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The Everlasting Car

Posted on 30/09/2015
By Commonwealth Foundation


Our first family car was a four-door Standard Herald. The day she entered our lives she was christened Shashwati. The Everlasting. She was welcomed into our family with a small puja, and stood there, basking in incense, a vermillion tilak on her gleaming white bonnet. CAE 680, read her registration plate, adorned for the longest time with an inaugural garland of marigolds.

We lived, at the time, on the first floor of a two-floor building, in an apartment that measured about 800 square feet. The lack of space did not dampen my father’s enthusiasm for all the new gadgets that had begun to make an appearance in middle-class households in Bangalore in the early 1980s. “Oh, we’ll make space for it,” he would say, having already given his heart to some appliance.

We were, thus, the proud owners of a black-and-white television set whose reception at any given time was linked to the number of crows sitting on its antenna, up on the terrace. The refrigerator vied with it for space in the living room, being too big and too important to be accommodated in the tiny kitchen. This wheezing dowager insisted on several attentions and genuflections as its rightful tribute for keeping our food and beverages cold (a loose term), among them the bi-monthly ritual of “de-frosting” that usually ended with the near flooding of our apartment. The portable oven was a loyal veteran; it was hauled down from the kitchen attic before birthdays and -once its resident house geckos were evicted – could be coaxed into producing many a memorable cake. There was an eccentric electric mixer-grinder; also a food-processing gizmo called “Do-All”.  This one did-all in the expert hands of the salesman and, once it had been purchased and installed in our kitchen, did-nothing.

Our latest acquisition, thankfully, did not have to be accommodated in the apartment, and Shashwati the car soon made herself at home in the lane outside our building. My father was terribly protective of her and a nervous driver –a rather unfortunate combination.   Every trip began with a short prayer to the small bronze idol of Ganesh – the remover of obstacles – that was affixed to the dashboard.  Despite having taken out this divine travel insurance, my father could not shake the conviction that everybody else on the street was there with the precise intention of inflicting harm on his car. Our first few rides in the new car were restricted to brief, tentative sorties around our neighbourhood in Ulsoor.

In the 80s, the boundaries separating home and neighbourhood were congenially hazy.  Festivals and celebrations and children’s games spilled out onto the narrow lanes and into the homes of neighbours. “Neighbour” itself was an elastic term that could incorporate whole extended families.  (It would not be unusual to be invited to the wedding of a second cousin of someone who lived two streets away).  Everyone kept a collective eye on the neighbourhood kids. People made it their business to know the exam scores of every child in the locality, to the very last decimal point. Door-to-door hawkers and vendors made the rounds. You could have your old kitchen knives sharpened by the man with his stone wheel; buy all manners of snacks and sweets, toys, plastic containers, brooms, mats, umbrellas; conduct complicated negotiations with the guy who bartered stainless steel utensils for old clothes; and test the vegetable vendor’s patience by upsetting his neat piles of cabbages, cauliflowers and beetroots to examine the ones right at the bottom that you suspected were the best of the lot. All from the comfort of your home.

These friendly streets were an ideal place for my father and the car to settle-into their respective roles, and we were soon ready to take on the rest of Bangalore.  We drove to the Lal Bagh botanical gardens for the flower shows held in its beautiful glass house. To the Visvesvaraya Science Museum with its various engines and do-it-yourself exhibits. To the Public Utility Building, then the tallest building in Bangalore.  This building, despite its prosaic name, had a few floors dedicated to retail and was a more benign version of the ubiquitous malls of today. We stopped there for the novelty of riding its elevator and for “window-shopping only.” Then to Commercial Street, Gandhi Bazaar, or the Majestic area, where any actual purchasing could be done.  We drove to our two favourite restaurants – the Peacock for special occasions, and the more pocket-friendly Ulhas, for other days.  We went to Plaza, the pre-Independence era cinema hall known for its huge screen, complete with stage-curtains, its Softee ice-creams, and its bug-infested seating.  Or to Cubbon Park to ride its beloved toy train. Corn on the cob, liberally smeared with masala and lime, could be eaten in the car on the way back from Cubbon Park. Ice-cream cones, though, had to be finished before we got in, lest the seat-covers be soiled by unfortunate spills.

With my father’s growing confidence, we ventured further – picnics at Nandi Hills, weekend trips to Mysore. We even undertook a tour of South India, with my elderly grandmother lodged between my sister and me in the back-seat.  In those days before the digital camera, photography was largely reserved for special occasions and vacations. Thus, quite a few of our memorable family pictures feature Shashwati in the background. Which is only appropriate, for they would have been incomplete without her.

It’s been many years since I moved away from Bangalore. I live in Hyderabad now, but visit regularly, bringing my children to visit their grandparents during their vacations. The bustling metropolis we visit today is very different from from the city of my childhood.  For one thing, it is no longer Bangalore, but recently reclaimed its historical name of Bengaluru.

