Reinventing inventing the wheel

by Gautam Raja

After I built my first bicycle wheel and rode it around, I told my wife about it with it with great pride.

“Congratulations on building your first wheel, “ she said. “You must feel like a real Neanderthal.”

That deflated me somewhat, but not for long. After all, creating fire from two sticks is not much of a human achievement these Mars-roving days. But give me two sticks, and I’ll eat Chinese food, play an arrhythmic drum solo, or poke you in the eyes. I won’t and can’t, make you fire, and would be immensely pleased if I did.

There’s actually much pleasure to be had from these elemental activities. In fact, building a bicycle wheel is a lot like baking a loaf of bread. It’s hard to believe that such simple ingredients come together to make something so profound.

A hoop, some wire rods and a hub make a structure that sets you free. It’s light, but it can bear several times your body weight. And to my eyes, a bicycle wheel is beautiful; it’s art. Similarly, put flour, water and yeast together, and you have a structure that’ll bear the weight of humanity, and whose smell as it comes out of the oven is joy itself.

The first moment of use is a proud one. When you pull off a piece of crusty loaf and butter it, and it actually looks, smells and tastes like bread. Or when you put your wheel on a bicycle and weight it for the first time, and it doesn’t self-destruct in a hail of flying spokes. To be riding down the road to the supermarket with it, I felt as if people should be stopping to stare at the wonder of it all.

It’s a feeling I want to pursue. I’ve never been good with my hands—I was the kid in school who didn’t know how to make paper planes and boats, and I still don’t know how. I don’t know how to cover a book in brown paper without looking as if I tried to embalm it. And about my handwriting—I’ve heard every joke in the ‘Spider Dipped in Ink’ book.

As a writer though, I’m not new to creating things, but there seems to be special pleasure in making physical objects. In reducing, at least for a while, the entropy in the universe by coaxing scraps of wood or metal or wheat gluten into orderly structures. On this subject, I was recently struck by a quote I saw at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. It was by artist Gillian Carnegie printed next to her painting titled ‘Yellow Wall’: “I prefer to consider the painting as a thing in the world than the painting as a picture of things in the world.”

A biking friend who recently assembled a bicycle around a beautiful vintage Italian steel frame, told me how he’s considering buying tubes and learning how to weld his next frame. Not so long ago, this would have sounded outrageous to me, but I understand him perfectly now. Once you learn to bake a loaf of bread, you dream about grinding your own wheat. Once done, you start looking for land to grow that wheat. Of course, the day I see him striking out with a shovel, set to mine metal for his next bicycle, is the day I tell him he’s perhaps gone too far. Perhaps.

And in spite of what my wife said about the wheel, I found it on proud display on a shelf in the living room. It made our cave really look like a home.

First published in Gulf News, March 23, 2010