People of my generation remember cars as they remember people. Cars were not just a means of transport but used to have a personality, quite apart from the car owner’s or the car driver’s personality. Cars remained long enough in & with the family to turn into old faithfuls & trusty servitors. But the first car in my life was a monument to the glory days of the family as rice lords in a small town in suburban Bengal.
I’m talking about my mother’s family and the family seat sixty miles to the east of the city of Kolkata, whereas the monument in question was a greying automobile gradually turning green in the midst of a mango grove. It was a rag top convertible of sorts – very likely American, a Packard or a Hudson or a Desoto for all I know, from the Roaring Twenties, though it had long ceased to roar. It had curving fenders and foot boards and drum shaped headlights. One couldn’t turn the steering wheel any more, I remember. The tyres were flat & brittle or already missing, the rims or the axles resting on bricks. Every part of the car that could be fiddled with and broken or twisted off had fallen prey to generations of little cannibals like us – that’s me & my cousins – until what remained was the shape & the idea of an automobile, as if someone had been doing a sculpture and not bothering about the details. The undergrowth had shot up through the floorboards, the green tentacles & fronded leaves waving from the open cabriolet like inebriated party folk returning from an excursion. The rusty springs might have been all that was left of the seats – or I might be imagining.
And I do not even know whether the Rag Top (now beginning to look more like a Tree Top) was the first sign & symbol of prosperity & modernity in the aforesaid rice lords family, since a grandaunt of mine used to relate the story how her husband – the corresponding granduncle – insisted on driving to Dhaneshkhali (name changed) in his brand new Baby Austin with his brand new wife (the grandaunt) parked on the rear seat, as was only proper & seemly. Fortunately or unfortunately, granduncle left the trodden/tarred ways and decided to take a chukker of the countryside – with the result that grandaunt had to be brought back to the family mansion sitting in the Baby Austin like a demure bride, while some eight to twelve palanquin bearers carried the Baby Austin on their shoulders, balancing the hapless vehicle on bamboo poles. I’d tag classic Bengali filmmakers Ritwik Ghatak/Ajantrik/1958 and Satyajit Ray/Abhijan/1962 for this scene alone, if I could.
After that I remember the Morris Minor of a lawyer uncle of mine. I shall be eternally grateful to this uncle for introducing me to three pleasures of life at one go: (i) he took me and his son, my cousin, for a ride in his Morris Minor; (ii) he took us to the Globe Cinema to see Sergeants 3; and (iii) he took us to Kwality’s afterwards to give me (at least) my first taste of restaurant food. The Globe was yet to be renovated, so it was still in the Bijou Grand Opera House state, with carved cast iron pillars holding up the balconies. Just my luck that I had one of those pillars in front of me and had to play peekaboo with the Rat Pack for the whole of the show as a result – that’s Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. &co., never knew it was their last movie in that combination. Worse, it’s taken me fifty-odd years to wake up to the fact that Sergeants 3 was a spoof western built on Kipling’s Gunga Deen!
The next car in my life was my uncle’s – the talk is now of my youngest maternal uncle – who used to live in the same house as us in South Calcutta, the house in question belonging to my maternal grandfather and so on – but the point of the story is that my room was on the mezzanine floor, that’s at the landing of the stairs between the ground floor and the first floor, with the garage right beneath. In that garage rested my uncle’s Standard Herald like some past emperor in his grave while I held vigil above. Otherwise the car looked like a tinny, miniaturised, Madras version of the fifties’ Cadillacs and Chevrolets with their tail fins & the rest. My uncle used to look after that Standard Herald like his own son. How he drove it was another matter.
My elder sister bought a second hand Ambassador (car!) when her family was growing and decided to call it Sangram Singh for its sheer battling spirit. Maharana Sangram Singh was none other than the legendary Rana Sanga of the Rajputs, who had led a powerful Hindu confederacy in the 16th century. In the 20th, ‘Sangram Singh’ finally changed hands when our youngest brother bought it as his first car – ‘Sangram Singh’ was slightly younger than him at that point of time, if I remember correctly.
Cut to: Calcutta street scene during the monsoons. My brother is driving down Mayo Road in the pouring rain, yours truly in the passenger seat, the vehicle being none other than Sangram Singh. My brother is saying nonchalantly that the brakes are not working, they never do in the rains but I’m not to worry. I can see the Chowringhee Road crossing coming up, complete with the traffic light, which is on red. Cars to the left of us, cars to the right of us, cars in front – what will happen if the brakes do not hold?
My brother started braking with another fifty metres to go to the traffic light. The car hardly slowed down – oder doch? I had started thinking in German by then, in my desperation! And then I saw. All the other cars were braking too and having trouble with their brakes, just like Sangram Singh, so that the whole moity somehow grinded to a halt just yards before the pile-up of the century.
“You see, Dada, this is Kolkata. Everybody’s brakes are buggered, so nobody’s buggered,” my brother explained, before he turned into Kyd Street. It was not his fault. We used to speak like that in Kolkata.