This transformation of the quiet, shady city of my childhood took place in the ’90s, when Bangalore found itself at the epicenter of the country’s then fledgling information technology industry.  Tech firms began to sprout everywhere – in new buildings of glass and chrome on M.G Road (eventually dwarfing the Public Utility Building) and in the unlikely leafy, neighbourhoods of Koramangala, Sadashivnagar, and Indiranagar. Having established itself as the hottest career destination in the country, the city began to grow. And grow.

Driving from the plush environs of Bengaluru’s new Kempegowda International Airport towards Hosur Road where my parents now live, we see signs of this growth everywhere. Places once considered suburbs and distant outskirts have now been swallowed by the city. The vehicular population has increased several fold. Over the years, many attempts have been made to contain and streamline the flow of vehicles – roads have been widened, flyovers and under-bridges constructed, one-way traffic rules initiated. But, the city’s traffic is stubbornly adolescent, outgrowing new clothes the minute they are brought. Also, like a teenager, it is low on patience and quick to anger.

The old theatres like Lido and Galaxy are gone, replaced by multiplexes where nachos sit shoulder-to-shoulder with samosas at the food counters. Tall apartment blocks elbow each other for a view of the city’s shrinking lakes and parks. The gated community has gained a firm foothold in the city with little enclaves of exclusivity cropping up everywhere.  With their iron gates crossed firmly across their chests, they have no truck with the street hawkers of yore.

And yet the Bangalore of the past persists, sometimes with the confidence of a venerated old-timer, sometimes barely clinging on. The Bangalore Palace sits comfortably across the road from tech firms and electronics showrooms. Neighbourhoods like Basavangudi, with its renowned Bull Temple, remain as they always have, unperturbed by their newer neighbours. The flower shows in Lal Bagh are as popular as ever. And just off a completely transformed Mahatma Gandhi road, along which runs one of the new routes of Namma Metro (“Our Metro”), we find that Cubbon Park remains reassuringly unchanged.

“Garden City,” “Pensioner’s Paradise,” “Pub City,” “The Silicon Valley of India” – the city wears each of these hats with equal élan. You could attend a Startup Saturday meet-up in the morning, and watch a Yakshagana performance in the evening. The past, the present and sometimes even the future, walk hand in hand.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when we reach my parents’ home.

My kids soon settle down with their toys, the ones they’ve brought from home and all the new ones they’ve just been gifted by their indulgent grandparents. With a sense of irony we watch our three-year-old recreate on my parents’ living room floor the very scene we just drove through in the city outside.  The traffic jam he’s making on the floor differs from the one outside only in the sheer variety of stranded vehicles. Cars, tractors, excavators, trailer and tipper trucks, road-rollers – even the odd aircraft carrier, Kashmiri shikhara, and Boeing 777 – wait patiently in line, inching along at the whim and fancy of their young lord and master.  I think of the handful of toys I used to own at his age, each treasured and remembered to this date.

In the slower days of my childhood, we were brought up on a diet of restraint and frugality. Things were used, repaired, reused. Clothes, shoes, toys and books were passed down from sibling to sibling. Appliances were hauled to beleaguered repair-shops till no earthly mechanic could breathe new life into their tired, worn-out parts.  Replacement was the very last resort, and then the older possession would, wherever possible, be recycled to some other use. Old saris, for example, found their way into soft quilts for use in winter.  So it was that something that entered your life could reasonably be expected to stay on forever in one form or the other.

Much like the city itself, it was with a curious mix of practicality and nostalgia, optimism and misgiving that my family bridged the gap between old and new.  While we had welcomed those early possessions with open arms, it was with some reluctance that a colour television and cable connection were brought in to replace the black-and-white TV and its bird-friendly antenna. When our new refrigerator (with auto-defrost) arrived, the old dowager hung around for a while, serving as an  auxiliary bookcase, its shelves stacked with past issues of Readers’ Digest, Femina and The Illustrated Weekly.

Today, my parents’ home, like my own in Hyderabad, is cluttered with gizmos that promise a simplified life, but somehow only end up complicating ours further. Like the gadgets of my childhood, they demand care and attention – they keep us engaged in their service, demanding recharges, upgrades, battery-replacements, service pack installations, repairs, what have you.  What they lack, however, is the emotional heft of the first television, the first refrigerator, the oven that baked our birthday cakes. That first car.

A new Tata Nano sits in my parents’ parking slot now. It doesn’t have a name, though.  Nor have I ever made note of its registration number. But my father tries – with considerable success, I must admit – to recreate the memories of my childhood for his grandchildren during their vacations. I watch him bundle them into the Nano, for a trip to Cubbon Park, and I remember the child I was, brimming with excitement for that first ride in our everlasting car.

Vrinda Baliga

Vrinda-Baliga-Commonwealth-WritersVrinda Baliga is a writer based in Hyderabad, India. Her fiction has been published in anthologies and literary journals in India and abroad and has won prizes in the Unisun Short Story Competition 2011 and the Katha Fiction Contests 2010 and 2012. In 2014, she was awarded the Lavanya Sankaran Fellowship by the Sangam House international writers’ residency. She participated in a Nonfiction Writing Seminar 2015 conducted by The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.