352 – Lessons from my dad
A Father’s Day Special – for that great guy who first put my hand to wheels, who made travel grow on me. And who still drives with two chairs so that he and mom can sit and take in the scenery wherever.After my studies, after I got my first job, after my first marriage, my dad told me a secret.
“Your mom and me, we had a love marriage.”
It was also a full 15 years after I first knew about it.
In fact, I had known it all along: From the way my parents laughed it off when I was caught kissing my first girlfriend – the sister of our family priest in Nigeria – I was eight at the time, she was 18. From the way my notoriety was tolerated at home for having several girlfriends even before I started college. From the way my dad shrugged off the brouhaha when I was caught sneaking out of a Gulf Malayali’s house during wee hours. From the way my mom was my confidante during the low phase after a breakup – several, all equally heartbreaking. And there were the bells that rang every time my dad went after the number 352. Beginning with Nigeria, 1981.
The Peugeot 504 was in fact not my dad’s first, he had bought a Willy’s Jeep soon after he got his first job as a lecturer. But this was his first ‘proper’ car – by then he had a wife and all his five children. I still remember the evening he brought the car home the first time.
We were staying in this little town called Koko. Dad used to go to the nearest city – 230 km away –called Sokoto for official work. Sometimes he would take a shared cab and at times he would borrow a neighbour’s Volkswagen Beetle – a sky blue bug, rear engine which raged like the powerful mad moth which it was. This time he had taken a cab. We kids were playing under the baobab tree when from the distance we heard the honk for the first time – one short followed by one long – this became his trademark ‘I-am-almost-there-open-the-garage’ signal for me over the years. My sisters ran inside home hollering to mom that some visitor had come; I stayed put. Somehow I knew it was dad.Daddy stopped the car in front of the porch. I remember him beaming as he emerged from the car. Barely was he out of the car, he turned back to look at the car in unabashed admiration. And I still remember how I understood that look. We brought home my first cycle – a white and red Raleigh – in the 504. Dad gave mom her first driving lessons in the 504 which nearly cost us all our lives. During summer me and dad would pile up the trunk with 50 litre cans, drive some 20 kilometres to bring home drinking water. He would also bring Fr John and his sister home on Sundays for a short service mass followed by lunch. Dad would take us kids out to the nearby ‘Mummy’s Market’ and treat us all to rose-coloured bread and roasted lamb. He would come home with cartons of beer for himself and his colleagues at the Koko school. Then, what I remember most fondly is the first time he made me hold the wheel. I must have been barely six and we were in Sokoto over a weekend.
“Thomacha, come to the front seat.” It almost sounded like some ceremonial initiation to driving, an official sanction.
Over the years I have driven many cars over many hundreds of thousands of kilometres, in many countries. Each time I get behind the wheel, even if only to get my Sunday beer, I am thrilled by the whole automotive thing; I imagine life for the horses under my hood and I talk to them. And trust me they have held me in good stead – through landslides and flash floods, chasing dacoits and inescapable collisions. But what thrilled me most? That late afternoon, on my dad’s lap, holding the wheel of the Peugeot 504 and negotiating a roundabout, all by myself. One of the hind wheels rode over the ridge and my sisters screamed. It was then that I fell in love with machines; I knew what I could do with a car. And what the car could do with me.
I would wash the car, fill the batteries with distilled water, top up the radiator, do odd jobs around the house and even not fight with my sisters. All for that announcement,
“Thomacha, come to the front seat.”
5352 was the registration number of our Peugeot 504. The guy who helped dad procure the number – Mr Okay – got a fruit cake baked by mom every Christmas and a bottle of Johnny Walker from dad as long as we were in Nigeria.
1352Before mobile phones was democratised by Reliance CDMA, you needed to have the exact time you would receive that call from your girlfriend and had to hang around the landline, browsing through the dictionary that was kept next to it or asking dad – on whose study the phone was – inane doubts like “What’s the meaning of ‘Terminator’?” We were back from Nigeria, daddy had built his dream house in our hometown Pala in Kerala and I had gotten in with my seven-year-itch.
My father was never really a disciplinarian. The only thing he ever insisted on was that I never manhandle my sisters and be respectful towards my mother. Maybe it helped that I always came in the top five in the class of 40 or 45. Both my parents taught zoology in college and I hated the subject. Nevertheless, I used to get good marks which manifested as biology and health science in school. Physics, chemistry and mathematics were positive nightmares. I excelled in English, partially because I was in love with my language teacher, Amala. So when I won the gold medal for the student who scores the highest mark in science and mathematics, I used it as my license to love and be loved more. For a while I wore the gold medal pinned on my shirt pocket by the then state finance minister KM Mani around my neck in a black thread till my mom confiscated it when I began asking for more pocket money.
I used to play for my school cricket team and every evening we practised. After practise we all chipped in a few rupees each, bought a bottle of local arrack which was mixed in a pail of water from the school well and shared. Then it would be mood for romance. I hung around till she walked by after her tuitions and walk her all the way home, stealing some necking time along the way. But the walk was never enough time together, there was so much more to talk.
“Dad, may I make a call to a friend? Need to ask him about tomorrow’s class test.” Dad would be at his study, preparing for his classes and would give a barely perceptible nod in permission.No sooner would I begin my indignant conversation with her over missed algebra chapters, my dad would leave the room. The call would end in whispered promises of everlasting love and meeting the same time next day. And maybe more than necking. Daddy would walk in with a glass of coffee and resume position in his chair, pull his notes towards him and continue with his preparations.
“Good night, dad.” I would say more meaning, ‘Thank you, dad.’
Again the imperceptible nod – he did know that tomorrow I would be back to call a teammate to discuss match strategy.
1352 was our phone number – during the early days there used to be only four digits. Daddy had to get the police commissioner, an ex student, put in a word to get the number.
2352 is the number of the car my dad drives today – a gold dust Chevrolet Aveo.
By now all of us five children and our spouses knew about the number 352. Still what we didn’t know was the length to which my dad had gone to get the number.
“Oh, it was difficult,” was what he would admit, blushing slightly. He is in his seventies.
“I had to get some people put in a word.” Prod further and he would admit hesitatingly.
“What kind of people?” We ploughed on, wicked.
“Oh, people the regional transport office guys would listen to.”
“Dad…,” we would feign exasperation.
We knew he would give his right arm for a good build-up – he has over 1,000 Reader’s Digests – those old editions where you had ‘It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power’ by Peter Funk. I still remember him engrossed in a ‘Drama in real life’ when I was five.
“Okay, a minister and a deputy superintendent of police,” he would say as if being cornered into admitting a white lie.
“That’s all?”“There was also an ex district collector and a rubber board chairman.” These are IAS officers who wield good clout even after they retire from active service – there were quite a few of them who were dad’s students.
Later on, I came to know that such was the kind of pressure that the regional transport officer started a new series so that my dad could have his coveted 352. This knowledge has very so often come handy – the perseverance and distances to which one can go to get what one has set his heart on. If my dad could do it for a just a number, then I could do it for anything.
Then 352 was not just a number, it was the roll number of my mom when my dad taught her during his first year as a lecturer.