T Manikandan doesn’t have words to offer, but he has this smile which infuses silent spaces with myriad emotions. His ears are dead to sound, but his eyes swallow scenes whole, rendering decibels insignificant.
Born deaf and mute, the now jolly 19-year-old cycling prodigy wasn’t exactly optimism-central all his life. Sure, cycling came along and transformed his life into a more bearable medley of madness, but until March 2018, he was just another differently-abled youngster trying to fit into a society still nascent at being inclusive.
That he is a differently-abled kid from a family below the poverty line added to the struggle.
His socio-economic situation hasn’t improved one bit — his father is still a driver of water tankers in the City when he isn’t abusively drunk or indifferently hungover, his mother is a flower vendor when she isn’t sick or addressing the needs of Mani’s younger, ‘normal’ brother, and they live in a shoebox with one tattered mattress for all.
Manikandan has, though, changed his own circumstances through cycling, and is now going places he didn’t believe real.
For starters, he didn’t imagine Venkatesh Rao, whose lecture he came to attend in 2018 before taking up cycling seriously, would be sitting by his side as his ‘translator’ for this interaction.
“This kid came up to me when I was offering a lecture at 'Crankmiester' a couple of years ago…,” recalls Rao while offering Manikandan paternal glance. “he walked up to me with a phone and he told me to read the message. It said ‘My name is Manikandan. I cannot hear or talk, but I want to learn how to cycle fast’. He sat through the whole lecture and I don’t think anyone was as attentive as he was.”
“I knew I had to do something for him.”
Rao and a bunch of interested cyclists - amateurs without the urge to go professional - have made it a routine to ride well-known cycling routes in the city over weekends. Rao invited the kid to one of these cake-included shindigs, and he looked in place. Which, given the speed at which Rao and friends ride, is quite a feat.
“I knew he was serious when he showed me his readings on Strava (a cycling app). This boy somehow managed to get a phone and install Strava. I knew he was cycling long distances but to see him on the ride was an eye-opener. He was doing 25 kmph throughout, and at his age, that’s quite quick. Also, he was doing this on a single-speed bike,” says Rao.
Basically, gears make life easy. Manikandan didn’t have this luxury. Yet, his output was close to those on incredulously priced cycles. Impressive.
A doctor from Mysore thought so too when she gifted him a Ridley Scott (read as: very good, expensive geared cycle).
Cycling to avoid home just got easier. But only a few hours of distraction it offered. He still had to return and prep for another day of school, mentally, more than anything else. The culture of being sensible around disabilities hasn’t caught on, more so in his circles, and that is a daily struggle. Manikandan, literally, shrugs with a smile when asked of these challenges.
Having moved from a string of special schools early on, Manikandan finds himself insecurely melting into ancient wooden chairs at RBANMS High School - a regular school. Neither does he understand the teachers nor can he tell them he doesn’t. He sits through classes Sphinx-like and thinks of where he should cycle to next, or how he would engage his followers on social media.
“He is a fantastic photographer. He is very active on social media. That is another outlet for him,” says Venkatesh. “He wants people to see him and accept him for what he is. He wants to show them that he isn’t limited by his condition.”
He wanted to show Venkatesh the same as he nestled between his coaching wings. “At the Tour Of Nilgiris, he finished fourth overall and he clocked an average of 40 kmph. I was a bit faster than him and he wasn’t too happy about that,” laughs Venkatesh. “He is growing and he is getting faster. He doesn’t get much to eat at home so he’s still a bit weak but we’re trying to help him out.”
Venkatesh’s careful charting of his young ward’s path could be construed as his effort to make him a professional. ‘Coach’ insists otherwise. “Cycling it too precious. If he goes professional, I feel like he will stop enjoying it. I am not saying he shouldn’t. I only think he won’t because he loves it for what it is. Also, he will have to do a lot to get to that professional level,” he says.
“We don’t have time for that. He needs to focus on his studies now, he has his boards in a bit. I have plenty of cycling plans for him, travelling outside the country and so on, but it depends on how he studies. We’re giving him a rounded education here. Cycling is good but there’s more to life. He knows this as well as anyone.”