Farewell and thanks for all the rides…

by sidin in

It was one of those perfect weekday mornings. I fell asleep watching the TV, in a rather traumatic posture, and woke up with a terrible headache in my knees. At the driving school I was told the car had a puncture and would not be back till 8. Which meant I would have to miss class once again. I yawned in disappointment and walked across the road to drench my worries in Sambar and Rava Dosa.

Ram Mahal is a rather non-descript south indian eating place. It has the routine Formica topped tables, mumbling old man who looks like he has way too much left over coconut chutney, and simple, rapid service. There is always the radio playing and a couple of newspapers for the customers. Today the radio was playing that old south indian favorite, Don't Phunk with my Heart y the Black-eyed Peas. I picked up the newspaper and sat at my usual spot in the corner where I don't get to see through the hole in the wall into the kitchen. (Like the Backstreet Boys, I don't care much for who my dosa is and where it is from.) When I came across the piece of news in the business section I was overwhelmed.

When I was a child one of the highlights of our annual trips to my village in Kerala was the thud-thud-wheeze of my uncle's Bajaj Chetak. And now this newspaper was telling me that Bajaj rolled out the last Chetak two days ago and was moving on. Tragically I wasn't ready to do that. That blue, sturdy and awesomely cute scooter just meant too much to me.

A Chetak was probably my uncle's first big buy after he started working for his bank. It was the regulation blue Chetak and like a gazillion other people he too waited for it for months before getting it. My uncle is the quiet, pillar of the family types. When, and only when, something could not be communicated through gestures of fingers, eyebrows and head and combinations thereof, did he speak. But every one in a while, and too rare nowadays now that all the kids have grown, he will sit on the armchair on the portico and regale us with stories of days gone by. Often they starred his reliable little Chetak. It was like a member of the family and when it was brought home I daresay it received a welcome as grand as any new-born. The Chetak was religiously parked in the firehouse (where they roasted coconuts into copra) and received a thorough washing down on the weekends, even during the monsoons.

When the taxi from the airport ploughed through the muddy kaccha road and climbed up the steep driveway I often exploded out of the car to climb all over the scooter. To this day I can feel the stiff rubbery feel of the buttons and the flip switches on the handlebars. And almost certainly I would fall off the scooter in some obscene fashion thus spending the rest of my one month vacation with a swollen lip or a skinned knee. The scooter was a novelty for us "persians" as our grandma used to call us. (For some reason that whole generation called us NRIs "persians".)

But more than memories of the scooter itself, there are so many sensations I remember. The smell of petrol when my uncle opened the tank between the seats, a pretty dexterous endeavor in itself. Or the thrill of wind in my face when he took us to church standing on the footboard in the front. In "persia" you never got the wind in your face. Pavlov would have been proud of us the way we salivated, every evening, when we heard the scooter shoot up the incline, loop around the courtyard and glide into the firehouse. For there was no doubt my uncle always carried a small packet of Lacto King, Eclairs or Five Star when he came from work. When I grew older and finally gave up trying to learn cricket or football, he would bring back copies of Sputnik magazine that would invariably be stained with some gravy from his lunchbox. After all there was only so much storage in a Chetak.

The Chetak set limits on the size of his lunch box, the amount of vegetables he could buy and how many people could go to Church with him on Sunday mornings. The house rules were simple: the best behaved kids got taken to the church on the scooter while the rest had to walk with grandma to church trying to explain that persia no longer existed. After Sunday mass there was a mad rush to reach the scooter as only then could you make it back in time to see Ramayan. (Which is pretty cool in a secular kind of way.) Being a non-athletic Sputnik reader kind of guy I often ended walking home and just catching the last scene, which thrilled my grandmother. She was not as secular as the rest of us and thought growing up in a Muslim country was corruption enough!

But the all time best memory ever was when on some special evenings my uncle took us all on high-speed rounds of the neighbourhood. All my grandfather's brothers lived in adjacent compounds and my uncle twisted and swooped through the houses and in between the trees. We screamed in joy and waved at all the uncles and aunts and domestic helps who jumped aside to avoid being hit by us. The noise a Chetak made when you shifted up gears was thoroughly satisfying and more than a little macho. We took good care of him too and for many years every scratch was well-mended and only original spare parts were ever used. Not one drop of adulterated petrol either.

But then the ambassador car came along and the scooter slowly got less and less attention. Well-loved but not attended to at all, like old Bryan Adams tapes. My rather enterprising cousin, who till then merely disassembled and put back together his bicycle, now got his evil fingers on the Chetak. The scooter had to be massively over-engineered, for every time he pulled out a few parts, he could only put back half of them or so. But the scooter still managed to run like normal. But middle of the night if you needed to get some Lacto-calamine lotion the Chetak was ever faithful and would start in a jiffy, albeit sometimes after a comical "tip and straighten" routine.
Then one year when we came home my uncle said he had sold it. No one was using it anymore and he couldn't bare to see it waste away. The lacto-calamine phase had passed as well. Now we all go to Church together and come back and we really don't think there is a point in trying to drive an Ambassador at any great pace over gardens and between coconut palms. And I am sure most of our elder relatives and domestic help wont be able to jump out of the way of a careening Ambassador without atleast a couple of days of notice. Sometimes my uncle still talks about his Chetak and of maybe buying a new one.

But then those heartless people at Bajaj wont let us do that anymore. Sob.

Bye dear Chetak my friend. May thou pass into that auto yard in the sky having lived a full and well-loved life. Farewell and thanks for all the rides.