I am a fully grown, middle-aged man. Back then, I wouldn’t have been any more than — I don’t know — four feet tall, maybe. School was mostly about spending time with friends, playing football and being punished collectively. Standing in the middle of the open amphitheatre — getting roasted in the intense heat — seemed like a good idea. Now, decades later, it seems daft.
There was a boy — let’s call him G — in our class who used to get chauffeured to school. We took the school bus — overcrowded (the school management made it so), noisy (its condition made it so) and great fun (we made it so). The car that G used to get dropped to school in was the fanciest sedan at the time — Maruti 1000. I really liked the car; the guy, not one bit.
I’d go back home, look at dad’s considerably less-fancy blue Fiat 1100D and feel like the world had come crushing on me. I didn’t, at the time, realise what an icon that car would become. I wanted a Maruti 1000 — in red.
A go-karting track had come up about a 20-minute drive away from our house. By this time, I’d been reading car magazines every now and then (read: whenever mom was in the mood to let me buy one) so I knew that to pursue racing, go-karting was the base level to start at.
In my head, I was already so good at it that I thought racing in Formula One was my birthright.
Memory defeats me here. I can’t remember what all I must have done to let dad take me for a round at the go-karting circuit. Set my room in order, did chores willingly, polished his shoes, ate whatever was given to me, didn’t fight with my elder sister — must’ve been all those disgusting things.
But I did spend some time at the track, drove one session and now I was convinced that I was Ayrton Senna in an even browner skin-tone.
The seat-time on that go-kart also gave me the confidence that I could easily drive an actual car — that I could drive dad’s Fiat better than him. I was a racing driver, after all.
Dad used to travel a lot back in the day. His work often took him overseas, mostly to Middle-East, Russia, and South-East Asia. No, he wasn’t with the mafia or the underworld. Had he been, it would’ve got us the Maruti 1000 surely!
One night, over dinner, he was telling us about one of his upcoming trips. He’d be gone for about ten days to Iran and he’ll bring us whatever we wished for within reason if he didn’t hear from mom about any episode of us causing ruckus at home.
My sister, the show-off and pretentious cerebral person that I thought she was, asked for some knowledge-books. Who asks for stupid stuff like that! Dad made a note of it in the small diary that he always carried. I wanted guns, remote-controlled warships and aircrafts, scale model cars, and some car magazines. Dad didn’t make a note. I always knew he loved my sister more than me.
We had a simple routine. After school we ate lunch and slept in the afternoon for a couple of hours. The evenings were about playtime and from 7pm to 9pm we did our studies. We’d have dinner by 9:30 and hit the bed by 10 or latest by 10:30pm.
From a few days before the day when dad was scheduled to fly to Iran, I started altering the afternoon routine so that it wouldn’t raise any alarm bells. I let go of the sleep and told mom that I’d either play in the porch or study. She was suspicious, but didn’t object. The plan was working.
The day arrived. Dad’s flight took off at around 3am.
After coming back from school and settling the lunch down forcibly in my stomach, I pretended to study while mom and sister went off for their afternoon siesta. Half an hour in and I could hear the snores. Brilliant!
The car keys were in the bed-side drawer in mom’s room. By this time, you should acknowledge that I was a master planner. I went in barefoot, opened the drawer swiftly but silently, clutched the keys tightly so that they didn’t make any noise and walked out feeling like a skilled robber.
Dad used to park the car inside the gate and along the width of the porch. This made it tricky for me to take it out. I couldn’t crank it because mom would wake up and beat the daylights out of me. I had to push the car backwards and steer it accurately for it not to get scratched. I was in the 8th grade, rather thin and quite incapable of managing such bulk. But I was also stubborn.
Push the car from the front and see it roll back. “No… no! This is way more rapid than I thought it would be.” Run back, stop the car. Rethink the entire process.
I sat in, rolled down the driver’s side window and started again. This time, applying force and steering at the same time. It worked! But I still could not crank the car up — mother would hear it and come rushing out with a stick and beat me to pulp. So I pushed it about 100 metres. And then… FREEDOM!
The Fiat had column-mounted gears. I used to observe dad very carefully and figured it out. It was tough to reach the pedals comfortably, but I somehow managed — fuelled by the desperation to start driving.
Clutch, gear, a couple of soft dabs on the throttle pedal, grip on the steering wheel tightened and a deep breath. I was ready to take on the world. And I stalled. Yes, the slightly-browner Ayrton Senna stalled a Fiat 110D. Shit happens.
But I did manage to drive around the block a couple of times and then, as discreetly as I’d taken the car out, I parked it back exactly the way it was. I went back to mom’s room, put the keys in the drawer, went out and just stared at that Fiat.
The car that I didn’t care much for had become my partner in crime. It stirred my soul. Driving it felt like an event — like a baby taking the first step.
The following day, upon reaching the school, I saw G getting out of the Maruti 1000. Suddenly, I didn’t like the car all that much. The guy, still not one bit.
A few days later, dad got back with some books for my sister and a couple of scale model cars for me. We’d been good kids in his absence. “Ha, if only they knew,” I smiled within.