Are you sure you're okay with me taking a spin?' I asked Vijay Singh Ajairajpura, the lad behind Rajputana Customs, as I hung around near Nandi, his latest creation.
'Sure, go on and don't forget to give it as much stick as you can!' he shot back at my apparent hesitation. For crying out aloud, here I am, being coerced into riding this motorcycle that is to be packed in a couple of hours, destined for a long truck ride to its new owner sitting pretty in far away Orissa.
As I had observed in my walk around the motorcycle prior to getting aboard, Nandi seems like it was built around its huge rear tyre. By huge, I mean gargantuan, because this mass of rubber is a whole 300mm job. A slashed fender skims a few hair-widths above the tyre and your butt oscillates on a sprung piece of seat that's been wrapped in leather. A metallic green-and-off-white paint job adds the necessary effect and vies with the chrome for glory in the sun. Copper tubing neatly conceals the wiring while it runs toward the rear. Move up towards the front and you're greeted, no make that mauled, by the springer forks that have been fabricated in-house.
I have a confession to make. Customised motorcycles have always scared the daylights out of me and here's why. In the past, most of these bruisers that I have had the opportunity of riding never ran true. Either they pulled to the right or to the left or worse still, in different directions when all you wanted to do was go straight. Prior to swinging my legs over the bike, I was always served a telephone directory worth of instructions - don't corner too hard, go easy on the throttle, be careful of that metal spike on the tank when you stop, the brakes are purely cosmetic, watch where you put your foot and so on and so forth.
As I put on my helmet and gear, I'm still secretly waiting for Vijay to run me through the customary checklist of do's and don'ts. But he keeps smiling and talking to his buddy. I've got a cold sweat from all the permutations and combinations of horror that are running through my head, thinking of what could and would go wrong. I can't stand the suspense anymore and blurt out: 'Do I have to remember anything when I'm on this motorcycle?'
'Nothing, just ride it like you would with any other bike... Why, is something wrong?’ Vijay asks me. I lie through my teeth and swing my head, trying to look like someone who knows what to expect.
That cool look fades away when I'm searching for the key and the starter button. I think Vijay sensed the tension in my head and he bent down behind my left leg and cranked the 500cc UCE engine to life.
Ah, I'm on familiar territory, I think to myself as I let the engine's note resound in my helmet. This can't be too different from the Royal Enfield Classic 500 that sacrificed itself to be reborn as Nandi, I reason. I couldn't be any more wrong, as it turns out.
There's sand in the compound but instead of sliding this way and that, Nandi's truck-sized tyre digs in and I roll out comfortably as I let out the clutch. Okay, so far, so good. I proceed down the road, contemplating on whether I should be taking up Vijay's advice of whacking the throttle wide open.
What the hell, you live just once and my right wrist throttles all the way to the back. For a moment, time stands still, nothing happens and I'm already panicking. But then, power gushes in and away I go with a strong surge forward. Although that tyre saps up a considerable amount of horses from the motor, there's plenty left to tackle the traffic and then some more.
On the move, Nandi feels amazingly light. Over potholes, the rear skips a tad and then settles itself down - something typical of a rigid rear end. It can unnerve blokes who've never ridden hard-tails before but it's just something you get used to. The seat springs were setup for the owner who's built heavier than me, so my relatively skinny self hardly got those things to move.
With more white stripes that I’ve rolled past and left behind, I begin to feel more at ease till Nandi and I get into a steady rhythm and I can almost hear Highway Star playing. The gears drop into place every time, the brakes do their job without complaint (though the rear needed quite some pedal travel before it began to bite - nothing a quick setting couldn't cure) and I actually contemplate on letting go of both hands from the bars to see how straight this bike actually ran. I didn't but with just my right hand on the throttle grip it didn't veer off in any undesired direction.
Now that is something, when you consider that this motorcycle is bolted together onto a frame that is completely hand-built. From the pipe bending to the welding, everything has been done by human hands. Look closer and I can vouch for the fact that you will at least have a passing thought that the frame has been moulded as one piece. Each tube slips into a connector of a larger diameter on either end and then the unit is welded, concealing everything. I couldn't spot a single burr or welding tag and it just amazes me how close, in terms of workmanship, this Nandi is to a factory built motorcycle.
The Naila Bagh Palace was built in 1872 and is home to the Naila family of Jaipur. It now also serves as a swish boutique hotel as well as the royal residence. I had the run of the place and Gangster, the first motorcycle that Vijay has built, had joined in to play. After the customary 'A little to the back. Yes. Oh, now a little to the front' and so on and so forth, we were done with it.
It's time to head back to pack Nandi off on its way and Vijay asks me if I want a spin aboard the Gangster. I decline because I simply can't get enough of the former. Off we go, and then I'm faced with Jaipur's gol-chakkars and I'm scared stiff. Will it corner or will I have to paddle around them. But it made it without much ado. Whew.
With the advent of better motorcycles as the basis for the craft and exposure to the kind of quality that foreign custom builders possess, it is inevitable that India is going to be teeming with capable hands like the Rajputana Customs folk. Customisation has made it to India a while back but it's only now that functionality and attention is being given as much of importance as aesthetics. I can safely say that if Nandi is anything to go by for custom motorcycles in India, I have nothing more to fear. And yes, we will be featuring a lot more of them in the coming future. Lest I forget, Vijay, I won't think twice about riding any of your motorcycles again. Promise!