‘I have a confession, Bapi,’ I said softly. ‘Remember that scratch on Tina in ‘86? That was me, and I’m so sorry for having denied it all along.’
The monitors continued to beep rhythmically and there was no visible response from the man attached to them. This was on the 8th of November 2019. I had just flown thousands of miles from Glasgow to Calcutta and come straight to him in the ICU. The doctors and nurses, expecting me, had kindly drawn the curtains around the bed.
He slipped away the next day. I will never know for certain if he heard me that night, or indeed, was aware of me. But selfishly, it lightened my heart to have ‘come clean’ finally.
Tina was the fourth woman in his life, and the three of us were quite jealous of her from time to time. She was a blue Ambassador, TNS 1921, ergo Tina. Today, we would say teal, but those were simpler times, when blue was just blue.
She came into our lives in 1976, when I was eleven years old. Our first car. Oh, the excitement! The remembered joy which fills my heart even as I type this. My father smiling from earlobe to earlobe, Ma almost skipping with joy. My sister and I fighting for who gets to sit in the front. In the end, all four of us sat in the front, for that first drive around the cantonment. No seat belts were required back then, and the car seats were like sofas. News spread. Colonel Gupta has a car! Folk streamed into the house to congratulate and exclaim, and we had to serve endless glasses of lemon squash.
My parents loved travelling, and we went on mini (and maxi), breaks every chance we got. Fair to say, we covered a lot of kilometres, exploring areas around where we lived.
Looking back, they make up the happiest memories for me, but back then it was not always pleasant. My sister and I suffered greatly from motion sickness, especially on mountain journeys. Most of our childhood was spent in the hills of the Nilgiris in south India or the Himalayan towns of the north or the northeast. By modern parenting standards my parents would have failed disastrously, they never paid a great deal of attention to our nausea, convinced the adventures were good for us. So, we would loll about miserably at the back, while the two of them would giggle and sing and ‘explore’. Every now and then we had to stop, while one of us stumbled out, threw up, got wiped down with a wet hanky and Old Spice, and off we would go again.
On longer journeys, the dogs came along. Normal families had one or two four-legged siblings, we had four! Lhasa Apsos, they were. Mishty always sat in the front, she was Ma’s favourite. Bundle and Poochie shared the back seat with us, whilst Chhotu, my father’s boy, sat on the ledge behind us.
When we stopped, at random beauty spots, we walked the dogs, while my mother headed for Tina’s Dicky. This will make you chuckle. Here in the UK, it is the car boot, in the US, it’s the trunk… but in India, it is a Dicky! Tina’s dicky was this cavernous Aladdin’s treasure trove. It contained everything from rations to a small kerosene stove. Ma would then proceed to cook, fresh water from running streams, fresh fish bought off local fishermen.
Our suitcases were secured firmly overhead, with ropes I had become adept at helping our father with. ‘The Navy Knot not as great as Infantry Intelligence,’ we would chant together.
There was the time we got lost in a cashew forest in Kerala. Before Google maps and Satnavs or mobile phones. We were told that we would sleep in the car till daybreak. Ma had added (albeit in a small voice) that the dogs would protect us. Thankfully, it had not come to that, we met some local farmers who guided us out onto the main road.
Such was life with Tina.
My highlight in that car was the night our parents returned from a party. It would have been close to midnight, it was a full-moon night, they were in high spirits (neither of them drank alcohol, they were just always annoyingly merry), and decided they wanted to take the girls for a moon-lit drive. I was then in my final year at school, studying hard for exams, and also had to be at the stables by 6am. So, I was certainly not amused when Ma woke us up and insisted on this drive. Much grumbling, shawls over pyjamas, and off we went. My memory does not provide perfection purer than that. Two grumpy and sleepy teenagers soon turned into mini versions of the accompanying adults and sang along almost as noisily. That was the night, he let me have a go at the steering. Sitting next to him, manoeuvring the car, on empty windy mountain roads, it was magic.
Alas, I wasn’t allowed to further my driving lessons with Tina. It was after I had acquired my licence (on one-ton military truck), that I got to drive her. The gears were attached to the steering wheel, which was different from what I had learnt, and I am sure everyone held their breath for the entirety of that journey.
Later of course, every time I went home from university, I acted as though Tina were mine, even stopped asking for permission. Till that day, just before my wedding, when I had a little altercation with a passing cab, in crowded Calcutta.
Everyone knew it had been me, but contrary to my nature, I denied it. I will never know why. And never drove her again. This must have caused such disappointment to my father, not just that I had lied, but the fact that I never ‘owned up’ to it.
Till the day before he died.
My husband and I have owned a few cars, but I remember no other number than our beloved TNS1921!