Thursday, October 23, 2014

Chakraview: AID India Quiz 2014

I had the pleasure of conducting an India Quiz with two fellow quizzers, Nandini and Suchir for AID. This is an annual event that my quizzing group, Seattle Area Quizzers conducts for AID, an NGO that drives a lot of good projects in India. Small contribution to a greater cause.

The questions are shared here for your enjoyment. Go ahead. Give it a spin.

Chakraview: India Quiz 2014 

Sunday, October 05, 2014

That Little Blue Car

What is your dream car? A Bentley, a Beetle, a BMW or a Bugati? In this non-fiction piece in this month's Spark magazine themed 'Desire', I talk about my dream car from a time when dreams were simpler. Read on about which one and why! The answer might surprise you

That Little Blue Car | Spark

That Little Blue Car

What is a car? Is it just a vehicle on four wheels or is it a disguise for something larger? An ambition, an aspiration, a dream, a desire? Cars have continued to infuse passion and devotion amidst the believers over years. The car lover waxes eloquent about the purring of the engine, the thrill of its acceleration, the union of the man with the machine, the aesthetic joy that the contours of a vehicle bring. It is often a reflection of the owner. A status symbol, an extension of self.

Now that I have laid out a philosophical treatise on cars, let me tell you a story. This is a story of a man and a car and that little desire in a small crevice of his heart. It is a true story. It is my story.

I was a teen growing up in Mumbai in the 1990s. Mumbai is a crazy metropolis today. It was a crazy metropolis then too. It was packed like a can of sardines, but the lid was safely on (unlike today, where the can seems to spill a little bit of its guts each day). One of the great things about the city was that you could get around without ever needing a vehicle that you owned. There was the great train service (even with its daily incidents of people getting run over or electrocuted). There were the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws with their square shaped mysterious meters and tariff sheets. And where the auto-rickshaw could not reach, you had the speedier big brother of the auto-rickshaws, the Padmini Premier taxis. Lastly, you had the BEST buses, the red behemoths of the road. BEST stood for Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport and I am sure the people of Mumbai were glad that they were allowed to travel along with all the electricity that was being transported in the buses. There was the single decker. There was the double decker. The stalling, sputtering, accelerating, exhilarating buses that every other vehicle driver feared. An elephant among the hyenas. When presented with such an interesting bouquet of options, the ordinary Mumbaikar would hardly miss the rose-shaped hole. Their own car. I was one of them.

To be precise, my father was one of them (since I had no buying power being a poor engineering student). In fact, my grandfather was one of them too. Two generations of my family had thrived in Mumbai without entering the realms of car ownership. From the vast clean environs of South Mumbai to the newly developed jungle of Andheri, they had journeyed across the length and breadth of the city without ever getting a car. Heck, they never even had a driver’s license.

So, there I was. The third generation. Dangerously opinionated. Mildly ambitious. Engineered for the future. The 90s kid. I must have traveled a hundred thousand kilometers on the streets of Mumbai, aided by the wonderful public transport system of the city. For the longest time, I was content in my state of being unattached. To not having a car, that is. If you looked around then, even in the richest city in India, you wouldn’t see the Ferraris and the Jaguars. But change was rampant in the exhaust-fumes laden air of India. In the just liberalized economy, cars of different sizes from different makers were trickling in. We had moved ahead of the exotic Impala and Contessa, the standard issue Premier Padmini and the Ambassador, the family friendly Maruti Omni and the ‘luxurious’ Maruti 1000.
But what truly captured by heart was that little Maruti. The Maruti 800. That little box that fit the roads of Mumbai, never threatening to graze its seams. That small angular hood, the trunk that ended just after it started, the tiny mechanical doors, all got an approving look from me. The pint-sized tires glided on the bumpy roads of the city in sweet motion and the honking in ‘F’ minor was a good fit in the general cacophony.  I was lucky that a good friend had one of these little marvels at his disposal. Many an evening was spent going around in this car listening to music that might not pass muster with me more than a decade later. We were whatever the equivalent of ‘cool’ was, then. There may have been other better looking, more efficient, luxurious vehicles on offer, but my mind was set on the Maruti 800.

When I look back at those times, I often wonder why it was that I chose a Maruti 800 of all cars. When you don’t have the resources or the wherewithal to acquire something beyond your means, your dreams come to your rescue and let you soar on the wings of fancy. But then this was India in the 90s and this was me. The country was waking up to a new reality but my dreams were firmly rooted in the Hindu rate of growth.

It was a state of mind then. A pragmatic desire. A dream I could wrap my head around. A Maurti 800. Dark blue in color. With a functioning air conditioner. And a sound system that would gleefully take my collection of audio cassettes. There would be the cloud covered night in Mumbai where the rain would not let you see beyond the first five feet. A Faiz ghazal sung by Ghulam Ali would waft through the music system while the wipers worked overtime to rid the windshield of the pouring rain. That Maruti would glide through the lanes adjoining the sea where the waves would work hard to be heard over the rain.

I decided that the first car I would buy would be a Maruti 800. Only if to realize a dream. But that would not happen.. I didn’t know back then that I would go on to live abroad a few years later and would finally buy my first car in 2003. Not an Indian product, but a German one. A Volkswagen Passat. A tank disguised as a car. I didn’t know I would buy my second car a few years later. This time, a Japanese one. A Lexus SUV. A gas guzzler not pretending to be anything other than that. Recently, I read somewhere that production of the Maruti 800 has been discontinued. That puts an end to that flight of fancy. Even if it were available now, buying it would perhaps be an impractical thing to do. Yes, practicality. That which fed the dream will now cull it.

In a parallel universe, though, there is still that little blue charming car I would own and drive. I would just add one more thing to it to fit in with my current reality. I would make it an automatic.