We called it our aeroplane. The epithet was misplaced. It should have been rocket- equally temperamental and majestic. That was my father’s white ambassador- his first car. It looked massive to my six-year-old self. You could roll down the dark tinted windows, honk its horn, play hide and seek in it and if you were feeling particularly courageous, take a ride.
This was the early 90s. Our car was a 70s model. With a matador’s engine. The matador was India’s answer to a camper van. At the peak of its popularity, it was used as a school van or to kidnap actresses in Bollywood movies (Amar Akbar Anthony, anyone?). Borne out of some crazy mechanic’s brainstorming, our ambassador was an experiment in modified vehicles.
He was quite proud of his first car, often comparing it to the petite Maruti 800. He would ask me to ball my tiny palms into a fist and throw a punch to his open palm. “That is all that takes to cause a dent in the Maruti’s bonnet”, he’d say. Could I ever have the courage to do that with our Ambassador? Even at my bravest or foolhardiest, I could not. Our car exuded strength. And we all were so proud of it.
Affairs with pre-owned vehicles are like eating Jolokia chilli. You know it will be memorable but only after a tiny nibble, the acuity of the experience surfaces. On our first trip, the gear stick seized. We arrived at my grandparent’s house, without changing gears, with empty bellies and full bladders.
While parking we looked up scanning for electricity wires that could discharge the battery. Yet it would find reasons to stall. Many markets and schools have been witnesses to us looking exasperatedly at our car.
There were advantages, of course. When my parents left us at home, we watched TV with an envious abandon. The car was our alarm. Audible half a mile away, it gave us enough time to jaywalk to our books and appear engagingly engrossed in our work by the time parents reached home.
It wasn’t just us that had ill-luck with second-hand cars. Once I had gone to visit my friend and we tagged along with uncle to the pharmacy to pick up some medicines. Free rides in old ambassadors was my thing then. As uncle reversed the car, there was a booming, incessant noise. We were on a route that was aptly named ‘Hospital Road’. The horn of the car had got stuck in work mode. No matter what uncle tried, it wouldn’t stop. As he got angrier and began thumping the steering wheel, there we were at the back, holding our stomachs and rolling with laughter. We trumpeted home at jet speed leaving behind death stares and frightened pedestrians in our wake.
You’d think someone would swear off second-hand vehicles after this. I had. Of course, I had. But it was my first job as a journalist. Odd working hours are the antithesis of public transport.
With a paltry pay, my choices were limited. I was sceptical of a preowned vehicle but that black Activa looked promising. The paperwork was in order, the odometer was reassuring. It had been owned by a doctor so I could be sure of the vehicle’s condition, right? Wrong.
Within a month we were back to Ambassador days. First, the electric start stopped working but the kick kept things moving. Then the horn wrecked. Then the nuts and bolts of the front centre cover vanished. I could swear the scooter was eating itself up. The upside of this was that I needn’t rue the missing horn. At every pothole, the flap would fly off and land with an almighty crash announcing my arrival.
It gets better. Sometime later, the engine became vociferous. Minor and sporadic clanks turned into a thunderous cacophony. If earlier, people heard the flap and moved aside, now they were stopping mid-road to figure out why death was heading for them. Once, thinking I was Valentino Rossi, I tried to sneak between two parallel buses. Such was the volume of my vehicle, that both the buses elbowed out traffic on their sides to make way.
There are upsides to everything. Childhood traumas had prepared me for adulthood glories. On Bangalore’s roads where time, quite literally, stands still, I never had to ask for the way. Like Moses’ magic, the traffic parted. The activa owner thought he had got a good deal. Mine was not bad either, eh?