First Person: Sheeja Mathews

I was 12 or 13 when I started riding bikes. I used to take my dad’s old two-wheeler out around the neighbourhood. That was long before I got a licence, but my dad knew that I was a safe rider. All the tom-boyish kids I knew were getting their wheels pretty quickly. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I got serious about riding though. I’d gone into human resources after university, and was working for a multinational investment company in Bangalore. I started riding my husband’s bike, a Yamaha Rajdoot 350, to work.

I could have just taken the bus; my office has an official bus that picks up employees from home. But I found that boring: just sitting in a bus, going to and from work at set times. Traffic in Bangalore is terrible and I was often on the road for three hours a day. I preferred to ride, and my husband wasn’t using his bike much anyway. If I hadn’t taken it out, it would have sat in the garage.

A few years ago, I heard about these drag races that get organised in Bangalore every six months. I signed up. The races happen on a hill, over a 2km stretch where all the traffic is blocked off. Basically, you climb up with your bike and then race down. There are twists and turns; one wrong move and you’re down. But the speed! Oh my God. It’s absolutely amazing.

I raced twice in the ladies’ category and won both times. My husband always teases me. He says, “How many ladies actually participated in those races?” OK, I’ll admit that there were only three competitors. But I beat them all and I’m really proud of that. I never spoke about this in my office, of course. Only my closest friends knew that I would sometimes bunk off work on a weekday to do a race or to practise driving.

At the end of last year, a Harley-Davidson showroom opened in Bangalore. It became a landmark, with people crowding around to look at the bikes and take pictures. In February, I pulled my husband aside and said I wanted to order a Harley. If you ask me, Harley-Davidsons are for the most passionate drivers. They’re ridden by rough-and-tumble people. And I’m not a plain Jane. I ordered a standard Iron 883, for about Rs7.8 lakh (£10,350). To be frank, I had my eye on the heavier bikes in the store, but they were way beyond my budget. That was probably for the best, because my model is very sleek and better for riding in the city.

As soon as the bike arrived in June, I became a celebrity – I was on the national news in India, in the daily papers and on TV. They told me: you’re the first woman in India to own a Harley! I had no idea. Now, every time I stop at a traffic signal, people surround me. Sometimes they get really close; they want to check the bike’s mileage or ask if it’s hard to handle. Friends want me to visit their offices with the bike, so they can prove to their colleagues that they know me.

My son is especially excited. I took a week off work because he wanted me to drop him off and pick him up from school on my bike. His friends didn’t believe him that it’s his Mumma with a Harley. I never expected this to get so much attention. At some point, though, it becomes too much. At every meeting, on every call, people just want to talk about the bike.

But soon, there will be fresh news and this will pass over. I think it’s just a matter of time before more women in India start owning Harleys. Already, women here are getting into heavy biking, and I’m starting to see a lot of ladies riding two-wheelers. I just heard about a lady in Hyderabad who has bought a Harley; she’s the second woman in India.

Still, women don’t take to racing as much. And I’m really looking forward to racing on my Harley. In fact, there’s a tournament coming up soon and I’ll need to practise. The problem is that everyone in my office knows what I’m up to now. I’m not sure I’ll be able to fake a tummy upset on race day anymore.

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