Giving back happiness

DURING May and June, before the advent of the monsoon, Calcutta wears a pallid look and is unbearably hot and humid. Walking down the road in the sultry weather, I would take my mind off to the blizzards of Antarctica, the snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas, and the icebergs of the Arctic Ocean to mitigate the effects of heat. But these flights of fancy were of no avail and an aerated cold drink from a wayside stall was more satisfying. The very sight of room heaters, hot-water heaters, and woolens displayed in some of the shop windows was oppressive and disquieting. How eagerly we all waited for the nor'westers -- a phenomenon peculiar to eastern India -- which bring in their wake sudden sharp showers accompanied by gushing wind. On such occasions, the temperature comes down by a good few degrees and the weather becomes quite pleasant.

It was Sunday morning. I woke up with the warbling of the cuckoo from the nearby mango grove. The cool breeze was redolent with the scent from jasmine bushes growing wild near the window. Thanks to a cloudburst during the night, the weather had become delightfully pleasant. Just then my friend Debu, a great car enthusiast, rang up to find if my wife, Sarla, and I were in a mood for a drive to Diamond Harbor, some 50 kilometers away. The weather was equally inviting and we did not take long to make up our minds.

In fact, Diamond Harbor was of little consequence to Debu. He had just become the proud owner of the latest model of a sparingly used Oldsmobile -- a rare specimen on Indian roads -- and was itching for a long drive on the highway. Calcutta's narrow, congested roads punctuated with potholes and the crisscrossing tramway tracks were barely adequate for small Indian cars and rather unsuitable for such stately American limousines. So far Debu's driving pleasure was badly restricted and as the weather relented, he was all agog to test the mettle of his new acquisition.

From North Calcutta, it took us quite some time to negotiate the Sunday traffic through Chittaranjan Avenue and Chowringhee, the arterial roads of the city. After passing by the side of Fort William and Victoria Memorial, we finally reached the northern end of Diamond Harbor Road for a straight 40-kilometer drive to our destination.

The sky was overcast, promising a drizzle or two, and mercifully there were no menacing dark clouds. This accentuated our holiday mood. Debu accelerated and his wife drummed a forgotten tune on the dashboard that was, perhaps, a tribute to the smooth, vibration-free drive. We overtook a number of cars and buses full of holidaymakers, all on their way to Diamond Harbor. Cal-cuttans have a real penchant for travel and don't miss an opportunity.

Debu had slowed down the car. A little ahead was a Baby Austin in immaculate shape with an old Anglo-Indian couple. After decades of meticulous main-tenance, this ancient, distant cousin of Debu's Oldsmobile was still laying its claim to the roads of Calcutta. While such jalopies are seen only at the vintage car rallies in other cities, a number of these heirlooms can still be seen on the roads of Calcutta. Debu remarked with philosophical candor. ``A rich man driving the latest car does not impress me. Now, here is a man who is trying to live up to his dreams.'' We exchanged smiles with the couple and waved as Debu drove past the little wonder.

A little later, we found ourselves behind a creaky school bus full of boys and girls going to Diamond Harbor for a picnic. The children were singing and bouncing, and there was a burst of applause whenever the bus overtook another vehicle. Debu honked and the driver swerved a little, giving us passage to overtake. The children's enthusiasm dampened and for a while they were silent. With dismal expressions writ large on their faces, they felt humbled.

After driving for a few minutes, Debu suddenly stopped the Oldsmobile, opened the hood, and started tinkering with the spark plugs. Just then the school bus overtook us. The children were overjoyed, and we could hear the merrymaking and catcalls till the bus disappeared in clouds of dust.

I got a little worried. But Debu closed the hood gently, started the engine as if nothing had happened, and said, ``Oh, I just wanted to give back to those children the happiness we took away from them!''

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