Two years ago during a round of outdoor cycling in Bandra, Rakesh Bakshi had an experience that left him feeling small. The filmmaker had stopped for a chat with a local tea seller, Susheel, in the course of which he offered him Rs 800 to replace his battered bicycle. When the boy acknowledged this by touching his feet, Bakshi's own expensive lycra gear, helmet and eyewear suddenly seemed too gaudy. "It was a sum I might have spent on a movie ticket and popcorn without thinking twice. That really put things in perspective," says Bakshi.
There is a sense of discomfort in charity that the privileged can feel, says Bakshi, but that has not stopped him from making a habit of it lately. His social initiative, Bicycle Angels, has donated as many as 73 cycles to people whose livelihood depends on them. It is not an NGO and perhaps comes closest to the idea of crowdfunding, except that the crowd mainly comprises Bakshi's friends and family. They chip in with amounts starting from Rs 100. When the donations total Rs 3,000, Bakshi buys a new cycle and gifts not more than one every week.
He also writes about his experiences and the recipients' lives. A Google-sourced photograph, which is the header image of the Bicycle Angels blog, sums up the founder's biggest takeaway from the initiative. In it, seen wading through neck-deep floodwaters is a man with eyes transfixed ahead with one arm raised bolt upright, clutching a bicycle purposefully. The humble mode of transport is "nothing less than a Ferrari" for working class heroes, observes Bakshi, who was among the dialogue writers for Million Dollar Arm.
Now in his cycling sessions, he looks for workers with worn-out cycles and others who do not own one at all. He learnt how the vehicle's wear-and-tear can affect fortunes from the way daily labourers describe a cycle's age, in terms of how many rainy seasons it has survived - for instance 'char baarish' (four monsoons). Bakshi, who is the son of renowned music director Anand Bakshi, now has heightened respect for no-frills Roadster cycles that can carry loads of everything from coconuts to plastic pots.
Bicycle Angels had its beginnings when Bakshi started cycling in the mornings from Bandra to South Mumbai. He heard about a Campus Bicycle Project by St. Xavier's students, where cyclists collected and refurbished unused cycles for gifting to poor schoolchildren in villages. Bakshi decided to sponsor one for them and asked his friends to contribute. Soon, he had received money enough for three cycles and began looking for others like Susheel whom he could help.
He has been learning on the job. Many people he approached were too proud to accept help. For instance, one young pavwala returned with the cycle after being reprimanded by his father for accepting it "when there are people poorer than us." When several others too declined the offer, Bakshi changed his strategy. "I stopped using the word 'daan' (charity). Instead, I told recipients they would be donors too since their old bicycle would help someone without one." At times, the recipients themselves offer to pay Rs 100-500 for the cycles. Bakshi adds the these sums to the donor's pool. Invoices are sent to all donors and recipients.
A few beneficiaries, however, have reported their Roadsters missing. As depicted in Vittorio De Sica's classic film The Bicycle Thief, the empowerment a cycle can bring makes it a commonly stolen item. The initiative has supported some offbeat professionals too, including a salesman of nazar bhattus, a charm made out of lemons and chillis, and someone who prepares and delivers lunchboxes to security guards. The Bandra resident is not making ambitious plans for the project. Keeping it simple will help transparency, he reckons.
Daily wage workers almost always cycle carefully on the left side of the road, more out of a need to safeguard the vehicle than anything else. However, often when roads are cleared to wave through ministers, Bakshi says he sees policemen gruffly shooing away labourers. "In my opinion, these workers are more worthy of being inside the cars," he says.