Our Lambretta Scooter: A Family Member

September 30, 2010

Our Lambretta

Pic courtesy Goldenscoots.com

Our family vehicle had an international design. Neither Japanese, nor Korean which are currently popular in India. Those are hardly international, they are Asian, come on!! Ours was designed in Europe, and that too at the most happening design center in the world, Italy. While most other people in our city, Jamshedpur, had mechanical two-wheelers (read bicycles), ours was a mechanized one, it ran on petrol and it had gears. My father, we call him Pitaji, rode a scooter, a Lambretta scooter.

This was in the 60’s and 70’s of the last century. Cars those days were a luxury. They were very expensive and consumed lots of fuel. There were just two makes available those days, Ambassador and Fiat. The pace of life those days did not demand cars. Two-wheelers were fine, mechanized or otherwise.

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Our Lambretta was a versatile vehicle. It could transport Pitaji to his college for his lectures. He could also ferry one of us siblings to school in case we felt too lazy to walk or to cycle.  Why only one, five of us could squeeze onto the capacious machine if the need arose. Like, for example, visiting the local mela, or the odd dinner where the entire family was invited. You will wonder how four could “fit” in along with father.

The youngest (hence the shortest) of us would stand in front of Pitaji holding the handle close to the speedometer. Or clutch the metal “wall” below the handle if one was short to reach the handle. Sometimes even the shortest in the group was tall, tall enough to block the view of the rider. In which case he was instructed to tilt sideways so that his head did not come in the way of the rider’s line of vision. And if he got a stiff neck as a consequence, he or she would be commanded to crouch down, now holding the sides of the aforementioned metal wall! This too was uncomfortable, but it made for a safer ride. The person next in age/ height would squeeze-in right behind the rider on his seat. The remaining two would arrange themselves on the pillion seat. There was some jostling for space, but it would settle down soon enough. So now you see, 1+(1+1)+(1+1)=5. Neat equation, one rider, and four passengers! This was a little bit of a trouble of course, but this situation was a lot better than the prospect the city’s erratic bus service.

Did I say four passengers? There could be a fifth one too perched on the “stepney”, the spare wheel affixed nearly horizontally at the end the scooter body. Clutching passenger number four fervently!

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Lambretta did have competition, and that too from another Italian-designed scooter, Vespa. But in no way did the Vespa match the charm, elegance, sturdiness and reliability of Lambretta. We thought the Vespa was a puny little scooter, hardly the stuff which could ferry a family around. And, horror of horrors, it had only three gears against Lambretta’s four. Weakling! The poor Vespa had its stepney affixed vertically. So not only there could be no additional passengers, the two riding on the pillion would be even more constrained for butt-space! The Vespa was hardly the one to bear the burden of running a family!

Now consider our Lambretta. It was as close to being a family retainer as any inanimate object could be. (But I would hate to call it inanimate). Groceries over at home? Never mind. Just hop onto the scooter, rush to the market and carry back a few jhola-loads of groceries. Atta chakki and its load? No problems! Gas cylinder exhausted? Carry the empty one to the local gas cylinder depot, bribe the depot agent a few rupees and you are back home with a filled cylinder. It just took two of you to do the job, one riding the scooter and the other clutching the cylinder- empty or filled- depending on the direction you were travelling. If the pillion rider, the one who held the cylinder between himself and the rider, was smart enough, he would wrap the cylinder in an old sheet or towel lest it soiled his or the rider’s clothes with its rusty exterior. If he was smart, and strong enough, he could hold the cylinder on the “stepney” with his arms splyed backwards gripping the cylinder.

Like any family retainer, faithful or otherwise, the Lambretta too had its dark moments. It would sulk, it would growl, sometimes even failed to get “kicked” into life. Like it would not start, or it would stop midway abruptly, for some random reason! Solutions were ready at hand. As a first step, you could tilt the scooter towards yourself and give it a few furious kicks. More often than not, it would purr back to life. If this did not work, you had to just remove a side cover of the scooter, yank off the spark plug and clean the relevant parts with an old shaving blade, or a screw driver, scarping off the dirt settled into the crevices. You, of course, would remember to blow away the loose debris with light taps of the plug on the sides of the vehicle. The careful ones employed a handkerchief to unscrew and hold the plug as it would be hot. Either of these solutions, or a combination of both would solve the problem. If not, then there was the friendly neighbourhood mistry (mistry a local term for a mechanic), Mantu, who would take care of more complex things like carburettor cleaning or engine re-“boring”.

