When Hasmukh Shah was growing up in dusty Bajana, Gujarat, little did he know that he would one day walk the corridors of power and dine with kings as a key member of the Indian Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) for three different prime ministers.
Life in Bajana moved at a slow, easy pace. The town was connected to the rest of the state and country by a road that first went to Viramgam. So any transit to the rest of the country was necessarily via this route too.
Children wandered in and out of public places and their friends’ homes as they pleased. The Nawab of Bajana, or Bapu as he was called, had a fondness for stately cars and maintained a well-tooled garage with skilled workmen. In this personal essay, which Shah possibly wrote in his seventh decade, the writer recaptures his awe and wonder at some of the magic of that garage, its expert technicians, and its drivers.
In British India, Bajana was among the 200+ independent princely states of Gujarat, and the Nawab referenced here was its last ruler before it was merged with Gujarat state after India’s independence. Today, Bajana is a popular tourism hub known for the camps that arrange safaris to the famous wildlife sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch.
Beyond the dispensary was a garage. It contained thirty-eight cars: Rolls-Royce, Daimler, Chevrolet, Hillman, MG, Oldsmobile, Buick, you name it.
An interior town, Bajana had no facility to maintain these cars. Everything—petrol, engine oil, grease—that was required for any of the thirty-eight cars had to be bought and brought from either Wadhwan Camp or Viramgam and stored in the garage. Since there was no technology for cooling car engines in those days, these cars heated up soon. Cans filled with water had to be carried for any long-distance travel. Since there was no petrol pump, petrol carboys, too, had to be kept on hand. No car was ever sent for repair anywhere else. Most of the spare parts were available in Wadhwan Camp, but sometimes they had to be bought from either Ahmedabad or Mumbai.
Repairing these cars was Rahemat Khan’s dominion. He was an expert at repairing broken engines and was usually found standing against a car with an open bonnet. All the drivers knew how to repair cars. There were five other drivers—Gulab Khan, who always wore a turban; short and stout Gandalal and Vaghji; Hebat Khan and Rano alias Raniyo—and a cleaner Shantilal, who lived in the garage.
A legend widely believed in Bajana was that there was no car Rahemat Khan could not repair. He was not only the garage superintendent, but also chauffeur to Bapu, the only person to use these cars most of the time. And use them like no one else could! On dirt roads or tarred roads, Bapu would never permit a car to be driven at a sedate pace, and this would wear it down more than usual. Sometimes my father would use one of these cars when he went to the villages for inspection. Since there were more cars in the garage than one person could use at a time, and all of these were used in rotation, it was difficult to experience an engine failure. There was always time to repair one or another, and that seems to have added to the Khan legend.
I was allowed to roam around in the garage as I wished, and I would watch the mechanic as he worked, raising the car higher on a jack. Playing hide and seek was most enjoyable in the garage, but I was not allowed to sit in any of the cars, lest the seats got dirty, though I was permitted to stand on the footboard. Rahemat Khan kept a sharp eye out for any infringement. When he would wash a car and polish it to a shine, I could not unglue my gaze. I also remember the red numbers on each license plate.
Another thing that drew me to the garage then was the frequent flat tire repairs. It was not very unusual to get a flat tire on those roads in those days, and the process to mend a tire so interested me that I would even play the mechanic’s assistant.
Repairing a flat tire requires the concentration of a devotee. The procedure is fun to watch: the mechanic would remove the wheel cap; unscrew the bolts and place them carefully in the cap; remove the punctured tube from the tire; fill it up with air using his mouth; and dip it into water to spot bubbles and locate the puncture. At times there could be more than one puncture. Once the number and location of the punctures was decided, the mechanic would cut a piece from an old tube, file its surface, and apply a solution before fixing it on each puncture. That done, he would deflate the tube and insert a nozzle in its hole, and refit the whole assembly back in its place. Now the most exhausting work followed: inflating the tire manually using the pump. The pump consisted of a metal casing, a rubber pipe, and a handle inside the metal casing which was to be pushed down and pulled up repeatedly till the required pressure was created inside the tube. Since there was no gauge to measure the exact pressure, this was educated guesswork.
Tall, thin, and dark, Rahemat Khan wore Bapu’s hand-me-downs with a flair; Chiku Merai would have these refitted for him. The garage was his kingdom and he was the king. These stylish clothes and a cigarette askew always impressed me. I was also of an age when one can be easily impressed.
© Hasmukh Shah. Translation © November 2022 by Mira Desai. All rights reserved.