In line at the Second Cup is a shortish, balding man with dancing eyes. He is the only man of Indian descent in the shop, so this must be Nani Reddy. I know very little about him, except that he is mechanically inclined, and a person of interest. This last is all I need to hear.
When we are seated, I’m not sure what I’m looking for, so I begin clumsily.
“Do you name your bikes?” I say.
He smiles and looks into the distance. No. He refers to his bicycles by one of two phrases: the Sanskrit “Dwi-Chakra” and the Spanish “Dos Ruedas”, both of which mean “two wheels.” I’m surprised to find such romance in this unassuming man.
Nani was born in an impoverished community in southern India. With hard work, Nani won a scholarship and earned a degree in engineering.
“When I moved to Canada,” he tells me, “I became heavily involved in the peace movement.” Nani was on the Community Bicycle Network (CBN) board for ten years. He set up eleven bicycle recycling clubs across the city, where a volunteer could work six hours to be awarded a bike to repair and take home. Lots of children and immigrant women were drawn to this program. Nani himself now volunteers his bike mechanic skills at a club in the basement of Dufferin Mall.
And then, Nani moved to Cuba to train people in traffic design. The conditions there were difficult and people couldn’t always rely on public transit. He soon realized that many countries ship high quality bicycles into Cuba, but since Cuba doesn’t have replacement parts, the bikes often went unridden because they couldn’t be repaired.
Back in Toronto, Nani founded a project called Bicycles Crossing Borders. He wanted to set up DIY shops, providing tools, parts and training at various points in Cuba. Equipment would be collected in Canada and shipped to Cuba. News of the program spread across the GTA.
“When a shipment was due to go out,” Nani explains, “I’d send a mass email and fifty – sixty people would suddenly arrive to assist!”
Sadly, while Canadians have the will to volunteer, our country lacks financial fortitude. Government backing has ended, so the program now relies on individual funding. For various reasons, a container shipment used to cost the program $1700; it now costs $6700. Furthermore, Cuba didn’t develop as Nani had envisioned. There are lots of smaller shops, but pollution is high because of additives in the rationed gas: you need a mask to cycle in Old Havanna.
“People don’t ride so much anymore,” he says, discouraged.
Regardless, Nani still prepares containers for shipment. Bikes and equipment are collected from across the GTA and stored at various depots. Nani then locates a viable container and a reasonably-priced route from Canada to Cuba. At the moment, he is negotiating with the city of Markham on such a container: a shipment may go out this month. If everything falls into place, Nani will send out a quick email to anyone who’s expressed an interest, with details on when and where to meet. Preparing a shipment takes a weekend. The bikes must be collected from the depots, sorted and taken apart, and loaded into the container. The several thousand boxes of bike parts must be collected from their depot points and stored into the container. It must happen quickly, to save money.
Bicycles Crossing Borders is skeletal, but still vibrant. Nani continues to receive countless email inquiring after the next shipment, because many people are still willing to assist.
He laughs, spent. “It’s important to me that everyone not just own a bike,” he says, “but that they use it”.
Now, when I begin an interview with anyone in a role even remotely advocacy-driven, I ask if they know the name Nani Reddy, the bike mechanic and global cycling advocate. Almost always, they do. And now, to my great fortune, so do I.