Grandpa had a friend. An old Englishman with a long white beard. He was not a priest but his life was very much like a priest's. He was never married, spent all his days in the slums, giving free medicine and food to the poor, milk to the children, blankets and even cigarettes to the older folks. He did it alone with his own money and love. Perhaps he tried to make up for some of the sins his countrymen committed, by occupying and ruling India.
Grandpa too gave free treatment to the poor folks in the slum. He was a famous homeopathic physician. Perhaps that is why he and Mr. Young became good friends. Everyday both of them took their morning walks around the Hedo pond. Mr. Young’s huge English breed dog ran ahead of them. Every evening they played chess together. Mr. Young could speak Bengali quite well. So we kids too were at ease with him.
Mr. Young always arrived in a small two-seater convertible. Folks called it ‘Mr. Young’s box’. The car did look like a tiny box. Even the color was silver, like a paan box. It had a black canvas roof, which was always folded like a scarf around the neck of the car. Even in rain or shine, no one had ever seen it opened. Mr. Young himself was the driver and the passenger was always Newton, sitting erect and serious in the tiny half moon shaped back seat. Newton was the huge, longhaired golden retriever. When he followed Mr. Young in the slums, he looked and walked like a tiger. He had such a personality that no kid even dared throw stones at him.
None of us knew for sure what had brought Mr. Young to Calcutta. Perhaps it was his job or perhaps some other personal need. But one day that need was over. It was time for him to retire and return to his country. He came to grandpa with a serious problem. He couldn’t take Newton to England. English dogs could come to India easily but Indian dogs were not good enough to enter England. Who knew what all worms and germs they could carry. As a result, poor Newton, who thus far had enjoyed a carefree life riding in the car with his ears laid flat in the wind, had become a problem. Mr. Young did not want to give Newton to someone else. Who knew if they would take proper care of him or not. So he decided to put Newton to sleep. Let him be in God’s care for eternity.
All his clothes, books, furniture, pots and pans were distributed among the slum dwellers. Then he remembered his car! There was nobody in the slum to take care of the car.
Tiny little box like car, an old man bent over the steering wheel, his whitebeard flying in the wind, a huge golden dog at the back, his golden hair too flying like the beard. This was a very familiar sight in the slum. One could not put a car to sleep, like a dog, so Mr. Young gave the car to his dear friend and boarded the ship. Grandpa became the new owner of the car. All the necessary papers and the key too were handed over to him.
However the car remained parked outside, in front of our house. My grandfather, father, uncle, nobody knew how to drive. The old carriage driver Rahim knew, but he drove a different type of carriage. This beautiful English car just sat outside and gradually got rusted and eroded in the dust and rain. Everyone lamented at the sight of it. At last, dad—with grandpa’s permission—moved the car away in a covered shed in the repair shop of Bhabani babu in the next lane.
At last everyone was relieved. Bhabani babu’s kids too were happy. They got an extra playroom inside the car. Sometimes when we were in the neighborhood, we took a peek at the car. The sight of the kids playing in it made us fill with envy. How unfair. It was our car and we never got to enjoy it.
A few days after this, one of our uncles (my mother’s brother) came from Delhi to visit us. This man was very ‘modern’ and westernized, and absolutely crazy about cars. As soon as he landed he started, “Where is it? Where is the car of Mr. Young?” We sent him immediately to ‘Bhabani Engineering Works’.
After a few hours he returned, literally dancing with joy, “Oh yes! That car will run fine. It is in mint condition. Just give me a couple of days and I will take you all for a fine long drive!”
For the next two days uncle and Bhabani babu’s repairmen tinkered with the car. Dad asked Grandpa’s permission for my uncle to drive the car. Of course grandpa was thrilled, “Of course, of course. It is good for the car to be driven occasionally. It is not gold that needs to be locked away in the vault. Mechanical things are like your own body. Use it or lose it. But please don’t ask your grandpa to ride in it. I refuse to sit in that little doggie seat at the back. If I knew how to drive, I would have considered it, but...”
Well, we were all willing to ride in the car, even if our grandpa wasn’t. We five brothers and three sisters were all rearing to go. “All in good time.” Uncle calmed us, “Don’t rush. Everyone will get a chance. We will take two at a time, each trip.”
Oops! We had forgotten. It was only a two-sitter. “Patience please!”
