I was surprised by my wife’s expression, when, after years of my talking about it, she finally saw it and said, “Oh.”
It was an Oh that was polite and mindful. Just like her. Careful of trampling upon my feelings. But she couldn’t control the quiet disappointment in it, loud and writhing like a protester being pulled away from his cause by the police.
I guess I couldn’t blame her. It had seen much better, brighter days.
As far as I can remember, Appa has always had the Chetak. A sea-green double-seater, with a stepny screwed on tightly to the back.
This Bajaj Chetak was the one bold assertion of love my parents allowed themselves. Two love birds taking off on flights together. My sister and I would be eager to watch them leave – the ceremony that it was. And of course, the freedom that followed.
Amma would giggle a lot before each of these escapades. Usually, it was a visit to the temple, some distant family’s elaborate nuptials, Appa’s colleague’s son’s naming ceremony. A strictly occasional film at the talkies. Or a musical evening. Shining in her bright coloured zari saris, a perfect line of vermillion halving her black hair wound into a neat bun, adorned all around by baby jasmine blossoms, Amma was breathtakingly beautiful.
Appa, in comparison, was predictably boring. The bland side-dish. He’d toss on a pair of tweeds, or an immaculate white lungi, paired with impeccably crisp cotton shirts or kurtas. His avuncular glasses folded neatly into his pocket, ready for summoning. All carefully supervised by Amma. Even the thoughtful Sandalwood-scented handkerchief slipped into his trouser pocket (and pulled out to offer Amma when she had to wipe her hand after sacred offerings at the temple, or at that rare movie moment).
But together, they sped off to many destinations – a perfect pair of complementary parts. The more delicate one, winding her soft hands gently still possessively around the waist of the more emotionally binary one.
I spent a substantial portion of my boyhood stationed in the front of my father’s rider’s seat. The junior rider. The heir apparent. The impressionable impression of him, down to the hair parted sideways, slicked down with coconut oil. Dressed in the miniature version of his wardrobe. Mouth set in the miniature knowledgeable smile. I dreamed of being my father, the stalwart, star engineer at Star Electricals & Engineering Works.
We loved our scooter. Every morning, my mother, wet hair tied loosely with a ribbon, would pray that no harm befell it, and adorned it with a flower. My father would then emerge, take the scooter off its stand with a “thakk”, tilt it dangerously to the left, hold for two seconds for some oil to soak something, and kick-start it to bring it to life. I would hop into my usual position under Appa’s chin while my sister sat behind him, and off we’d go to school, the wind ruffling our hair, tugging away the last semblances of early-morning reluctance.
Many of my favorite games revolved around this scooter, perched sturdily on its center stand. My sister would be the pillion sitting dainty with both legs to one side, just like Amma would, while I deftly and swiftly navigated us through thick forests, song duets, and other conjurations of our fleeting imaginations. The round headlight, the speedometer that promised a dizzy 140kmph, the gear handle that I’d wrench mercilessly, the brake – a thick knob of rubber under my right foot – were all stimuli for our stories if they were stuck mid-clutch. For sound effects, my sister and I would rely on the handy “brrr”, broken at the well-timed gear-shift, changing pitch according to speed at which we were cruising. She would even deliver a nasal “paab-bap-paaaaaaaab” as we out-manoeuvred villains, or errant children that strayed in our path.
I’d cling to the massive handlebars till my tiny palms would be pink with the scales and patterns of the rubber grips – like holding on to them with such intensity rendered these dreams of ours real. Much later in life I’d realize these were the beginnings of yet another feature that would imitate my father’s – the thick callouses at the balls of my fingers.
In time, I was tall enough to grudgingly give up my position as the chief navigator of our scooter. I was to sit at the back, just like any other pillion would. I suppose children have the need to make any given situation more interesting, to find it bearable. I suppose this is why my sister and I would sit backwards – our backs resting on Appa’s – and wave to commuters tailing us. Sometimes, they’d wave back.
Time flew, astride our sea-green scooter. Soon, the four of us were two too many people for two wheels. I acquired a bus pass, my first pair of jeans, and the right to oppose parental authority. I showed the beginnings of a moustache, a deep voice, and profound embarrassment.
The scooter, in my teenage eyes, had become ugly.
For me, the hardest thing about growing up was how a shift in perspective had suddenly crept up and clasped my heart with clammy, frosty fingers, chilling away innocence with such immediate and cruel coldness. Reality was like blinding light. Biting. Bitter. Sharp in taste.
My unforgiving adolescent eyes began to see the holes in the rexine seat covers. The grease. The chipping paint. A few rusty parts. The round, archaic black digits on the number plate. And of course, the fact that it was a scooter, and not a bike. A mere mode of transport, as opposed to a fashionable street-screamer.
My parents, stoked by painfully descriptive newspaper articles about youngsters who hung, cut, drowned, poisoned and overdosed themselves for not getting a variety of lifestyle products, told me that I would simply not have a bike of my own. There’s more to life than owning things. The buses were good enough. And if I really needed it, I could use the scooter.
How could I, a young, English-speaking, convent-educated brand-aware buck, go to tuition class on this ghastly, boxy unit, when my peers – the ones with truly liberal parents – zipped around, weightless on their lithe hot wheels with scintillating names like Angela, Pamela, Giselle, while the prettiest girls sat behind them, squealing and holding tight, as they casually rolled a wheelie?
Why couldn’t I have a bike? Why didn’t I have pocket money? Why did we lead such a spartan life? Why did Appa insist on squirrelling away so much money? Why was Amma so listless? Why did we move to a smaller house? Why couldn’t I go for movies, visit the pubs, buy coffee, buy the latest albums, buy a computer?
And like a wart to remind me of an affliction, just why did we still have that dilapidated old scooter?
I smart now, when I think of my childishness. The crude way in which I had settled life into the black and white checks of a chessboard.
It is a startling quality of epiphanies. They strike expected, unexpected, merciful or cruel, but always with the one effect of finality.
In our case, Amma passed away.
Appa became half a butterfly. His vest had unmended holes. He’d forget his handkerchief. He learned to boil milk, cook rice, negotiate with a maid, raise two children single-handedly. Corners of the house gathered dust. Nobody cared to replenish the flower vase on the modest centerpiece.
Appa never rode that scooter again.
It sat in the corner of our garage, with a grey tarpaulin shrouding it, gathering around it, lasting gloom. When I pulled off the sheet today, dust clouds puffed and swirled slowly in shafts of golden sunlight, reminding me of early winter mornings when Amma would hurriedly stuff my head in a monkey cap, her own breath misting.
The deflated pale sea-green scooter with deflated tyres, broken mirrors, and a permanently brown double-seat. Its headlight, bearing a half-moon of crusty, flaking sandalwood paste and vermillion. A lone browned chrysanthemum. My mother’s totem of good luck.
I smiled my father’s knowledgeable smile at my wife’s “Oh”. And asked her if she’d like to bless the scooter once I’m done fixing it up.
And then, maybe, I will keel the scooter over to its left, and try the kick-start.