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Over the passage of time, both Lambretta and Vespa vanished. First from the market and then from the roads. Interestingly enough, the companies which bought the rights to the designs of these were Indians. Lambretta being bought over by an Indian government undertaking and Vespa’s design by Bajaj. Scooters India sold Lambretta as Lamby and then as Vijay (and variants thereof), and true to the nature of the PSUs then, the product died. Bajaj named the scooters as Bajaj, and it flourished. And how!! The waiting list for Bajaj scooters ran into 8-10 years, the premium to be made on selling a Bajaj scooter could fund a wedding. But that is the stuff for another post. (Remember the ad slogan, “Hamara Bajaj?”) However, Bajaj scooters had to be phased out- the scooter market was over-run by motorcycles, bikes from the Bajaj stable being one of the chief culprits.

And with the passage of time, Pitaji migrated from Lambretta to Bajaj. And through the years his brood of six moved away from Jamshedpur. Either after marriage or for pursue higher studies. When Pitaji reached his mid-seventies we persuaded him to dispose off his scooter. We were worried that if he got injured in an accident the recovery process could be painfully slow at his age. Finally he did sell off his scooter.

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Now if Pitaji has to venture out of the house, he walks. And if mai has to accompany him, they take an auto-rikshaw.

Over the last few years, we have offered to buy him a car and hire a driver. He has refused our proposal all this while. He says, “I have now graduated from two wheels (scooter) to three (auto-rikshaw). There really is no need to move to four-wheelers.”

And then he adds wistfully: “Those two-wheelers were actually quite nice”.

I agree.

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Dabangg: Zabardast hai!

September 19, 2010

During my college days at BHU, Varanasi, in the 80’s, these little ads for movies in the local Hindi dailies would exhort us to see a particular movie by exclaiming, “Maar-dhaad, naach-gaaney aur romance sey bharpoor, mahaan samaajik chalchitra. Poorey parivar key saath dekhein!” Dabangg harks back to the same era and I could repeat the slogan for this movie as well.

Hurrah, the return of old-time Bollywood! Dabangg has neither the Mumbai underworld nor the nattily-dressed NRI Vicky Malhotra (of Karan Johar fame). It is set in small-town Uttar Pradesh of today and has an endearingly- named chief protagonist, Chulbul Pandey. You know you are in for a rollicking time the moment Salman Khan, playing the role of police officer Chulbul Pandey, makes his entry. Kya entry hai boss! Salman breaks into the den of the baddies and proceeds to smash them to pulp, and in what style! He hoses them clean to star with and then announces, “Abhi to nahlaya hai, ab dhulai karoonga!” And what dhulai he does starting from those amazing tricks with the hose-pipe and then the good old fisticuffs. Then follows the classic scene where all the participants in this scrum are sliding around the floor thanks to the spillage of a copious amount of oil. Even during this rather hectic maar-peet, Salman breaks into a jig, dancing to the caller tune of the mobile of someone he was mauling just a moment ago!

And it is Salman all the way after that. Salman fighting, Salman singing-and- dancing, Salman romancing, Salman delivering one-liners. The crowd in the multiplex where I saw the movie this morning was going berserk.

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Chulbul grows up with his stepbrother Makkhi (Arbaaz Khan) as his mother (Dimple Kapadia) marries Prajapati Pandey (Vinod Khanna) on the death of her husband. Chulbul thinks his stepdad is always unkind to him and hence he hates him, and Makkhi too. (But he does adore his mother.) They have an uneasy coexistence till Chulbul moves out of Prajapati Pandey’s house after his mother passes away (suffocated to death by the chief villain, we are told towards the end of the movie).