At last the day came. The car came out of the garage. Uncle was in the driver’s seat. My oldest brother squeezed in next to him. At the back, in the half moon shaped doggie seat, my second brother and I crowded in. Next turn would be for Mani, Shubho, Abhu and Khuku. They were all lined up on the sidewalk. That’s how it was arranged, from the oldest to the youngest.
My uncle turned the key to start. The car only snorted, didn’t move. The battery contained enough holy water, the engine had all the correct amounts of oil and gasoline, and the tires had enough air in all four. Nothing was missing anywhere, but the car refused to budge an inch. We sat there looking most embarrassed. Uncle said, “No problem. It's only because it’s been sitting for all this time. Perhaps rust, or just got stuck. Once we push it a little, it will start. It must.”
True enough! As soon as a few hefty, oil stained men gave it a shove the car started up. And after that Mr. Young’s car really ran quite smoothly! All the repairmen clapped and yelled. We too waved and yelled back. And amidst all this waving and yelling, our uncle drove us proudly along as if he was taking a victory lap.
We were passing in front of our house towards the main road. Everyone had been ready and waiting for the show. Grandpa, dad, our younger uncle were all dressed up and standing outside the house. Upstairs, in the balcony, mom and all the aunts had crowded. Even our invalid grandma had been carried out and seated comfortably with pillows and blankets. It was a historic event for our family. Our very own automobile was being driven for the first time. Perhaps one may call it an 'auspicious beginning’ or ‘invocation’? First drive in a car was a serious business. Everyone was on pins and needles. Dear God, let everything go on without a hitch.
As soon as the car was sighted, everyone clapped. Of course we could not claim any credit for it, but we still puffed our chests with pride. Gradually the car neared our house. By that time there was a huge crowd gathered in front of our house, larger than even Indira Gandhi herself could have commanded. What a tremendous excitement! Slowly, very slowly, the car inched towards our house. Our hair was flowing in the wind just like Newton’s long ears. We were proudly turning our heads to look on both sides. Open top car was most comfortable. That was the first time I understood the meaning of ‘taking the breeze’.
As soon as the car came near our house we started yelling, uncle too joined us. All the neighborhood kids started yelling as loudly as possible. Even while driving, uncle raised one hand to wave smartly in Hollywood style. Grandpa and dad too waved white handkerchiefs and grinned brightly. Whole community was bubbling with excitement. While passing by the front door, a small packet of holy flower and leaves flew over from the balcony right on top of our heads. Even our mother and aunts were yelling and laughing. It was like a reception of the new bride in her house. And what a reception!
When the car passed the crossing and headed towards the main road, suddenly dad yelled from behind, ”Nirmal, turn back from here. Don’t go to the main road.”
“Yes, yes.” Uncle waved back reassuringly. The car kept rolling. Now grandpa’s voice could be heard, ”Don’t take that broken car to the road, turn back now!”
“Yes, yes.” Uncle smiled and waved. The car kept on going, kept on going. There was no sign of it stopping or even slowing down. It rolled along like a round marble. Of course we were all thrilled. We could imagine the inspiring song playing in loudspeaker, ‘Come on, step forward. Hear the drumbeat above, see the eager world at your feet, you are the youth of this golden morn…’. Suddenly we heard uncle’s sober voice, “Squad, do not panic. Listen carefully. As soon as I say ‘squad, jump off’, all you three should jump off the car immediately. Got it? There is no roof above. You should have no problem jumping out. And I will open the left side door also.”
“But, why uncle?” The tramline was not too far. We could clearly see the trucks, taxis and double-decker buses on the main road within fifty yards. But the car kept on moving, like the obstinate cough of a whooping cough patient. The little snuffbox of a car rolled on.
“Because we have no brake!” Uncle replied.
We were stunned. Dad and grandpa were still yelling behind, “Avoid the main road. Too much traffic…”
Uncle spoke, as if to himself, “A brake would be convenient. But, what can you do. Anyway, see that red brick wall ahead? I will lightly nudge it. That’s when you guys will open the doors and jump. Ok? But not now, when I say, ‘one, two, three, squad jump off’ then jump. Now squad, get ready.”
Straight ahead was Mahesh Ganguly’s mango orchard, enclosed by a long, low red brick wall. Uncle steered the car very carefully and gave it a gentle bang, “No offence to anybody.”
