Monday, October 01, 2007

The Jeep that Wouldn't Start

It was one of those mornings when you feel great to be ten years old with the whole summer vacation ahead of you. And if you happen to live with your grandmother (who is after all quite strict, however nice she might be) in the city, while your father moves from tea garden to tea garden, it is good to spend your holidays with your parents. All the more so if you like tea gardens and the hills, which Vicky did, very much so.

But it wasn't the perfect start to the holiday that he had expected. For one thing, his parents seemed worried about something. His mother had warned him not to wander too far from the house, and his father was in his office-room, talking to the manager of the tea-garden next to theirs. In fact, as Vicky climbed moodily up the mango tree next to the house, he could hear his father's voice.

"It's an insider job, I'm sure of it", he was saying. "We’ve tightened security, increased guards, questioned the workers and none of that has led us anywhere. I think the tea is being stolen by somebody who works inside the garden. The question is, who?"

“I don’t know,” said another voice (the other manager, Vicky decided). “They are doing a clever job, too. The thieves always seem to know where the labourers will be, which areas are being closely guarded. Who gives them this information?”

Vicky suddenly remembered that his father would not want him overhearing official discussions, and quickly made his way back to the ground before he was caught.

“So that’s what is up,” he said to himself, as he walked down the garden to the verandah in front of their bungalow. He knew enough about tea-gardens to realize how serious the theft of green leaves might be. A garden might lose a fortune through tea stolen like that, directly from the tea bushes on the hillside. Still thinking, he found himself in front of one of his father’s jeeps. This was his favorite, a white, short-bodied Willys that would hold just 2 people and enough equipment in the back for the perfect picnic. He and his father had planned fishing trips down at the river nearby as well as treks up the hillsides, and his father had promised that they would take this jeep.

His mother was on the porch, directing Dinesh, their driver, about the shopping to be done that day. Seeing Vicky, she called out, “The car is going down to the bazaar. Do you want to go with Dinesh and get the marbles you wanted? Dinesh says he knows a shop where you should be able to get big ones.”

The bazaar! A place full of interesting shops! He had his pocket money with him and besides, his Dida would never let him go to the bazaar with only a driver for protection. Beaming with joy, he jumped into the passenger seat of the Willys and waiting impatiently while Dinesh made his way down the steps. As he opened the driver’s door he said, “I’ve to stop by at the factory on the way, ok, Vicky-baba?” Vicky nodded assent. A drive and to the bazaar at that. It was going to be a fun morning!

As they pulled into the bazaar his enthusiasm rose again. They’d had to wait for a long time at the factory, to collect some sacks, but here they were now at the bazaar, and there was the shop. Dinesh dropped him off there and said, “I’ll come by and pick you up in half an hour, all right? I have some work, and I have to do Madam’s shopping as well. Please don’t wander off.”

Vicky spent an exciting ten minutes picking out five huge multicoloured glass marbles. But once his shopping was done, he decided to search for Dinesh and the car, instead of waiting another twenty minutes to be picked up. After asking around, he finally found the Willys parked outside a crumbling little building outside the bazaar. He looked into the doorway, and then entered, meaning to ask for Dinesh. He was just about to call out, when he heard the driver’s voice, talking to some other men.

“I’ve left the chhokra out in the bazaar. Must go pick him up now. Wonder what the brat would say if he knew he had helped me bring six sacks of his father’s precious tea out of the factory… heh heh heh”

So the insider was Dinesh! Shocked, Vicky crept up to the doorway from where he could hear the men talking. He heard Dinesh boast about how he had been masterminding the theft for months and how smoothly it was running. Nobody would suspect him because he had such good recommendations from former masters. Who would think they were all false?

Vicky ran out into the street. There was nobody there to help him. He remembered seeing the police station near the other end of the bazaar, but running there and back would take him ten minutes or more. What if Dinesh left in the meantime? The police needed to catch him with the other members of the gang. Thinking aloud, he said, “I can run there and back. If only the jeep develops some kind of trouble. If only it can somehow keep him waiting here, even five minutes would do! Oh Jeep, you must not start!” And Vicky began running for the police.

“What I don’t understand,” said Vicky’s father that evening, “Is how the Willys didn’t start. It’s never given me a day’s trouble. In fact, it’s the best-maintained vehicle I have. And if it had started Dinesh would certainly have left. And you were lucky, Vicky, that his friends were all there, trying to help him start the jeep.”

But Vicky only smiled to himself. It hadn’t been luck at all, it had been the Jeep. In fact, as he had got out of it when he reached home half an hour ago, one of the headlamps had dimmed in a way that could only be called a wink!

Written by Sunayana Roy (P.G. II, Roll No. 761) as a term paper for the optional course on Children’s Literature in April 2005
Illustration © Soubhik Niyogy 2005