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
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
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
“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.”