But this was an imported car. It had a different temperament. Instead of a gentle nudge it crashed through the wall, entered the orchard, crashed into a mango tree and then came to stop.
“SQUAD JUMP OFF” yelled uncle and jumped out himself opening the right side door. But he never got to open the left door. So none of us could jump out. My older brother had curled himself on the floor. My next brother was so scared he just crushed me in his arms. All of us forgot jumping and just shut our eyes and curled up tight as we could. Of course none of us got hurt, merely suffered a shower of broken bricks and mortars on our heads. Thank God the wall was only waist high. The car stood demurely, with its nose into the mango tree and tail sticking out on the sidewalk, wearing the broken wall like a belt around its waist. Of course the front screen was in million pieces. But we were not hurt. Not even a piece of glass touched us. Uncle proudly pronounced,
“This is called the ‘finer touch’. See, the car brought under full control, without any harm to the passengers.” Not only the passengers, except for the screen, even the car appeared totally intact. It must have been tough as a Patton tank!
Sadly, the gardener of the orchard did not appreciate the ‘finer touches’. He came running and yelling and cursed us and our fourteen past generations in most colorful language. In the meantime, the immediate two past generations, my dad and grandpa, had reached us. Grandpa anxiously asked, “When did you lose the brake?”
“We didn’t actually lose it…”
“Then why didn’t you stop the car?”
“Because we never had a brake!”
Now dad started, “How could you take out a car without brakes? And give ride to the kids too?”
“But I had them prepared from the beginning.” Uncle protested, “And that’s why I deliberately just grazed against the wall. This is not a residential area, nor a commercial one. We are not even blocking the traffic. So, where is the problem?”
But dad would not listen. He kept exclaiming, “How could you drive a car without any brake?”
“Come on. What do you need a brake for? We wanted to see if the car could run properly. We never planned to check if it could stop properly. Let's be logical.” Uncle stood smiling with his hands in his pockets posing smartly like Gregory Peck.
“Sure. It’s logical!” It was impossible to argue with our uncle. My dad knew his brother in-law well. He tried to calm down grandpa and sent him back home with us. Then he sent for a mechanic. Uncle stayed with dad, perhaps to expound on his ‘logic’.
Grandpa was livid, but didn’t say anything to uncle at that time. After all he was an honored guest. Dad too fell silent. After tipping the gardener heavily and repairing the wall right there, dad got to get out. There was a crowd of fun seekers already gathered around. Dad somehow managed to push the car through and deposited it back again in Bhabani babu’s repair shop.
Grandpa was very disappointed. We too. Mr. Young’s car was just not meant for our riding pleasure. Grandma said, “One has to be fortunate to ride a car like that.” She meant to slight my mother, as it was her brother who had caused all this havoc. Here we were all excited about driving to new places, museum, zoo, Shivpur, to the Mullick’s, two by two, trip by trip…none of it happened. All our plans went down the drain. I had even planned to learn driving. That too was not to be. And all because of a minor error on uncle’s part! He could have easily fixed the brake. But now it was too late. The golden opportunity had passed.
Bhabani babu had loaned the new battery, now he took that back too. Hariya the rickshaw driver took the front seat to use in his rickshaw. Bhabani babu himself took off the back seat and used it for his customers to sit on. Uncle had loved the sound of the horn, ‘google-goo-goo’. Grandpa himself took it off and gave it to uncle to use it on his own car in Delhi.
We had almost forgotten about the car when Ramswaroop Tiwari, the Hindustani owner of the flour mill in our neighborhood, bought the entire engine for twenty-five rupees. He wanted to use it in his mill. Like a transplanted heart the engine lived on, grinding flour for everyone’s daily bread.
At Christmas grandpa got a card from Mr. Young, “How’s the car doing?”
Ever truthful grandpa replied after much deliberation, “You will be pleased to know that your beloved car is being used in the true service of the people of this country.”Published in Parabaas, May 2015
The original story Mr. Young's Car (ইয়াং সায়েবের গাড়ি) by Nabaneeta Dev Sen was first collected in Basanmama o Anyanya Galpo (বসন্মামা ও অন্যান্য গল্প) and was later included in Golpo-Samagro (Vol. 2) ('Complete short stories, Vol. 2,' 'গল্পসমগ্র (২য় খণ্ড)'; দে'জ; ১৯৯৭) (Dey's, Kolkata, 1997).