We were engaged to be married. Six long, very long, months separated us from the day my books were to move into his shelves, and my being into his life. We had tried to bribe the panditji to shift auspicious July to an even better (for our sanity, surely) April, but His Holiness's wrath and the ensuing lecture on how-not-to-be-desperate had reached the elders of our family. To our long wait we then surrendered. However, that did not mean we could not meet for a conservative cup of coffee or go on a roaring road trip in his humble little hatchback. So what if the destination was in our neighbourhood hills and the trip just a day long? We had our car, our music, our love, our good time and even a knock on the window by a cop – all the masala that some recipes of perfection are made of.
"Where do you want to go?" he asked, looking and talking as handsome as always.
"Away," I responded with a smile as I sat down next to the wheel. "Take me away, will you?"
The car smelled fresh and flowery, and considering it was a bachelor’s nest on four wheels I expected worse. Don Williams played in the background and we ringed love birds were soon zooming our way to a certain cluster of shops called ‘Char Dukaan’ in Mussoorie - just a stone’s throw from our homes but far enough to get away from the known.
If you thought clandestine is magical, the legitimate togetherness of the semi-official couple is even better. You can throw to the mountain winds all fear of bumping into Pummy aunty from Doon Club or Col. Joshi of mummy’s NGO in a town the size of your daddy’s golf ball. You can talk about ahem-n-that and start naming your children already. You can debate out ideas of ‘space’ and draw a line running right through the middle of the shared wardrobe, and the TV remote. Best of all, you can stop putting your best foot forward and show the official other half your obsession with coloured socks, or expensive Oxfords, whichever go on sale first. Most importantly, you can do all that as you lay back and enjoy the ride, even with monsters jumping in your stomach waiting to dig the cheese omlette, vegetable and cheese maggi, banana waffles, chocolate pancakes, strawberry shake, in exactly that order and only at the destination point.
But what you cannot do is what we did do. And then there came the knock on the window.
"I will show you something that will take your breath away," he announced enigmatically, as the car made a steep turn uphill only to come to a sudden halt. Oh God! What does he mean? I thought I had made it amply clear. I have my rules. I cannot break them – no, not even when his car smells like the valley of flowers, he a Greek god very available (legitimately) and we surrounded with nothing remotely close to human eyes or ears.
"What do you mean?" I managed to stutter, soon as the car engine's roar became all silent. The angel on my shoulder screamed at the devil in my mind - I have seen everything I wanted to see. The rest can wait! I am convent-educated and my parents believe in God and I cross my heart that I loved my moral science classes and I am a chicken and that all things happen only when they are supposed to and it's a car for God's sake...
"Step out will you?" And in a second he had jumped out of the car, opened the door to my side and was waiting with a Hitchcockian smile of a detective to show me what he meant.
You can ask me if I indeed lost my breath or not, when he showed me what 'Away' looked like. But do not ask me if I was a little disappointed that it was about the view, only. I will not answer that. Just know that at exactly this point, when my lashes were fluttering little pink hearts towards him, I realised how confident I was about my choice my beau. Certain, that I will not be wearing running shoes under my Punjabi wedding dress. And that everything will be as perfect as this day, my life, our road trip to … um …where were we going, sorry?
"Time to have mummy’s coffee," he proclaimed and rubbed his hands in glee, as he rushed in to get a thermos full of steaming home-brewed coffee my mother thought obliged to send with us kids - in case we wanted to take a break before the breakfast on the hill-top. (What is this thing with mothers always trying to send a part of the home with you I understand not. If they could, they would convert a visit to the kirana shop into a picnic.) So well, there was coffee in Styrofoam cups, on the road side, with the hills yawning awake and the sun coming in gradually, as the mist rose to come another time. A penta-sensual experience and as close as it gets to feeling divine!
"Divine, isn't it? And we are only half-way there...," he smiled as if reading my mind, with a knowingly mischievous glint in his eyes. He got up to play ‘Delirious Love’ on the car stereo and a waft of that flowery scent from the car glided outside to merge with the woody one around. But as I heard Neil Diamond’s voice so did I hear his ‘Yikes’. His cup of coffee lay seeping into my seat. While I had no idea how a semi-official is supposed to react to such a situation, considering how men love their cars and even more their girls not thinking them clumsy, that blot of coffee spreading its ground on my seat had momentarily become a blot on our perfect moment, indeed.
"Oh! It does not matter, we’ll get the covers changed. I’ll sit at the back, don’t worry," is all I could say. Little did I know that Mr. Ready was ready with solutions for anything and everything.
"A battery operated steam-brush? You mean something like what the dry-cleaner uses and charges a bomb for?" I asked, almost befuddled by the sudden gadgetry around on this beautiful morning and wondering if all engineers-turned-civil-servant procure these things just to remain loyal to their university degree.
"Jump in, let’s show you how it works. I do not want you sitting at the back because then I cannot get to look at you or hold your hand and … err … this will take just one minute," promised he, all pink by the sudden slips of tongue we always blame Freud for. And the steam brush worked wonders, such wonders that it fetched us our surprise and surprised visitor. You see, Physics, maybe Chemistry too, tells us how too much steam inside the car, or anywhere, can make the glass windows go all misty. Least realizing what the whirring hand-held cleaner was doing to ours, we had transformed our tiny hatchback into the dotted rocking one from your favourite advertisement or that car from Titanic The Movie’s basement. We only noticed the misty windows when the cop knocked, with a hard hand that moral police enjoys.
In one breath he spoke - "What’s going on here, haan? No shame you youngsters have, no shame. Get out of the car and hand over your license. At least the girl should have some shame. Where does she stay? Tell me now." All this, as he turned a deaf ear to our absolutely genuine and innocent explanation. He continued after a breath, "It is a case of 294. I will take you to jail for this 294 here. Don’t you know so many cars come here for 294? No shame you kids have! I could hear your ‘Oh yes, it’s working it’s working’ till the adjacent hillock. Openly doing 294," he pronounced in his Garhwali Hindi.
It was not long before the hills echoed with our shared laughter when Mr. Cop was finally convinced about what we were doing. Little did we know then that the hero of this humorous movie – our dear steam brush, will be taken away from us by a man who wanted to keep his uniform clean much more than us our car seats. He wished us good tidings that soon-to-be-married couples need and we wished him happy free dry-cleaning.
As we took the final bend and reached ‘Char Dukaan’, we knew we had had quite a day. Ravenous hunger, the gastric variety, had to be taken care of, now. And it was! In the form of all the items mentioned above, and some more. By the time the last burp was out and the plates polished clean, we had already forgotten about our steamy friend altogether and were ready to roll down the mountain exactly the same way that we came. Exactly like that!
Looking back, it almost seems as if the car, the coffee and the cop had conspired to make our road trip a perfect one – full of freshness and beauty, revelations and comfort, surprises and laughter that echoed in the whole valley. Perhaps a perfect road trip is not one which clocks a hundred miles to an exotic destination, with fancy food and a fancier car, with loud music and everything else that young blood is made of. Perhaps, all it needs to be is something that makes you feel all warm inside whenever your memory decides to jog off to that road and those four wheels.
Is this my ‘idea’ of a perfect road trip or a perfect road trip as had happened six years ago? Or is it a third entity somewhere between fact and fiction? That I will leave for the reader to guess. The only fact of the matter that I will freely share is that 294 is indeed a section in the Indian Penal Code. And this was not the first time we had heard it through our car window.
Or was it?
[This is my entry for 'The Perfect Road Trip' contest, hosted by IndiBlogger in association with Ambi Pur https://www.facebook.com/AmbiPurIndia]