make it out to New England, where I was told that the payouts were fat, and the competition fatter. And once I reached the Eastern seaboard, I discovered that the locals weren’t exactly going to be the pushovers I expected. And so there I was, half way through my little adventure, sleeping in a bus station (albeit a beautiful, absolutely opulent one) and reconsidering many of the decisions I’d made in my one and a half decades on earth.
And did I mention that I was nursing a fractured clavicle?
“Excuse me, Sir.” said the strange voice.
“Excuse me, Sir, but is this your peanut butter?” I squinted, and saw a small boy about my age with a friendly, narrow face and dark eyes. I took my glasses out of my pocket and sat up. With my prescription in, I could see that he was holding a jar of peanut butter and looked exactly like Satyajit Ray’s Apu.
“Oh! Thank you, yes.. it must have rolled out of my pack.” I said. (Would it be racist to mention that he looked like Apu? I wondered. Would he be impressed that I not only recognized him to be Indian, but that he reminded me of a cultural hero? Or was Apu Bengali?) He handed me the jar and kind of just stood there. And then I noticed that his legs were shaved. (Or are they really shaved? I asked myself. Maybe Indian guys don’t have leg hair? Or maybe it’s a religious thing? Do Hindus shave their legs? I wondered. Or, wait! Maybe he’s from Pakistan. Is he Muslim? Do Muslims shave their legs? Is all of this racist?) But it was the Cinelli t-shirt that should have given it all away.
Vijay was seventeen, a junior at St. Ann’s, and a bike racer. Serendipity was in fact on my side that morning, because not only was Vijay a bike racer, but he was a bike racer with an uncle who lived in Ithaca.
Over the next week, I learned that Vijay was born in New Jersey, his family was from Kerala, and nearly every male adult in his family was a doctor. But not Vijay’s uncle Naresh. Naresh was an associate professor of linguistics at Cornell. He’d studied at Oxford, where he picked up bike racing (time trialling, mainly) - passing on the bug to a young Vijay. The races ended up alright. I made a little over a hundred dollars, which was less than I was hoping, but enough to slough off to the next leg of my journey: the Midwest, where an exciting series called Superweek promised big money, fast racing, and cheese!
But it was riding for hours in and around the Finger Lakes that I cherish. The three of us stayed in Naresh’s small apartment on campus. We’d wake at dawn, and fill our pockets with the most delicious riding snacks I’d ever encountered: fresh little idlis wrapped in foil, each one flavored with a different delicious chutney: coconut, mint, fenugreek, lemon, ginger. One bidon would get water, and the other sambar. And a little waxed paper envelope filled with dried mango and cashews. Crushed limestone roads, wild goats, weeping willows, vineyards, horned owls, blueberries. We’d return five or six hours later, sipping mini Cokes on the benches in front of Mann Library, and watch coeds tossing frisbees until dusk.