The chief villain, Chhedi Singh (Sonu Sood) is an aspiring politician who goes to despicable lengths to further his political ambitions. He manipulates into Makkhi doing his dirty jobs. Like, for example, delivering a bomb in a crateload of mangoes to his mentor in politics so that he (Chhedi) could get the party nomination for the forthcoming elections. But Chhedi is ultimately bested by our Chulbul Pandey in the climax, full of blood and gore. And a bare-chested Salman!

Chulbul is not only brawn and machismo, there is a romantic side to him as well. He falls for Rajjo (debutante Sonakshi Sinha) and convinces her to marry him. While she has a substantial role, the script writers, in a master-stroke, have written virtually no lines for her. What an introduction for Shatrughan Sinha’s daughter! The Shotgun who stood out in his movies by his loud acting and even louder dialogue delivery! Sonakshi manages to convey her emotions with her eyes and her body language. She has done a terrific job and her’s must rank as one of the most impressive Bollywood debuts in recent times.

There are cameos by veterans like Anupam Kher, Om Puri, Mahesh Manjarekar and Tinnu Anand. And an item number by Malaika Arora- but naturally- as it is her home production.

One word for the director, Abhinav Kashyap. Terrific! The way his brother Anurag Kashyap has blazed a new trail with Dev D and Gulaal, Abhinav too will go places in Bollywood. It takes a smart director to take the routine masala and whip up a lovely meal that is Dabangg.

The strength of the movie is that it does not pretend being “meaningful” cinema. It knows it has just one job on hand, and the job is to entertain. And does it entertain!! It holds you enthralled. All two hours plus of it!

Go watch it! Poore parivar key saath dekhein! Remember to smuggle-in a bagful of unshelled groundnuts. And enjoy scattering the shells on the floor as you munch along watching the dhishoom-dhishoom. Just as we used to in the earlier era. The dainty- and prohibitively priced- multiplex popcorns won’t do for Dabangg, you have to hear the crack of the shell collapsing between your jaws as you extricate the nuts from within.

Bollywood! Zindabad!!


The Little Angel, Aadi

September 13, 2010

Aaditya Michael Dasgupta February 15, 2001 to August 12, 2010

This afternoon my wife, Kiran, and I met a little angel. A little messenger of God, emanating from the Supreme Being, sent to do His bidding.

This angel has told us today, without saying even one word, so much about the Supreme Being. He loves you. He is there with you. He is there in every small thing. And He is there everywhere.

Our angel, Aaditya, suffers from the rare, very rare, and fatal, disease called Niemann-Pick type C1 disease. So rare that only some five hundred people across the globe have been diagnosed to suffer from it.

Aadi is going to turn eight a few weeks hence, on 15th February 2009.

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Kiran and I enter Aadi’s bedroom and find him on his bed, wrapped-up in a quilt, staring at us with his unblinking eyes. He does not say a word, he barely makes a gesture. A little bundle of flesh-and-bones covered with pale skin. With hardly any energy left in him to acknowledge our hellos and our touches.

He reacts to his father, Ravi, who sits next to him, holding his hand, caressing his cheeks. An unspoken bond between the two. So palpable. The mother, Tasneem, stands next to the bed, gazing at them. And Kiran, a little unsure of what to do, shifting her gaze among the three, the angel and the parents. Then the angel wiggles his finger and Ravi places a portable DVD player next to him and plugs in his favourite cartoon show. The angel’s eyes are transfixed in the DVD and we are signalled to vacate the room.

Let the angel have his private moments.

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Niemann-Pick disease is an inherited condition involving the breakdown and use of fats and cholesterol in the body in which harmful amounts of lipids accumulate in the spleen, liver, lungs, bone marrow, and brain. Signs include severe liver disease, breathing difficulties, developmental delay, seizures, increased muscle tone (dystonia), lack of coordination, problems with feeding, and an inability to move the eyes vertically.

There are four sub-types of the disease, A, B, C and D. And these are all fatal. Some kids do not progress from infancy while some may live into adulthood.

As of now, there are no proven cures for this disease. There are some studies for new drugs going on in animals, but there is no clinical study on humans yet.

