Thursday, March 2, 2017

Chapters From My Nostalgia: My Father’s Motorcycle

I have always had a fascination for motorbikes. Much more than cars. Although I have never driven one in my life, I have had the pleasure of being the pillion rider for a good part of my early existence. Primarily because of my father’s motorcycle. That bike played a significant role in my childhood and riding on it with my father, I created some indelible memories that I had somehow forgotten to reminisce about these past few years. Until last week…

A friend had shared a collection of pictures of vintage bikes on Facebook recently and among those pictures was the model Rajdoot 350 – the bike that my father used. The moment I looked at it, I was drowned in a flood of memories; very poignant ones, really. Some things have that effect – they take you back to an era that appears to be from a different lifetime now. That particular photograph became my time machine right then. And even as I could feel my eyes welling up while looking at it, my face had a slight smile on it. A smile that contained countless delightful recollections which I hadn’t taken a peek into for a long, long time.

Now I do not have much technical knowledge of bikes, but I do remember that my father’s Rajdoot was a second-hand model that he had bought in the mid-80s, was light red in color and was overall a pretty smooth motorbike. The one image that has distinctly stuck with me of the bike is my father riding it while wearing a blue synthetic jacket – something that served him for more than a decade – and an olive green helmet. The blue jacket, my father, and the Rajdoot have, in fact, become synonymous with each other from my memories of those days.

This image is for representational purposes. The actual bike was quite different in looks.

Like any other kid would, I too loved riding on my father’s motorcycle. He would take me to all sorts of places on the bike: a friend’s house, to Burrabazar or some other far-off market to buy some supplies, the doodh mandi and sometimes even to his office.

Initially, I used to sit on the front, with my legs just about resting on the steel bars of the vehicle in the front and the hands holding a little part of the handle where I would keep making weird faces in the rearview mirror. And whenever my father would halt the bike at a signal, I loved pushing the little red honk button near the right handle for no rhyme or reason. My father would remove my hand from the honk button whenever I would so, but the moment I would find an opportunity I could never restrain myself from pressing that little red button.

Another thing that I loved doing with my father’s bike was thrusting on the starter pedal to kickstart the machine. It took a lot of effort at times and my father would keep telling me the precise way to press down on it. Most of the times, I would just keep kicking at the pedal without any results but it gave me immense satisfaction when, on some rare occasions, I managed to successfully start the motorbike with the starter.

As I grew taller (and that happened very, very quickly, really) I took the position of the pillion rider. Sitting on the back, and lightly clutching my father’s shoulders, I loved being driven through the different streets, and nooks and crannies of Kolkata. My father rode very smoothly and that slight dug-dug-dug sound of the Rajdoot actually lulled me to disappear into my own world without bothering about the destination. I loved gazing at the people, shops, houses, birds, and trees rushing by us. The vistas, despite being so simple, would appear so alluring to me that I never wanted those journeys to end. In fact, I hated it when we would reach the destination and always loved it when my bike rides would be extended for some reason.

The most special moments from those bike rides with my father, though, generally were my birthday eves. I remember waiting excitedly for my father on the balcony of our old home in the evening on the 22nd of September. My eyes would be locked at the crossing near our home trying to spot my father’s Rajdoot. And sure enough, at around 7.30, I would usually find a red two-wheeler gliding towards our house with its rectangle yellow headlight beaming cheerfully at me. Unaware of my presence at the balcony, my father would begin honking from underneath it - it would be a signal for me to get ready. I would excitedly rush down, hop on the pillion of the Rajdoot and my father would then drive me to a toy store at a little distance from our home. It was a tiny little store, cramped in a nook of a bazaar and I loved visiting it every year.

But more than the gift itself, it were those 20 minutes on the bike – first while going towards the shop and then while returning from it with my birthday gift held firmly in my hands – that I actually looked forward to the most. It was me and my father’s special little thing; something that he probably didn’t even bother much about but something that I really treasured.

