Once upon a time, not so very long time ago, a Hercules bicycle used to be my only mode of conveyance in Varanasi. There’s only one thing that worries a bicycle owner who keeps his machine well oiled and clean: air in the two tyres. There’s a little rubber tube covering the inside opening of the valve. When there’s a hole in the tube, air leaks out of the tyres. It’s a minor problem but the tubes need to be changed occasionally. A puncture in the tube is a big problem, especially when one discovers it just before one has to go out in the morning.
Then, one has to rush the bicycle to the nearby puncture mechanic. They pry open the tyre, take out the tube by the side and fill some air into it to check which exact spot has the actual puncture. Even when the puncture is clearly visible and the air coming out of it audibly, after inserting a twig or thin stick into it, they dip the tube around its whole circumference into a container filled with water kept there for that purpose. The tiny punctures invisible to naked eyes release air bubbles into water.
After detecting the exact spots where punctures have to be repaired, the mechanic then cleans those spots by rubbing the area around it with sand paper mounted over a small rectangular wooden block. A special kind of binding solution is then applied over the area under question and then, two paths diverge in the methods: the pukka and the kaccha ways of mending punctures. The kaccha method is simpler and much faster. A circular or square piece of rubber is cut and the same glue solution is applied over it. The patch is kept over the punctured area and pressure is applied over it so that it sticks to the tube and the puncture is mended instantly.
The kaccha method is the method favoured by nearly all the practitioners of the craft in Varanasi, barring Shri Chote Lal and his brothers. They swear by the more traditional and now extinct pukka method. Below is an image of the machine on which puncture is mended with the pukka method. With the machine one can see Shri Chote Lal, the practitioner of the lost art of pukka puncture mending. He graciously allowed me to take his pictures while he went on working his magic over the puncture tube of my (borrowed) bicycle.
There’s a home-made stove that forms the core of the machine. It’s an iron container in which an opening is cut by the side to fit the nozzle of a metal bellows and an insulating clay coating is put all around the outer and inner surfaces. Coal and wood are burnt in the stove to produce heat enough to make the thick iron plate placed over the stove so hot that the rubber patches fixed over the puncture melt to fuse with the tube and the puncture. The iron arm welded with the plate places a thick iron rod with threads and the rod moves through the hole in the arm to grip the tube that has to be mended and fix it at the right spot on the heated plate.
The area around the puncture has to be made rough first, so that it can hold the patches.
Rubber patches, specially meant for the purpose are stuck to the desired area.
A thin cellophane sheet is put over the whole thing.
The part of the tube over which patches are stuck and the sheet has been put, is then supported with a little wooden block over which the moving arm of the vice is fixed.
The screw is tightened and the tube is left over the plate for a time period enough for the rubber to melt and fuse. Here, the mechanic’s experience counts. Moreover, the tube can be removed and then put back on the plate is the result is not satisfactory.
Once the mechanic is satisfied with his work, he removes the tube from the machine and takes it to the bicycle.
The tube is then put back in its place and la voila! you are ready to go.
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