Balu Mama & The Scooter-bike

I like rules.

I’m a huge fan of having structure and organization in my world, and was always the kid in the front of the classroom with highlighters and questions. I enjoy being the “good girl” and really thrive within deadlines and specific structure in my life. This isn’t to say that I don’t also love to rebel against rules: the belly button ring at 17, my pink hair this past year (at 28) and a handful of tattoos along the way certainly add up to some social rebellion, but I would be a complete liar if I didn’t say that I like rules!

Needless to say, the streets of India were a complete shock to not only my mind but also my soul. More than once I asked my husband how everyone in this country could possibly be alive!

There were no apparent rules of the road and if there were any, they were found within the length of your horn honk or the number of times you flashed your headlights at oncoming traffic. A number of (almost) head-on collisions with cows, trucks, people, autos and monkey was enough to get my heart racing, so you could imagine my palpable fear when I experienced my first bike ride in India.

Let me pull back and set the scene for you a bit::

The entire time we were in India, Karthik and I were treated like royalty. We were never allowed to drive as we had 18 family members and 2 drivers at our every beck and call. I was never allowed to be alone anywhere (and even the bathroom became a family affair during one sari incident…). We were ALWAYS guarded with love and attention.

The one time we were not in a family car, we called one of our aunts to ask if I could experience the auto. An auto rickshaw is a small yellow taxi cab. The exterior looks like a short and stout auto that never seemed to grow into a NYC cab. It is open on three sides, with a small bar to guard one passenger and no windows or doors. The driver sits up front and the back and roof are the only enclosure. The backseat is open on both sides with the small bar being the only barrier between the passengers and the outside traffic and on the other side, there is no bar (as it’s how you entire the vehicle).

Auto (Rickshaw)
Auto (Rickshaw)

In America, this quaint cab would be the perfect fit for two adults and a handful of shopping packages. In India, this translates to a mom, dad and three children. The infant sitting on his momma’s lap as the two additional children are wedged between their parents. Dad sits on the edge with no bar and as mom places the child on her lap, his adorably chubby brown arms reach outside into the traffic to grab the attention of strangers while melting their hearts and letting us sweat with the fear that he may fall out of the cab. Personal space isn’t available in India, partially because of the population but more because of culture: everyone LIKES to be together.

For a few days I had been watching people without seat belts or helmets. I watched infants riding on motorcycles on their mother’s laps as she sat princess style in her beautifully woven sari. And yet I saw one accident the entire trip.

Rules of the road and personal space aren’t necessary in India. The love and energy overflows into everything they do and as such they know exactly what is going to happen on the road. They merge and speed and forget to look both ways, but everyone stays healthy and happy. It magically intertwines and works as their own system.

Our ride in the auto being the only experience outside of a family car, I was both excited and terrified when my husband’s uncle (my beloved Balu Mama) asked me if I would like to accompany him on his motorbike.

A motorbike is exactly what it sounds like: a motorcycle and a scooter combined into a motorbike. It’s not quite a scooter, or a bike or a motorcycle, but rather all three. I lovingly took to calling these scooterbikes by the trips end and if we ever move to India I will promptly buy myself a hot pink one! I imagine us driving around the city as a family (but my children are wearing helmets in this vision).

After an evening eating way too many bhajjis, games and rides at the beach, we ventured to our first of two restaurants for the evening. {Because one meal isn’t ever enough} In between our second dinner and the ice cream parlor, I was given my chance to ride.

Balu Mama & The Scooter Bike
A handful of motorcycles and scooterbikes

Our entire theory during this trip was to say YES to adventure, so when Balu Mama asked me to hop on the motorbike there was zero hesitation in my shaky voice. I may have been a little frightened but I never would have turned down the opportunity.

Balu Mama is a man who no one says no to. The patriarch of the family. Tall with a big Indian belly proving his weight in gold of how much love he provides in the way of food and belly laughter. A few days after we landed he told me “you now have three dads and I am one of them” adding to my already amazing dad and father in-law back home. He is the protector and the one everyone respects and bows to within the family. When we wanted to get engaged, it was him who gave the blessing. And yet, his eyes twinkle with love and the lines on his face prove the ability to laugh well. He is full of LOVE and security, so hopping on a bike with him was an easy choice, it was the only choice.

Balu Mama & Karthik
Balu Mama & Karthik

As I hopped onto the bike, I snuggled in closely by wrapping my arms under his and grabbing onto his shoulders while hugging my whole body into his back. We began to take off at just a few miles per hour (and yes, I was helmet-less). I squealed in excitement and terror as we wedged between autos and cars into the dark streets of Chennai.

As we continued I was clearly suffocating my new uncle and he kindly asked me to sit back a bit. I finally released my grip and sat back a few inches, being sure to hold onto his big belly as we drove faster, laughing into the night.

By this point, people were beginning to stare. An older Indian man with a young blonde chick on the back of his bike — we made quite the pair (and my husband joked he would be arrested later that evening for kidnapping)!

“These guys are jealous” said Balu Mama “and I can’t wait to tell them you’re my daughter!”

Our laughing continued into a strip of “open road” (that depends entirely on your perspective) and he asked me if I wanted to go faster. I did little more than mumble into his ear and squeeze his belly tighter for him to kick it into high gear. The wind was whipping through my hair as the dust flew up around us and our laughter mixed into the vibrant sounds of a bustling Saturday evening in Chennai. My fear was erased as we raced through the city streets trying to beat the rest of our family to dinner. Instead of fear, it was the love that came through: my life felt complete.

THIS is it. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. The mother-land was awe-inspiring and beautiful, exactly what my soul needed. To see the stark contrast of poverty as it bordered new modern buildings on the street. I needed the dust in my throat to mix and swirl with the fresh pineapple juice I drank everywhere we went. I needed to devour food and culture. But most importantly, I needed my family.

After five years of togetherness I finally met my husbands aunts, uncles and cousins. I saw where he played cricket in the street as a child and I could feel every inch and mile of love that stretched from India to America in this family. India has served me exactly what I needed and so much more, and for that I bow to you.


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