These days, my father asks me to buy my own birthday gift using his card from any of those countless e-commerce websites. It is convenient and effective. But, at the risk of sounding schmaltzy, I do wish sometimes that my father would return home on the evening of 22nd September one of these years on his Rajdoot, with his blue jacket and all, and honk at me to get ready for buying my gift. You see, those 20 minutes… I still wish to relive them dearly someday…

***

My father, like with most of the other things he possesses, loved tending to his motorcycle. Every weekend, he would devote a couple of hours to his Rajdoot where he would do some repair work, basic servicing or even some paint job on the fuel tank. On late Sunday mornings, with his tool kit in his hands, he would ask me to assist him with his servicing and try and teach me about the different parts of the bike. I would pretend to be interested while my mind would still be on the cartoon show I had just watched. Some words like radiator, shock absorber, exhaust or carburetor would sometimes register in my distracted brain while my father would dedicatedly go about with the tune-up of his beloved machine.

There is a little incident that I have never forgotten which is linked to this particular aspect of my father and his servicing of his Rajdoot.  

It was a Saturday afternoon and I was returning home on my school bus. As the bus came to a halt near my house, I noticed my father outside servicing his bike. A couple of my classmates noticed him too and pointed that out to me as I was about to disembark from the bus.

“Hey, isn’t that your father?” they asked. I nodded and progressed to move out of the bus. Perhaps it was my overactive imagination, but I could sense them sniggering behind my back, scoffing at my father and even imitating his actions on the bike.

As I got off, I looked at my father, dressed in his usual worn out pale gray half shirt, navy blue trousers and slippers. He was bent over and completely lost in his motorbike. I felt embarrassed and angry. “Why can’t my father dress properly?” I thought angrily and ran up the stairs of my house. “Why can’t he hire a mechanic to repair his bike and do such menial tasks?” I was fuming and did not want to even look at my father then.

The next morning being a Sunday my father asked me to accompany him downstairs to tend to the bike. Apparently, he wanted to give the fuel tank a new paint job. Begrudgingly, I picked up his painting equipments and headed downstairs.

Within no time, my father began to efficiently apply deft brush strokes of the red paint all over the fuel tank while carefully ensuring that no part of the red color got smeared on to the title RAJDOOT which was written in bold letters on the tank.

He seemed so invested in his task, my father. It was as if this meant the world to him. Crouched on the ground, he was squinting hard through his spectacles and with pursed lips was now painting the letters RAJDOOT in white color on his beloved bike. A single bead of sweat trickled down his left eyebrow. He wiped it with his thumb and continued with his job. I don’t really know what happened exactly but just standing there and looking at my father working so dedicatedly on the motorcycle moved me. He was wearing the same set of worn out gray shirt and blue trousers and was oblivious to everything around him. He seemed so simple and pure…Just like my father had always been…

Hot shame bubbled up inside me and my eyes welled up without warning. It wasn’t as if he had said or done something to make me feel so. In fact, my father had absolutely no inkling of what I had felt the previous evening. But I couldn’t stop the guilt from permeating every cell of my body right then. I hated myself for allowing someone else to dictate my feelings for my father.

I quietly wiped my eyes from the sleeves of my t-shirt and then bent down close to my father.

“Papa, can I paint the last two letters, please?” I requested.

He stopped and looked at me. “Yeah, sure,” he said matter-of-factly and without a single change in his expressions. But I could sense that he was pretty delighted from inside. I could always sense that.

I gripped the brush firmly in between my fingers and proceeded to paint the letters O and T on the fuel tank. Everything suddenly seemed so right and simple then. It became the perfect Sunday morning. A light morning breeze caressing our faces. The local saloon nearby playing a soothing Bengali song that I did not understand. The Rajdoot… My father… And me…

***

As I grew up, the rides on the Rajdoot became few and far between. In fact, the only significant one that I can recall was this day when my father drove my friend and me to an amusement park when I was in the 6th standard. It was a Sunday and a group of us were supposed to reach the amusement park by 10 in the morning. Since there were no school buses available, my father drove me and my friend, who lived nearby, all the way to it.

This model comes pretty close to the one my father had.

After he dropped us off, I remember my friend telling me, “Your father is an amazing driver. The ride was so smooth…”

After that, though, I hardly found time to have any rides on the Rajdoot. School friends and all the other trivial things in life at that point became much more important to me rather than having a bike ride with my father.

