I am not sure what triggered the Chatterjees to buy their very first car – was it Mrs Chatterjee’s ever growing derrière that rebelliously spilled out of the robust Honda Activa the family owned, or a genuine desire to upgrade their social status. Whatever the reason, there was loud celebration in the neighbourhood the day the pride of the family wheeled in to the narrow lane that leads to their modest house. I stayed away, and looked on from my kitchen window. “It’s a private celebration,” I thought. But when all big and small from the street came to admire the new white Maruti Alto 800, and dig into the mithai boxes that were doing the rounds, even the civilized person in me could not resist, and I walked up to the group to congratulate the proud car owners, and have my share of the mithai. So, chum chum it was! I waited impatiently for the mithai box, and once the light yellowish sweet reached me, I wondered if it would be rude to take two pieces instead of the customary one. “Yes it would be impolite,” I chided myself and settled for a single piece. As if reading my thoughts, the corpulent Mishti Chatterjee said “Poorva, don’t hesitate to take more. Today is the happiest day of my life. We won’t have to drive around on two bikes anymore.”
That was right. The Chatterjees consisting of the retired Senior Chatterjee, his son Shomnath, daughter-in-law Mishti, and their rosgulla 4-year old son Debajyothi, went out on two set of two wheelers; a Hero Honda CD 100 driven by Senior Chatterjee, and a Honda Activa that carried the next generation. Together they went out, and together they returned on the two bikes happy, contented and cheerful. Little did the family know I always looked out for them to catch a glimpse of their pleased faces.
Wanting to keep the conversation going so that I could take another piece of the juicy chum chum, I asked Mishti Chatterjee, “Have you enrolled yourself in a driving school?”
“Of course! We even completed our driving lessons. Even my father-in-law did it with us. We just need to go for our driving test to get the license. Its two weeks from now. There is no point spending so much money and buying a car, when you don’t know how to drive.”
I nodded my head approvingly, and congratulated the family again. Senior Chatterjee called out, “Beti! Abhi hum bhi carwale hogaye.” I smiled ear-to-ear, and waved them goodbye.
The next Monday morning, the Chatterjee couple decided to drop their son to school in their new car. They were still high from the celebratory mood of the previous day, and with a lot of pride the trio squeezed into the modest car. The key was turned, the clutch was pressed, the first gear selected, and the car roared to life…and then stopped.
Shomnath Chatterjee tried again.
The key was turned, the clutch was pressed, the first gear selected, and the car roared to life…and then stopped.
Mishti Chatterjee enthusiastically instructed her husband. After three more failed attempts, Mishti took over the driver’s seat, albeit with some problem getting into the small car. She turned the key, pressed the clutch all the way down (she got that one right), shifted to the first gear, and the car gradually moved forward. It went down the narrow lane slowly and smoothly, but soon enough came to a HALT.
Another attempt was made and yet another. “It must be because Alto 800 is different from Ritz, which we practiced with at the driving school,” they decided. Already late for school, they took a neighbour’s help to park the new acquisition in front of their house, and quickly jumped on their robust Activa to dispatch little Rosgulla to school.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday saw Senior Chatterjee instructing them from their house gate, his hands all over the place. I don’t know how much of this gesticulation really helped, because the couple would never look at him. Their eyes would be set on the clutch, the gearbox, and the brake.
“Release the clutch!”
“No, no but press it when you start the car!”
“But press it completely down”
“Your handbrake is on!”
“Release the clutch now, apply the accelerator”
Neighbours were always ready to help. They came out in herds to direct the family, but this sort of help only left poor Mishti Chatterjee frustrated, who was once seen storming out of the car and walking back home with big tears in her eyes.
Thanks to the maids working in the colony, and gossiping men and women like you and me, I had learnt that the Chatterjees had failed the driving test. That they even thought of attempting one amazed me. Post the failure, the family had paid a private instructor to give driving lessons. He didn’t come cheap. He charged a good 300 INR an hour, and that was a lot of money for the modest family. Not that they hadn’t progressed. They could now start the car, but I was told reverse was a problem. I am not sure if having a private instructor had helped, because a month later, Senior Chatterjee hit a neighbour’s gate, and a week later, Shomnath Chatterjee rammed the Alto 800 into the Reddys’ Fortuner. The humble Chatterjees’ had to pay a hefty price for the damage caused, and they had not just become the butt of all jokes, but all car owners had lost sleep over the Chatterjee’s new car. The Chatterjees themselves were a miserable family now. The family fought, frowned and sulked. Even Rosgulla Debajyothi looked as if all the sugar syrup was squeezed out of him.
I couldn’t understand why the family was taking so much time to learn how to drive. Everybody has “starting problems”, but two months after the “happiest day of their lives”, the family was still struggling. So I, like other numerous well-wishers, set off to their house one day to see if I could be of any help.
Senior Chatterjee came to the door. “Beti! Come come. How are you? How are your husband and children?” enquired the pensioner.
“All of them are doing just fine Uncle. I got some samosas for all of you.”
“Wah Beti! Come join us for tea if you are not in a hurry. We will have the samosas with the tea”
“Mishti! Make an extra cup of chai for Poorva Beti”
I waved out to the former-rosgulla boy. He stared at me, and then as an after-thought said, “Car very bad.”
I had got my entry point. I thanked the boy silently to make it all easy for me.
“Beti, these people and the car I tell you! The driving school had guaranteed we will learn driving in 10 days. Then I had told the driving school to give us an Alto for the driving lessons, but they gave us a Ritz and said it was all the same. Stupid idiots! Now see! Everything about our Alto 800 car is different! Now my daughter-in-law wants to go to some fancy class where they teach with simulators. How are these people wasting money? I told her to practice in the colony… practice… practice… these people need to practice… I have promised my cousin we will go to Nandi Hills in our car, and these people are still learning”. Senior Chatterjee was charged up now.
Mishti Chatterjee marched into the room and took on her father-in-law, “Yes… yes… I am the one who is wasting money, and what about your son hitting the Reddy’s car? And you like a traffic policeman keep showing me your hand and rambling away… Release clutch, press clutch, do left reverse, don’t accelerate, and accelerate. How much driving do you know?”
I was out of there in no time. I made a mental note of never helping out neighbours again, and had a miserable time the rest of the day.
Weeks passed by. People moved on with their lives and so did I. Months later, I spotted the Chatterjees heading out on their two bikes again – happy, contended, and cheerful. I felt genuinely happy to see them smiling again. And they set out happily on their bikes the next day, and the day after next. I wondered what had happened to the new Alto 800, and walked to the narrow lane that led to their house. I looked for the car, but saw the two bikes instead. I walked closer to the gate and finally spotted their “pride”. It was masked in a car cover, and pushed to a make-shift garage. My gaze fell on the bikes again; they stood in front of the Chatterjee’s gate like two treasured possessions beaming at me with pride.
Poorva is a freelance German translator, and a writer. She lives in Bangalore. Poorva finished writing her first children’s book last year and is looking for a publisher. She is currently working on her second book, which is for young adults. She is also a graduate from Anita’s Attic (Season 2) – a mentorship program for writers by Anita Nair.