There is the old middle class world of savings, haggling, bargaining, repairing, searching endlessly for an old 5 Re note that you thought you left under the statue of Krishna, getting restless with anger if your child shoves the vegetables behind the bowl at lunch, scraping the milk vessel after it is emptied post-boiling of the milk, and making a chutney from dudhi(gourd) skins, after the insides are cooked into a daily vegetable......
And then there is another middle class world, where you register for a car by paying Rs 1000, wait for 8 years, and get delirious with excitement when you number comes, as you hunker down trying to come up with the remaining 99% of the car cost.
Time was when the only choice in cars was either Fiat, or an Ambassador. Our Fiat came in the hard way, around 36 years ago. We registered, were called up several years later, and then became the proud owners of a maroon colored Fiat car, which was promptly first driven to the Siddhi Vinayak temple in Mumbai, and then driven home, the neighbors in the housing society kind of peering in feigned indifference through their partially curtained windows.
This was the time before bucket seats, automatic transmission, power steering and other dadagiri ( "mafia-style") items. After driving an Ambasaador car for years, as I gracefully struggled from teenage into the early twenties, driving a Fiat, was, like Einstein being asked to do subtraction-with-carry. While the Ambassador-expertise surely qualified me to apply for driving a tank in the armed forces, it was sheer pleasure to be able move the steering wheel without imagining that I was extracting sugarcane juice.
Typically, the car would hold 5 people in what I called " middle class civilized mode." Two people in the front, and 3 at the back. Extremely prosperous types, who took frequent offense at assorted elbows hitting their midriff, avoided asking for rides. Occasionally, in social emergencies, a third person was accommodated in front, and the driver then got a crick in the clavicle, as he tried to change gears without breaking some one's ribs, and causing a Pneumothorax.
In some unusual circumstances requiring immediate transport of some ladies and children somewhere, it was not unknown for 10 people to have travelled, sitting on various laps and stuck in various corners, testing the suspension of the Fiat to the limits.
The late seventies was the teenage of the car.
Its appearance was greatly worried about. A bang here and concussion there, and folks would rush to the auto shop to rectify appearances, and never mind the cost. While other folks in our building had guys with buckets and cloths walking around at dawn to give their cars a daily wash, nothing but family would do for ours.
Besides the daily touch up with soft pieces of retired sarees, every week, the car would be driven near the water connection in the compound, a pipe attached, and a proper, and super clean bath with car soap would be conducted. Polishing with a car wax that seemed to be a family heirloom item, and the windscreen would be carefully cleaned with a soapy sponge on a stick. Our children would often help, and then when it was half-dry, their father and they would kind of drive out in the searing noon day sun, for the final drying , as they ran some last minute errands for the late Sunday lunch.
The Fiat did travel a lot. All the way down the west coast of India from Mumbai, and up the eastern coast from Kanya Kumari at the southern tip of the country. Groaning up in 2nd gear through the hilly teas estates on the way to Ooty , and flying along the flat rock studded roads to the southern tip, the idli-fied French quarter of Pondicherry, the silver beaches of Goa (long before the tourists); in fact , thereby hangs a tale.
Those days there was a checkpost between Goa and the other states. Police at these checkposts would check car trunks, for folks, inebriated with alocoholic freedom, trying to lug back crates of Goan Feni.
We weren't much of alcohol aficionados, but what we loved was the natural Goan red construction stone, which was actually cut from the side of mountains and used in big squares. For a family with hardly any living space, and even lesser furniture, using these for shelves was ideal. We lugged four of these back with us over 500 miles. The weight made the car drive at an angle that reminded certain sophisticated types about airline takeoffs, and security types at the check post , gleefully approached the car, their mustaches twirling in anticipation ...
"What's there ?" Side glance at the trunk. "Any Feni ?"
"Nothing. Just some stones". And I continued to peel an orange, as the guy in uniform looked suspiciously at the husband.
"Stones eh ?. Are you sure? . And he rapped his cane against the bonnet, and asked us to open the trunk.
I have never seen a more disappointed chap. No feni, No bribe, No thrill.
Just two stupid people, lugging four red stones, and driving off to Mumbai with the car, nose up in the air, under the weight ....
The Fiat had its share of middle age trauma.
The damp Mumbai air, started to corrode the metal exterior. We did, what was then called "tin work" on the car when sufficient holes had developed, and on lifting the matting at our feet, we could see the super potholes on the Mumbai roads. This was really brought home to us once, when on a trip to the neighbor state of Gujarat, we got stuck in a traffic jam on a major highway. This was caused by a leaking gas tanker, that spewed forth some dirty smelling gas and reduced visibility to one foot.