However, both I and my elder brother would be furious at my father if he ever dared to take any of our cousins for a ride on his bike (which would be on several occasions, really). It would touch a raw nerve and we would throw tantrums at him for doing so, failing to appreciate his generous nature that allowed him to open his heart to everyone.

As a few more years passed, my father, too, stopped taking out his bike. Apparently, parking issues and the long distances forced him to stop taking his Rajdoot to work. And then, just like that, a time came when my father decided to sell it off. Within no time, he even found a buyer for it.

When my mother first told me this news I was quite shaken. I think I was probably in the 9th standard then. And even though I hadn’t taken a ride on the Rajdoot for a while, I still had a soft corner for it and felt distraught that it was being sold.

I remember the night when the buyer had come to take the bike away. 

It was kept in its usual place in the local garage near our house. My father was in conversation with the buyer who was confirming last minute details about the motorbike. I looked sadly at the Rajdoot, standing at its regular position under the garage's shed with several other bikes. The moonlight was bouncing off its fuel tank and it looked like it was relaxing, unaware that it was to be sold off to a new owner. 

I moved close to it and could still make out the various coats of red paint that it had been smeared with over the years. I stroked my hands gently across the seat, which was a little tattered in places now and the foam inside could be seen. It was old, yes, but despite the years of service, the Rajdoot looked as good as ever, like a sturdy and handsome horse that had aged but still had that charisma about him.

The bike’s headlight was tilted towards me and it almost felt like it was looking up at me, consoling me that he would be okay. I knew it was, after all, just a machine, but it had been a loyal aide in so many of my childhood adventures and it was hard for me to let it go.

The buyer and my father had finished their conversation and were now moving towards the motorcycle. I patted the Rajdoot on its head one last time, thanking it for all that it had provided. “You did a good job, my friend! I will miss you.” I muttered to myself and then allowed it to be passed on.

***

I never saw my father’s Rajdoot after that night. Although I do remember that a year after the bike was sold, my parents met the man on the streets…with the Rajdoot. My mother told me happily that the bike appeared to be in very good condition. I longed to see it as well but pacified myself with the fact that it was being well taken care of.

I do wish, though, that I had had the opportunity of having one last ride with my father on his motorcycle. That regret gnawed at me for a very long time after the Rajdoot bid me adieu.

Then, a couple of years back, when I was in Vadodara to visit my brother we were supposed to go to a restaurant one evening. My father took my brother’s bike and I sat on the pillion to travel to the said destination.

I can’t really put a finger to it, but this bike ride just didn’t have the same charm as the ones from my childhood. We were the same two persons and my father was still driving a motorbike smoothly through the streets of a city. But…Perhaps it was the missing Rajdoot, or that we were in a different city or possibly the fact that I had grown up into an adult now. But that bike ride with my father really did not have the same effect as it once used to have.

And today, as I am reflecting back on those days, I really wish I had a picture of my father’s bike to look at. It would have certainly added more texture to my memories. Looking at that picture shared by my friend on Facebook, there was a deep sense of regret in me that I don’t have even a single photograph of my father’s beloved motorcycle. Especially because I have countless other photos from different phases of my childhood, but none of them feature that red Rajdoot.

But, thankfully, this sharp memory of mine helps me conjure up some great visuals of my past in my mind. And if I had to paint an image of my father’s bike it would be something like this: It is a somnolent Kolkata afternoon. A simple, red motorcycle is gliding through a busy street, a swirl of smoke puffing out of its exhaust pipe. On its fuel tank are written the words RAJDOOT in bold white letters. The motorcyclist – a 40-something man with a tuft of curly hair and spectacles – is wearing a synthetic blue jacket and has his eyes focused on the road ahead. Behind him is a little boy, about 10 years in age, clutching the man’s shoulders with both his hands. His mouth is half-open and he is looking skywards, in wonderment, at something on his left that is beyond the frame. The figures on the street are all engaged in some activity or the other. Even the birds on the trees and the orangish-yellow sky above seem occupied. But the boy…The boy is oblivious to what is happening around him. He is lost in his own little world…The world of his father and his motorcycle…