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Driving Down Memory Lane

By Anamika Mukherjee

When Maruti heralded the start of a new era in the automobile industry in the ‘80s, it also brought the curtain down on the era when the Fiat and the Ambassador ruled the Indian roads. For those of us who were brought up and learnt to drive on those stalwart vehicles, here’s a trip down memory lane.

I remember the day she came to us – dusty and tired, no doubt, from the long journey, during which she had acquired hundreds of specks of red paint on her light green exterior.

Amit and I had inherited her, this old (1986 model) banged-up car, from my family, where she had been passed around for a few years like a family heirloom. Starting with one aunt in Chandigarh, she had then spent some time with another aunt, then with my parents and my sister in Delhi and finally she was shipped (or rather, trucked) down to us in Bangalore.

One would have thought that the old girl would appreciate this trip down south. At any rate, the weather down here is rather more clement than the extreme hot and cold seasons of the north. Perhaps she was just irritable at being displaced. Whatever the reason, she began to show signs of old age almost at once, coughing and wheezing in the morning in a quite pathetic fashion.

In those days, Amit and I were healthy, energetic young folk, who used to get up at some ungodly hour of night to go horse riding at the Bangalore Turf Club, or to Cubbon Park for a morning walk. Doubtless this displeased Her Royal Highness, who had been used to snoozing in the sun till close to 11 am.

One day, quite a short time after relocating to Bangalore, she decided that her lineage, her illustrious family eccentricity, and her age merited greater attention. Accordingly, after her usual grumbles and complaints about being woken up early morning she started, went 20 m (round the bend) and stopped.

The battery conveniently chose this moment to die, but this was not the root cause of the problem. I (being an old hand at this sort of thing; I had been helping my parents push their car around almost as soon as I learned to walk) volunteered to push, but Amit sternly opposed this motion, so he pushed and I started. Tried to start. The road was sloping in the wrong direction, as it happened, so he had to push uphill. Pushing those old, heavy cars uphill is not an enviable task. All the same, Amit, who is definitely an able-bodied male (or was, in those days) was making heavy weather of it. Finally, I helped somewhat by releasing the handbrake and keeping one foot on the clutch (and taking my other foot off the brake).

With this valuable assistance from me, Amit pushed and pushed; first uphill, then back down, while I tried to start in reverse. The old lady gurgled, spluttered and refused to start. After several efforts at push starting, I got impatient and turned the ignition key. She started! I floored the accelerator, flooding the engine, while Amit jumped in with the alacrity of a Jack in the Box (in reverse) – and off we went.

All went well for the next 150 m. Then we got to another steep uphill slope. (Why, oh why, can’t the roads of Bangalore be on level?) Changing to first, the old girl stopped again. Ok, we knew the routine this time. A steep slope up, must slope equally steeply down, we figured, so it should be easy to start, albeit in reverse.

It was. But the moment I took my foot off the accelerator long enough to change from reverse to first (an essential prerequisite for getting anywhere anytime soon) she stalled again. Should I have tried driving all the way in reverse?

After several repeat performances, Madam was just as adamant and was beginning to breathe fire to boot - or at least fumes. Convinced that I was showing extreme ineptitude at starting and changing gears, Amit got into the driver’s seat and I pushed. There was no noticeable difference in outcome. With aching thighs, and gasping for breath, we both retreated to confabulate. Home, we decided. Amit was in favour of using muscle power to get there, but I turned the key, started her up and went shooting off, leaving him staring after me (and still gasping).

She must have known that we were headed homewards, because she didn't send out any more smoke signals. But she started squeaking in anticipation (or something) which startled me enough to stop and wait for Amit to come and push her into her bed.

Although we never did make it to the park that day, we felt that we had had quite enough exercise to last us the week, thank you.

Over the next two years, Her Royal Highness didn’t let us down too often; but every once in a while she would stall in the middle of a busy road, just to keep us on our toes. We had her battery changed and her carburettor and air filter and oil filter and all manner of other unmentionables cleaned, and for a while everything worked they way it should (except for a few odd rattles and creaks that provided musical accompaniment to every journey).

And then, she did it again.

This time, I was alone; Amit was travelling out of the country for a month. I had cajoled the old gal to get started and take me towards the turf club for a morning canter, when she decided to have some fun. At the intersection of MG Road and Dickenson Road, when I shifted down to second and stepped on the accelerator, instead of moving along as expected, she coughed and bucked like a recalcitrant horse. Normally, this wouldn’t have mattered: at that hour there’s not much traffic around, even on MG Road. But she had certainly picked her moment carefully. There was a taxi speeding down MG Road at 120 kmph (or so), heading straight for us and showing no signs of stopping.

Nor did it stop. We were broadsided. Pushed off the intersection into the divider. The off side door crumpled. Having achieved her minor victory, and got me thoroughly shaken up, the grumpy old lady proceeded to drive me very sweetly to the Turf Club, where she stood and licked her wounds while I tottered out and went for a ride.

This time, getting her fixed was an expensive and time-consuming affair. The insurance company took one look at her and suggested writing her off for a pittance. Useless to tell them that we could not possibly replace her with a four-wheeled vehicle of any kind for Rs. 10,000. That’s all she was worth, they informed us sternly.

We would have to sell her. But sell her how? Who would buy her? We asked her mechanic – a man who knew her inside out. And yes! He had a buyer. The buyer would come Thursday evening to inspect and, all going well, take delivery.

She decided to give us a farewell to remember.

We had got her dents fixed and painted, and after that we had been punctilious about starting her every day, making sure she got her daily fix of petrol and air. Now, just a few days before the prospective buyer were to come, as though she sensed something, she suddenly refused to start. For four days, we spent 45 minutes each day, pushing her this way and that; pleading, threatening, and cursing; getting pitying looks from drivers of the older generation, who could see what we were going through and offered vain advice; and getting superior looks from everybody else, who had not, and had never had, such a car.

She held off till the last, impervious to it all.

We were beginning to get really desperate. The buyer would be here tomorrow! The big day dawned. We got up early, called in sick to work (almost not a lie, with all the exertions of the days gone by) rolled up our sleeves and got down to work. It took us an hour or more – at any rate, it seemed like more. We finally had to get her up a steep slope behind our building and roll her down it, three strong men pushing her along with muscle power and prayers to a pantheon of gods. I, behind the wheel, engaged second gear, and with my foot on the clutch, tried for what felt like the 2378th time to get her going.

Success! She took off with a roar. The surprise was so great it was all I could do to put my foot on the accelerator and keep it there. I almost forgot to steer and might have knocked down a couple of dogs if they had not jumped out of the way in a hurry, startled by the thundering monster hurtling their way in a clearly drunken fashion. In the rear view mirror, I could see three exhausted men standing with their mouths open, gaping in complete bewilderment.

I did not dare take her too far. Down the road and back again. Over four speed breakers, second gear all the way, praying she wouldn’t stall. Back to her parking place.

Half an hour later, the buyer came, saw, and was conquered. He turned the key and she started at one shot. “See, she doesn’t even have any starting problems,” I pointed out innocently. Money exchanged hands and we parted on good terms.

Watching her chug away, we felt more than a little sad. Of course she had her faults, but she had been a colourful personality, a force to reckon with. Life would be a little less entertaining, a little more mundane without her.

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Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.