By Yamini Srikanth
Click. I shifted the gear and pulled gently on the throttle, feeling the engine’s hum. I waited for the perfect moment, listening for the hum to reach a fever pitch. My fingers twitched in anticipation.
I’m a scientist and a baker. Whether it’s the process of laminating puff pastry or counting species in a quadrat, I crave precision. I enjoy doing things exactly right. I find a certain art in switching gears and a beauty in its monotony. It’s about hearing, listening, feeling.
I spotted a potholed patch in the road and eased up on the throttle.
Wait, howl? The sudden squeal from the bike set my teeth on edge. I stopped to check the brake fluid, which looked okay. That meant the most likely culprit was the brake pad.
Hours later, I stood in the bikeshop. “Must be the brake fluid.”
The mechanic didn’t even glance up, fiddling with a wrench in his hands.
“It’s not the brake fluid, I always keep it above minimum.”
He paused and looked at me again. “It’s the brake fluid.”
I almost always dress masculine, but when I come to the workshop I take extra pains to wear the full fit — riding boots, a good helmet, and gloves. His eyes slid to my small black nose ring. I saw the moment he decided that I was “female”.
“I told you I checked the brake fluid already.” I tried and failed to keep the annoyance out of my voice.
The mechanic stared harder now, and I could see a smirk forming on his face. “It’s your boyfriend’s bike, isn’t it? Why don’t you call him and ask him when’s the last time he topped up the brake fluid.”
The fury that gripped me at that moment was a twin beast. One is the formerly familiar but newly foreign anger of being raised a girl. I was trained to anticipate discrimination, almost always from a man, but it still took my breath away. The second is a feeling of my chest being hollowed out — all my manhood scooped out among men, deemed false, and laid on the floor of this grease-filled workshop.
Even though being stereotyped triggers a defiance against traditional masculinity, I feel a pressure to fake it so that nobody realizes I’m acting.
My bike does look immensely masculine, full of sharp lines, a high arcing suspension, and broad handlebars. I can’t pretend that’s not part of the reason I chose it. It brings me one step closer to fitting in.
Motorcycle riding in India has always been and continues to be immensely gendered. The tagline for the Bajaj Pulsar, India’s most popular motorcycle? “Definitely male.” When you see a motorcycle, a man is almost always driving it. If a woman is on the bike, she’s the passenger.
Passengers’ seats are called Pillion seats. The term has its roots in Latin, describing a small secondary seat, typically for a woman. Women in India generally ride scooters, which are two-wheelers that don’t require one to change gears. The deep-seated stereotypes ingrained in such a dominant mode of transportation in India makes me feel tremendous discomfort. Sometimes, I can’t make myself sit behind a cis-male friend on a motorcycle. It feels like I’ve been robbed of something.
The large and intimidating Bajaj Pulsar is the quintessential “boyfriend-girlfriend bike”. The pillion seat is tiny and hoisted high above the rider’s seat. The guard rail is minimal. The design practically begs the passenger to hold tightly onto the rider’s waist. A girlfriend stuck in this precarious embrace is quotidian.
These gendered dynamics spill into every aspect of riding. Buying my first proper helmet was the first step in the long journey of making a place for myself within riding culture. I stalked the Internet, but they only had sizes medium and up. I called seven stores asking if they had Small helmets, but everyone responded that they didn’t. A helmet that’s too big can be fatal in a crash. When one store finally had a small, I practically raced there. The salesman smiled proudly, only to present to me a helmet of the brightest pink and purple. Lovely, but not quite for me. It took a month to find my helmet, a gorgeous matte black.
Riding jackets are even harder to find. Riding in a binder feels restrictive and is challenging to wear for extended hours in a bent-over posture. I’ve been tempted to go for a baggier jacket in order to make up for the missing binder. A loose fit would mean the armor would not sit correctly on the shoulders and elbows, and leave parts that need to be protected dangerously exposed. Women’s jackets tend to run a gamut of colors that make me feel dysphoric, and there’s no avoiding the figure-hugging fit. I’d sell my left kidney for a plain black jacket with a built-in binder.
After searching for better gear, ditching city roads was one of the best things I did for myself. In the city, eyes track you. People stare from lofty abodes in buses. Cis men on bikes positively leer. Once, I stepped off my bike wearing a blouse and a child tripped and fell over in shock. It’s hard to be you when everyone is watching, so I found a safe space. I rode late into the night, with only my headlight for company. As the beam reflected off of the road markers, I realized I loved weaving through them. An hour from the city, I rode the same hill a dozen times just to feel the jump in speed as I pulled in the clutch.
Community was also crucial to making a place for myself within riding culture. Hours alone are grating unless you have someone to enjoy the views with you, the breeze, or to hold up your bike while you patch up the tire. Thankfully, my riding friends have never, ever made me feel out of place.
Once, a friend sent me a link to a riding jacket. He read reviews on all the popular jackets, and found one that was loose around the shoulders — the perfect home for my unwanted chest. It’s a lovely black and red, and I wear it to this day.
On my birthday, I found another friend crouched over my bike with a screwdriver.
“What are you doing?” I asked, fighting a rising panic.
“Taking off the sari guard.” He replied, smiling slightly.
The panic subsided, and I responded with a slow smile of my own. Indian motorcycles come with a grill on the rear wheel. Women may ride side-saddle on the pillion seat when wearing a sari or skirt, and the grill stops the fabric from getting tangled in the wheel. The sari guard always reminded me of how women were supposed to use bikes, and it irked me. Getting rid of it was the perfect birthday gift.
Easing discomfort while motorcycle riding, one of my favorite pastimes, made me stay in this world long enough to discover all the things I love about it; the monotony and patience that comes with changing gears over and over, chai stops with roadside cigarettes and tea-shop puppies. I even realized that there’s a certain joy in not meeting people’s expectations. I don’t have to pretend or act. Being me and riding like me is plenty to make people look, look again, and question for a moment what they took for granted.
I wonder what my perfect motorcycle world would look like. I would love to see a man desperately holding onto his girlfriend as she uses a speed bump as a takeoff ramp. I want gear for trans people — ideally made by trans people. I want pink pants with cups and black jackets with binders. I want to go to the mechanic and be believed despite my nose ring that the motorcycle is mine, and that I always keep my brake fluid topped up. I love my community, despite it being four people strong. I may be the only trans rider I know, but I hope my compatriots find warmth not only in solitude but in fraternity.
Yams (he/him) is an ecologist whose other interests include science communication, writing, and trying to build a better world. When not languishing in front of his laptop, he can be found on his motorcycle, or outside poking at any insect, bird, or plant.