I learnt driving pretty late, even if it meant just cycling. For years in Calcutta, I used the best means of transport – my sturdy two legs (they aren’t as sturdy now) and, of course, public transport, which more often than not meant the friendly laid-back tram. When one of my close buddies used to visit, driving a Hero Majestic moped, I used to fancy driving such a vehicle but that never happened. Much later, when I was posted in Korba, an industrial township in east Madhya Pradesh, I would fancy driving an Enfield Bullet. The development officer working in the branch would announce his arrival with the thunderous roar of his Bullet. He and his family soon became neighbours and there were a couple of occasions when I tried driving that monster. That I escaped unscathed is only part of the story.
My first lessons in riding something of import were taken on an open field in Sindri, yet another industrial township, but in Bihar, a township that reeked of old world charm and all that’s good with the world. Those were the heady days of the 1970s, a world for me that was then filled with my cousin Hari, his friend Bum (yes, we all wondered what a name!), some super-friendly neighbours, the weekly film show... Hari and Bum were older to me by a few years, the exuberance and adventure of late adolescence having overtaken them, and so they spent exhilarating moments under trees and outside kiosks puffing ever so lovingly on cigarettes and bidis. I did give them admirable (for my age, that is) company, but ensured that such early-on experience did not lead me inexorably to the world of ganja and hashish as it did both of them.
Back to that sprawling field... I was trying my best to gain a semblance of balance on Hari’s bicycle and finally yelled out in orgasmic triumph as I managed to cycle a short distance before I fell off and hurt my leg badly. It was early morning and no passerby in sight to witness the shameful moment, so I plodded on and after a couple of heaves and pushes and surges I was able to circle the field. If there was anybody watching he would have thought what a seasoned cyclist I was! Those balancing lessons were never forgotten and although I was never too fond of the bicycle (that seat always tended to pain my crotch) I found I had indeed graduated to make an attempt with a motorcycle.
Hari is now in Palakkad; he can hardly see. He quit a paying job in Durgapur years ago and tries to make a living dabbling in the stock market. His wife has an ailment – she’s schizophrenic, and he has two children to look after. Life can take terrible turns. We do keep in touch and sometimes in those few minutes of coming together again, we wonder if life had only been a little kinder (to him) and, yes, if those good old days in Sindri could return. There’s no news about Bum, but wherever he is, let him be well. Hari’s dad, my father’s youngest brother, has died and all of us in the family have lost such a wonderful storyteller.He was the one who introduced me to the world of Sherlock Homes and Alfred Hitchcock and spun tales around almost every page of the Illustrated Weekly.
I am reminded of those lessons I learnt (by myself) in Sindri's playing fields thanks to my daughter taking to driving her car these days. Chennai’s roads are chaotic at the best of times and today I realise how it is to be a parent waiting for a child to reach office and to return home. I have gone through the grind, picking up a couple of stars on my debut… more of it soon.