First comes the sound, a soft but continuous and distinct “potato, potato, potato". And then appear seven women, riding their Harley-Davidson bikes in a neat line, headlights on even in broad daylight. They are part of Ladies of Harley (LoH), an exclusive chapter of women members of HOG (or Harley Owners Group, the official riding club of the bike manufacturer) in India. On their second official ride, they are travelling along the Golden Quadrilateral, covering 6,000km. The bikers, in the age group of 23-48, are an eclectic mix, including a recent college graduate, a homemaker, and a techie. One of the women has even quit her job to participate in the ride, which ends on 21 April.

They started from Daman on 7 April, and are passing through the Capital on their way to Kanpur. As they park outside the DLF Mall of India—for lunch and media interactions—in Noida, adjoining Delhi, there appears to be some confusion. This soon turns into a commotion as men and women in black suits approach the riders with their walkie-talkies. Confusion leads to anger, as the mall management tries to figure out its next move.

The guards at the gate can’t quite believe what they are seeing. “Ladkiyan hain bhai bike par (there are girls on those bikes)," says one to another, almost whispering the words, afraid that he might be saying the wrong thing.

The underlying thread connecting these riders is the idea of an India where it would not be unusual to see women riding motorbikes. They want to defy societal norms that seem to limit motor-riding rights to men.

I come from a community where I was told that girls can’t be riding bikes. So I had to wait till I could decide and do things on my own.- Krupa Reddy

For Krupa Reddy, 37, riding a bike was a 17-year-old dream that she could only achieve in December 2016.

“I used to watch drag races in Bengaluru, and, as a teenager, I wanted to be part of that group," she says. Reddy, the youngest of the seven in terms of riding experience, has left her job as a marketing professional. There is a childlike enthusiasm in the way she speaks about her rides; her eyes shine, and sentences are punctuated with smiles. “I come from a community where I was told that girls can’t be riding bikes. So I had to wait till I could decide and do things on my own," she says, flicking her hair over her shoulders.

In 2016, she bought a Harley-Davidson 750 Street for Rs7.5 lakh, using her savings, and learnt to ride it, with a little help from her husband.

“We would push the bike till we got to a slope. He would push me downhill and I would test the brakes without switching the bike on. That’s how it started," she says.

By the end of 2017, Reddy had clocked more than 20,000km, riding solo for much of these. “Riding, for me, is the ability to turn every no into a yes," she says.

Praveshika Katiyar, a fellow rider from Bengaluru, has a similar story.

“I always wanted to do what my elder brother did," says the 34-year-old. Originally from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, Katiyar has a BTech degree and works at HCL. “I would follow him to cricket games and he would push me out saying it is not meant for girls," she recalls. Katiyar learnt riding when she was 12. “I was told bikes are meant to be for men. I wanted to prove it is not," she says.

Shirley George, at 48 the oldest rider in the group, is also from Bengaluru. She recalls two incidents from a past ride that highlight the dichotomy in the Indian male psyche.

“I was part of a 15-member group that left Ahmedabad for Delhi via Jaipur. But somewhere towards Jaipur, I fell behind and lost my way," recalls the tall woman with cropped hair and a wry sense of humour. “There were signs in three different directions, all pointing to Jaipur. And near them was sitting a village elder. I went to him for help and the first thing he did was look at me and spit. I was shocked. It was probably my lack of understanding of the social etiquette of the land. But still...

“Before I started again, I blew a kiss to the old fellow," she recalls.

Later, during the same ride, at a fuel pump in Udaipur, she met an old doorman. “He saw me cleaning my bike and asked who was riding. When I told him I had ridden the bike all the way from Bengaluru, he was surprised," says George. “And then the frail man with a long beard puts his hands on my head and says, ‘If all the women of this country become like you, that would be India’s real progress.’ These are the kind of things that keep you going."

“Women come to us for selfies because we are riding a bike," says Urvashi Desai, 31. “You feel like a celebrity."

Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The entrepreneur from Ahmedabad learnt riding when she was in class X. Around 2007, she met with an accident and decided never to ride again. “I realized I loved my face more than riding," she recalls.

But then, sometime in 2014, during a “particularly low phase in her life", Desai drew up a list of things she missed, and riding was the first thing on it. Soon enough, she brought her first bike, a Harley-Davidson Roadster 48, and left town, riding for a good month and a half in and around Goa.

Desai says she fell in love with the “duk-duk", a distinct sound made by a Royal Enfield bike, as a child. Her first bike memory is of sitting on the fuel tank, riding with her father and grandfather.

For Sunita Kunjeer, a 43-year-old homemaker from Pune and director of the LoH chapter, the sound reminds her of home in the small town of Umarga in Maharashtra and the local milkman’s Royal Enfield. Her first bike was a Royal Enfield Machismo, which her parents gifted her when she started college.

“It was from my college days, 1993 I think. There were three of us on a bike riding from Sinhagad, near Pune. I didn’t see the speed-breaker that the bike hit. Thankfully, we weren’t hurt," she recalls. “But you know what was the first thing we did? We checked if our nails were ok," she exclaims, laughing.

Kunjeer, who has a law degree but has never practised, has been riding bikes for 25 years.

“My husband hates riding. But he is the person who has bought me my first Harley and chooses all my bikes," she says.

Motorcycling can take you to the heart of India where cars can’t go. “You can fly to a place. But then you will pass continents and yet see nothing," says George.

“I like to spread social messages wherever I go; on road safety, helmet camps, and, most importantly, cancer awareness," says the architect and adventurer who enjoys skydiving, deep-sea diving, and trekking. George learnt riding when she was 15, on her father’s first-edition Hero Honda 100cc. Today she has four bikes—two Harleys and two BMWs.

The intent of the Golden Quadrilateral ride, Kunjeer says, is to prove that India is safe for women to travel.

The ride also brings with it a feeling of fraternity. “We want to show our HOG community that we are no less than them," says Kunjeer. “We want to break the stereotypes. We want to tell people that girls can and should ride bikes, that India is a safe country to ride, that we have beautiful highways."

They finish their meals and head down to where the bikes are parked. And after a quick photo-shoot, they ride away. As the tattoo on Katiyar’s hand—Viam Inveniam Aut Faciam—suggests, you need to find a way, or make one—during the ride, and through life.

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