You can’t miss the orange shirt. In the middle of a crowd, and at most cultural gatherings in Thiruvananthapuram, there he will be, a bright orange shirt on him, a cycle not far away to ride back home. He has held so many cycling events in and around the city that at one point, someone began calling him Cycle Prakash. He wore it like a badge on his shoulders, introducing himself by that name instead of the official Prakash P Gopinath.
It was little wonder then to those who know him that Prakash won a new title recently – Bicycle Mayor of Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum). It was awarded by the BYCS – an Amsterdam-based social enterprise driven by the belief that bicycles transform cities and cities transform the world. Prakash shows the official letter – “In our view, Prakash is an ideal candidate to accelerate the development of cycling in the city and he joins a growing international network of Bicycle Mayors active across all continents.”
“Someone had suggested,” he says, when I ask him how it came about. “There were many interviews,” Prakash says, removing his helmet. He has just ridden to Manaveeyam Veedi, a street he begins most of his cycling events from, on a friend’s electric cycle. His own is a hybrid cycle that he has been riding for four years.
It is ten years ago that Prakash came back to cycling, after his school and college days. “That had been a fundraiser event to ride from Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram. There were seven of us, and we wanted to raise funds for a building for Chilla, a home for children of sex workers,” he says. He had a job in Chennai then, as senior section engineer at the railways.
One of the awareness rides by Indus Cycling Embassy
In that ride, National Service Scheme volunteers from different colleges had cycled along with Prakash for parts of the journey. “They suggested about having a cycling club. And in 2012, we formed the Indus Cycling Embassy,” says Prakash. Just like Prakash became Cycle Prakash, Indus too became another name for the man. Every second Saturday, he would religiously organise early morning rides in the city. And all this is while he still held his Chennai job but would come home to Thiruvananthapuram on and off.
“What I noticed in these Saturday rides is that there were very few women that would join. The few who came were from the LNCP (Lakshmibai National College for Physical Education) who were anyway active in sports. So that’s when we thought of teaching girls and women to ride,” Prakash says.
Teaching women to ride bicycles
He began with the street he lived in. But he didn’t take the easy way out, teaching just the impressionably young girls of the locality. He got to older women, women who had given up on riding because it never was an option for them beyond an age. Prakash says he has taught two women in their 60s – 81 women and girls in all.
About a year and a half ago, Indus Cycling Embassy went a step ahead. The club would pool in Rs 50 from a circle of people – more than 100 of them – and buy with the money, a bicycle for a less fortunate child in government or aided schools. “There is a cycle shop called Silent Wheel in Vazhayila. They’d always sell it for lesser amounts, knowing the purpose it was bought for. At first, we gifted cycles to lesser privileged girls we learnt about through our contacts. Later, the Green Army (part of the campaign wing of Thiruvananthapuram Corporation’s project My City, My Beautiful City) joined us in identifying the most deserving child. We have gifted 18 cycles so far, one every month. Seventeen of these are girls, one is a boy.”
Anna Raj P, a ninth grader at Cotton Hill School, is gifted a bicycle in March 2019
Prakash and his team were accused by some of showing discrimination, by favouring girls over boys. He had to explain to them how in an underprivileged house, if there was an option to buy one bicycle and there was a boy and a girl, it was mostly the boy that got it.
His own cycling history as a little boy is another story. “I began in fourth or fifth standard, taking a bicycle on rent for 20 or 30 paisa for an hour’s ride. I would sometimes secretly sell The Hindu newspapers that came home and get this money. Or else when the man who milks the cows came home, I would sneak away with his bicycle while he worked.”
Perhaps, knowing of his interest, his parents bought him a cycle soon and he began riding leisurely to his school five kilometres away, and later to his college. It is only when he got a job in the then Madras that he had to leave his cycle behind. The job needed him to travel between Tamil Nadu and Kerala all the time. Till of course, Chilla’s fundraiser brought him back to cycling. “In 2013, I got a folding cycle, which means I could take it everywhere with me, wherever I went for work,” Prakash says cheerfully. In 2015, he took VRS (voluntary retirement scheme) and came home for good.
After the Chilla ride, Prakash and his friends rode several times for charity or else to protest – there was a protest ride against the building of Aranmula airport, there are rides for spreading awareness on blood donation and organ donation. At other times, he becomes the motivational guru. “There is a young man called Sanoj, who lost one arm because of bone cancer. He asked if he could ride a bicycle, and I said yes. It needed some practice but now Sanoj rides one without help. You should write about him,” Prakash says. Clearly, the man is fond of anyone that rides.
Sanoj learns to ride a bicycle
His responsibilities have grown now with the new title. Prakash will have a council to help him, advising him about formation of cycling clubs and tracks in schools and other activities to be undertaken.
But for now, the Bicycle Mayor takes his helmet to ride back home. Safe riding is another message he promotes – lights in the night, reflective jacket and of course, a helmet on the head. “Wear bright colours like green and orange, it helps the vehicles spot a rider easily,” he says, explaining his choice of bright garments at all events.