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The first word: The bicycle man

SEP 28 -

Asta Narayan Manandhar opened the first bicycle shop in Nepal quite by accident.

In the 1920s, the few two-wheelers in Kathmandu were owned by members of the ruling classes. Asta Narayan had a friend who worked as a driver for one of the big shots. He once brought home a machine belonging to his boss, and the two young fellows went for a spin.

Excited by the rare opportunity, Asta Narayan jumped on the bicycle and took off. He raced downhill towards Kamaladi behind the clock tower and, unable to stop, crashed in a heap and knocked himself out. He also broke his leg. When the fracture healed and they took off the cast, his leg was about an inch shorter than the other. Asta Narayan wasn’t going to live the rest of his life with a limp. So he had the doctor break his leg again and fix it so that both were of the same length.

Asta Narayan could never get the incident out of his mind. And subsequently when he decided to go into business, he had the idea of becoming a bicycle seller. He cleared out the ground floor of his house at Asan Kamalachhi for his shop, and travelled to Kolkata and brought six British-made Hercules bicycles for his start-up inventory. Named Pancha Narayan Asta Narayan in honour of his father, the store opened in 1929. It may not have occurred to Asta Narayan that he was making history, but he had established a tradition. In time, Kamalachhi would be transformed into a street of bicycle stores and workshops as others followed his lead.

Asta Narayan’s ancestral neighbourhood, however, is in a different part of Kathmandu. He was born in 1900 in Maru Dhoka near Durbar Square. His father Pancha Narayan was a contractor who supplied foodstuffs to the government. He was also a big fan of street theatre, and during festivals, would disappear for days to organise performances. In the 1920s, Pancha Narayan moved to Kamalachhi, which proved to be fortunate for Asta Narayan as it was a business hub.

As the first shop dealing exclusively in bicycles, Pancha Narayan Asta Narayan did okay. Asta Narayan never thought that he would be doing booming business as his wares were rather expensive. A bicycle cost around Rs 100 in those days. Most of his customers were government officials. A few among the city’s merchant classes also bought them. Around 1934, he started importing Raleigh bicycles too. The bicycles came unassembled in large boxes. The shipment arrived at Raxaul from Kolkata by train. From there it was carried to Amlekhganj by the Nepal Government Railway, and then to Bhimphedi by lorry. The loads finally reached Kathmandu by ropeway or on the backs of coolies as there were no roads then.

Before Asta Narayan went into the bicycle business, he had tried importing electrical goods. But his first business trip to Kolkata was a disaster, and he gave up the thought. As his son Tirtha Narayan has recounted in his autobiography, Asta Narayan and an uncle left on a buying mission with Rs 6,000 in Indian currency. They had devised an ingenious method of carrying the cash as a safety measure. They ripped the rupee notes in half, and the uncle kept one half while the nephew kept the other half. The idea was that if one of them should get robbed, they could get their money replaced by producing the remaining half.

The system was tested when they reached Kolkata after a pickpocket made off with the pieces the uncle was carrying. The duo hung around in the city for six months before a bank agreed to replace the pieces Asta Narayan had with him. But by then, they thought they’d had enough excitement for one trip, and returned to Kathmandu without buying anything.

The bicycle dealership, however, would develop into a family tradition. The profits also allowed Asta Narayan to pursue his interest in philanthropy. Among his notable contributions would be the suspension bridge over the Bishnumati River at Kanga. During his daily morning pilgrimage to Swayambhu, he had to cross the river over a wooden footbridge. It was a temporary structure that would be dismantled during the monsoon and reinstalled during the autumn. He thought that if a permanent bridge could be built, it would serve pedestrians in the rainy season too. And so in 1957, he built a small suspension bridge by recycling discarded ropeway cable.

Asta Narayan’s creation has now been replaced by a larger and improved bridge. The bicycle business he started reached new heights under the guidance of his son Tirtha Narayan. Today, the legacy lives on in varied forms among his descendants. The iconic neon sign of Pancha Narayan Asta Narayan at Kamalachhi has been taken down, but the endless clanging of bicycle bells on the street reminds us of the entrepreneur who set the wheel rolling.

Posted on: 2012-09-29 09:52


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