Bullet Mani; The Royal Mechanic

In the old seaport of Kollam, on Kerala’s west coast, there is a man known as Bullet Mani, and he claims to have a special gift.

In the 1960s, when Thiruvananthapuram was still called Trivandrum and modern media had not yet supplanted fairy tales, he worked in that evergreen city with a man named Gopalan Mestri, who became his guru. It was from Mestri that he inherited his gift, and he has been using it for 40 years now, since he moved to Kollam in 1976.

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Few know of him and his powers, but those who do, travel miles to bear witness to them. Even as they approach, his magic begins to work. For Bullet Mani can listen to the sound of a Royal Enfield motorcycle and immediately tell you what is wrong with it.

Stories about men such as Bullet Mani, whose real name is P. Thangamani, the mechanic from Kollam district, which, he estimates, has a population of just over two million and more than 60,000 Royal Enfield motorcycles. Mani accepts only Enfields at his Enfield India Auto Garrage—spelt with two Rs, serendipitously suggestive of the sound he hears from his beloved Bullets—and services or repairs more than 10 every day. “People from all over India—Gujarat, Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai even—come to my shop,” he says. He must communicate with them by mimicking the sounds bikes make, for Malayalam is the only language he speaks. In his half-century of working with Enfields, he has learnt so many tricks that the company now often calls him for professional advice, and to test new bike parts.

No one from Eicher Motors, the company that owns the Royal Enfield brand, coaxed Mani to script such a riveting chapter in its story. He was doing what he did long before they even bought it from Madras Motors. But it is stories like his that make Enfield more than just a successful Indian brand. It is an ecosystem, and Mani, Roland M., Bobbee Singh and thousands of other men like them who centre their lives on these motorcycles have been as much a part of making Royal Enfield bikes iconic in India as Eicher Motors has. When a schoolboy looks with envious awe at his elder brother’s Bullet, he is not simply coveting a motorcycle; he is awaiting induction into this colourful, romantic community.