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Journeys Then And Journeys Now: Why I Miss The Heat, Dust And Highway Breakdowns

30/10/2015 11:55 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Boy (6-7 years) leaning out of car

One of the most vivid, most abiding memories of my childhood is that of my father and his (not ours) car. He loved it and looked after it like his fourth (sometimes first) baby. We could not litter it and liquid, of any kind, was out of the question. We were only allowed to sit on the rear seats, without jumping (he insisted the springs would get irreversibly damaged, and we obediently complied). And, needless to add, we could never say anything disrespectful about it. He did not take kindly to any criticism directed at his beloved car, even though it warranted many.

When my brother expressed his desire to learn to drive it, my father marched him off to the mechanic's garage in his summer vacations. His logic was simple -- if you can't fix it, you can't drive it. My brother protested, of course, but his objections were in vain (we didn't, unlike my own children, think that questioning our parents was an option). So, while his friends fled the inclement summer of the plains to the cool hills of the north, my brother spent a greased-out month in the heat of June, lying prostrate under cars learning their detailed, inner workings. He hated it, but not more than his desire to drive the forbidden car.

"When we would tire of running around we would sit in the shade of the biggest tree we could find and pretend that it was the Faraway Tree..."

The reason why this memory forced itself out of the recesses of my mind was because we recently undertook a car journey with the kids from Delhi to the town where my parents live, which is about a six-hour drive. Some seemingly unrelated thread of thought-process led me to that little memory tucked away in a tiny little crevice inside my head -- it was raining and that reminded me of the smell of wet earth, which reminded me of my childhood house, which reminded me of my father's obsession of cleaning the car after it had poured, which reminded me of his love for his car.

Cruising swiftly down the highway in a car that could not have been more different than my father's, I started thinking about how much things had changed since we took road trips with our parents as children. I remember only too well how my father used to ready the car for the trip. There was such a flurry of activity around it. The car had to go for servicing two days before the journey; everything -- from the oil to the coolant -- was checked and re-checked, yet it broke down on the highway. There was no air conditioning, of course, and somehow we didn't seem to mind. On the day of travel, my mother would spend the morning cooking and packing puri-aloo, which she would feed to us in the car, as my father dodged the oncoming, devil-may-care trucks with remarkable, if frightening, agility.

When (not if) the car broke down, almost always because of a broken fan-belt, we would get out and run into the wilderness, as my father would furiously try to flag down other cars and trucks to get a lift to the next little cluster on the highway from where he would return, triumphant, with a greasy looking mechanic who would, for the next hour, be bent calmly over the car next to my vexed father. Here I must add that the word fan-belt was introduced very early into my vocabulary, because it was the primary reason for our highway breakdowns. I have never forgotten the sound of it breaking -- whirring uncontrollably at first and then settling into a slow flap as the car would shudder to a halt. I remember suggesting to my father once that, just like we carried a spare wheel, perhaps we could carry an extra fan belt. He didn't see the humour in it, and neither did I. I had meant it as a serious and innovative suggestion that would have led to happier journeys. However, my idea was not seen worthy of a second thought, despite my having presented irrefutable statistics on the reasons for our break-downs.

"I don't think [my kids] would think much about wandering in the heat and waiting for Moonface to show up. And that's a shame."

However, we largely took these breakdowns in our stride. When we would tire of running around we would sit in the shade of the biggest tree we could find and pretend that it was the Faraway Tree, and that Moonface would burst out of the trunk and ask us for a toffee. Eventually though the game would begin lose its novelty and soon we would descend into healthy sibling bickering, till my mother would intervene and settle the matter, as any self-respecting Indian parent would do, with threats of leaving us behind in the fields once the car got fixed.

Compare those journeys to the ones we take today with our kids today. The car never goes for a "check-up" before the trip -- apart from the fuel and the air in the wheels. Gone is that whole opening the bonnet and twist-opening the cap to check the coolant or pulling out that long metal stick to check the oil level, or studying the battery and its contents. I don't know how I remember all this, but I do. I can shut my eyes and picture my dad -- young, handsome and energetic (not the frail old man of 80 that he is today) -- bent over his beloved car that always betrayed him, but that he loved nevertheless, peering into its inners and fixing its workings. He would always manage to get it going again, sometimes long after we'd slept under our imaginary faraway trees.

Today we get into our air-conditioned car that cruises swiftly on the same highway (not the same road though; the terrifying one-lane highway has been transformed into a six-lane one) tearing through the sweltering heat without as much as a peep. For my kids journeys are about comfort --both physical and psychological, the latter being taken care of by the perfect toddler pacifier, the iPad (yes I give it to my kids, and before you judge me let me invite you for a journey with two six year olds and one nine year old).

The truth is that our children don't know life any other way, and it's not their fault, I know. And yet, somehow, I find myself lamenting the loss of the little things in life, even as I remind myself that our kids are living their childhood and not re-living mine, and that I must allow them to make their own memories, no matter how different, and not try and thrust mine on them.

But this I know -- they would not know what to do if ever the car did break down, because much as they love the Faraway Tree, I don't think they would think much about wandering in the heat and waiting for Moonface to show up.

And that's a shame.

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