The awareness of this rarest-of-rare disease is extremely low, even among doctors. You would be “lucky” if the disease is diagnosed. Maybe lucky is not the word, you are downright unlucky to have the disease diagnosed as the doctor will tell you that he can do practically nothing to cure you of it. And you live each day fearing the worst.

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As I look back in time, I remember visiting the hospital to greet the day-old Aadi. A little bundle of joy in his mother’s lap. Over the years I met Aadi several times. At his place or ours. At our office parties. (His father, Ravi, was a colleague of mine for several years). At the office sometimes, after office hours, when Aadi would draw pictures awaiting his dad to finish his work.

The cute little boy with chubby, chubby cheeks which you would want to bite. A normal, fun-loving kid. His parents did notice a little slowness in learning abilities when Aadi was around four years old. These they thought to themselves initially as quirks of nature, “Different kids have different growing-up patterns, you know.”

Till one day they discovered something really strange. Aadi would fall down whenever he laughed. Just like that. That rang the alarm bells ringing and the parents made swift moves to have this investigated. A few months of going from one top doctor to another and then someone remarked. “Possibly Niemann-Pick disease”. The only way this could be confirmed was via a fairly complex investigation which involved the entire family traveling to a specific hospital in Delhi to give their blood samples. These samples were flown to a specialized lab in Holland for analysis.

The reports confirmed the worst fears. Aadi was indeed suffering from Niemann-Pick disease.

The disease was confirmed, the cure was not in sight. The clock had begun ticking, as it were, for Aadi. This was about a year and a half ago.

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The months which followed saw a flurry of activities. Including a trip by Aadi’s family to meet the top specialist in the disease. All the way to the US. He too could not offer any course of treatment. He could not, none is available still. Multiple doctors, multiple advices. But no sure route for recovery.

But lots of prayers. Lots and lots of them.

Aadi’s condition continued to worsen. Some four months ago there was a rapid decline in his health when Aadi lost ability to move, to speak, or even to eat. Things were rapidly going downhill.

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Not that nothing else was happening in the meanwhile. Aadi’s parents, Tasneem and Ravi, had decided to put up a fight, a very strong fight. They were not going to give up easily. No way. And the larger extended family of the couple spread across continents joined in. It was not Aadi’s battle alone, not his parents, but all of the family and friends.

The resolute and heroic manner in which the family is dealing with the situation is inspirational. For example they fought tooth-and-nail to get the approval for, a hitherto unapproved, stem-cell transplant therapy. They have extended the battle beyond Aadi as well. Spreading awareness about the disease, connecting with parents with similarly suffering kids, even financially supporting some of their treatment. This is stuff for some other time, maybe.

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As we leave Tasneem and Ravi’s place, we tiptoe into the room where Aadi is asleep and say a quiet bye to the angel.

We drive back home wishing for that one miracle which would cure Aadi. But then, I wonder, isn’t Aadi himself a miracle. A miracle which has made people draw upon inordinate reserves of strength from within, a miracle which has brought together strangers across continents.

Yes, our angel, indeed is a miracle.

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PS: I have just returned from a memorial service for Aadi held this evening at his Church. He passed away four weeks ago, on 12th August.

This piece you just read was written on 3rd January 2009, just after a visit to Aadi’s.

Kiran and I had been meeting Aadi right since his birth, we first met him when he was barely a day old, at the hospital. We were troubled now seeing Aadi in this condition. But we were also impressed with the way Aadi’s parents, our friends Tasneem and Ravi, were handling the situation. This piece was written as I wanted to capture my thoughts and post it on my blog. Somehow I never got around to doing it.

Tasneem called me last week to tell me that she wanted me to write something on Aadi. And she wanted me to read the piece at the memorial service, I offered her the same piece. And I told her that I would not want to edit it or even update it.

So what you are reading now was written twenty months ago.

PPS: This is a rather unusual piece on my blog. But I am posting it here as I want you to know about the Niemann-Pick disease. To know about how Tasneem and Ravi braved this ordeal. And for you to know how lovely this child, Aadi, was.