We ended up driving through what could be called its epicentre, where the foggy fumes kind of snaked up through the base of the car, and emerged inside , causing us to abandon the car and rush outside , with people looking on wondrously as we emerged coughing and in obvious fear and trauma, in true filmy style , from the white fog of gas.
A car behind , trying to get through, scraped and banged ours.
When we miraculously reached home, in a still working car, in the middle of the night , and the neighbors got up and saw a wreck standing there, a few folks desperately called each other to ascertain our living status, before ringing the door bell, only to find us , having our breakfast.
The Fiat is now a geriatric case.
It needs a lot of, what can only be called "participative" help, at the end of which words like "Bendix wheel", "Delco", "Dynamo brushes' "Oil seal and brake drums", etc have become a frequent part of my vocabulary.
Hamid , from my earlier post , probably remembers, as we drove them back from his engagement, and the entire bride's side was witness, to me , sitting in my best clothes at the steering wheel "in gear", as all the males and children (including Hamid), stood and shook the car back and forth , like you would an errant mischievous child. Something in the Bendix clicked and the ignition switch started functioning again without ending with an ominous click.
Monsoon weddings took on a new meaning, as once, while returning from a family wedding, wearing de rigeur-heavy-silks-and-jewelery, water entered the "Delco" and the car chugged to a stop. Bonnets were opened, matchsticks were used to dry things, and several folks driving on the lakeside road leading to our house, could see folks in wedding finery, pushing cars and traipsing through the slush in torrential rain, helped by young people who were impressed by the ensuing visuals.
Today, we don't trouble the Fiat too much.
We prefer to get wet in the monsoon, rather than have the Fiat subjected to slushy potholes and dripping Delcos. Some of the windows don't open; some of them don't even close. And we need to really bang the doors to make them close well. You can always tell when we drive it , when you hear the very audible change in engine revolutions, as we go from gear to gear.
We still celebrate the Fiat's birthday in August. When my daughter was in primary school , a friend once asked if there was to be a party, in its honor. She said yes, and the two girls ended up being taken for an icecream, after the friend came with a garland of flowers for the car.
Like an old grandparent, we are very careful of the Fiat's health. Occasionally, she is fine, as the time we ended up going to the airport to receive an actual grandparent returning from the US after attending a grandson-graduation.
Ran into some acquaintances, whose rate of advancement in the material world is only matched by the rate of change of their cars.
Chiffons, whiffs of perfumes with pseudo french names, bags showing some logo that challenged my ignorance, and we stood together at the arrivals area. They, acting like this was nothing unusual, and my children jumping up and down out of the sheer excitement of seeing their grandparents return, with a possibility of lots of goodies from their uncles.
A uniformed guy comes over and hands over some keys, telling where the car is parked.
"Hi. How are you ? " A depreciating look at us , after sizing us up. Watching my children figuring out the various arrivals on the screen. As some of their own, played with video games on their own little screens.
"Our daughter is flying in. And we just got a Mercedes. My brother will be coming soon in his BMW, and he asked us to send back the driver, so he came to hand over the keys." Smile. Smirk.
"Do you still have the same car ?"
In the meanwhile, there was a whoop from the children. Grandma was there. There was a tussle to push her luggage cart. Suddenly, I couldn't see my husband. I looked around, saw him disappearing into the parking lot.
Minutes later,he glided to a rattling stop, and amidst a lot of banging of doors, windows, fights for seats next to grandma, and trunks being forced shut, we piled into the old faithful, and waiving to the clean, spiffy, organized, sophisticated, but BORING Mercedes and BMW clan, took off in very audible but earnest, revolutions of the engine, pistons desperately moving, taking us home, one more time, in one piece.
Trunk full of luggage. Weighted down. Nose up. Full of spirit. Old, but unbowed.
I can still see the potholes. I still bang the doors, and sometimes I hold the doors tight as we take an extreme turn.
An American lady, in her 90's , mother of a family friend, visited us last year. We took her for a drive around our campus to show her around. Apologized for the car. (She probably hadn't driven in so ancient a contraption in the last 35 years).
"Stop apologizing. You know, your car is like me and I'm just perfectly OK." Then she sat back comfortably in the front seat, pushed her silver hair back, elbow resting on the window, in Cadillac style, and smiled at me , in the drivers seat.
This was one experience she probably wouldn't get in America.