Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Mechanic

There are some people who fancy themselves to be wizards with all kinds of machinery. They take delight in knowing the intricacies of all kinds of equipment. What better way than stripping open the machine or equipment, seeing how each part is fitted and aligned and then reassemble it. In most cases these people can be, at best, called as ‘serious amateurs’, even though they consider themselves to be the mantle bearers of Thomas Alva Edison. This story is about such a person who epitomized this entire gang. Or perhaps, he was an extreme example.

In the early part of 1970 I was posted to the military hospital at Ambala. To the six or seven of us who were general duty medical officers [GDMOs], it was part of our duty to give ‘medical cover’ to the units located in the vicinity of Ambala. ‘Medical cover’ in Army lexicon meant that we had to go and stay in that unit and look after the troops who report sick. I had been to several such ‘Temporary Duties’ when one day I was ordered to proceed to ammunition depot located at a place called Lalru. Because of the inherent danger to the public in case of any untoward happenings, all ammunition depots are usually located as far away from habitation as possible. This ammunition depot was a large one catering to the needs of the Western Command of the Indian Army. It takes a special breed of troops from the Army Ordnance Corps to man these depots. Why? Because, firstly, as mentioned earlier, these depots were always located quite far away from any major town/city. Secondly, the ever–present danger of accidents caused by the huge quantity of live ammunition of various kinds stored in these depots made the troops manning them extra sensitive to the aspect of safety. I found that most of these guys were almost paranoid about strictly adhering to all kinds of regulations, instructions etc., sometimes stretching to ludicrous extremes. Perhaps, this is the reason that ensures safe storage of ammunition in the Indian Army. Such depots are scattered all over India and their safety record has been exemplary, to say the least.

I reached this ammunition depot one Sunday afternoon and was accommodated in the Officers’ Mess. As I was aware of the detached location of this Depot I had taken my motorcycle along with me so that I will be able to make occasional forays to Ambala and Chandigarh because Lalru was located midway between these two cities. During dinner that night, I met the officers dining in the mess. There were about eight of them of various ranks from second lieutenant to major. Although everyone appeared to be in high spirits I could sense an underlying vein of isolation and inward–looking behavior amongst most of them.

My work tending to the troops who were sick started in earnest next day, being Monday. After the office hours and the lunch in the mess I reached my room back for the afternoon siesta, which the Army enforces on everyone. The officer occupying the suite of rooms adjacent to mine was a captain and he was a Sikh. He was jovial and took special efforts to make sure that I was comfortable in the mess. He was also the owner of a ramshackle scooter that had seen much better days. Most of the spare time of this gentleman was spent in tinkering with this vintage piece of equipment. Since personal conveyance was not needed to go to the office, the scooters and motorcycles were used exclusively for the periodic visits to the cities mentioned before. When the day came for the captain to go to either of the cities, starting this scooter was a big job. After removing the side panels and making some adjustments inside the engine, the kicking started. On average, it took about 25 to 30 kicks for the engine to start. This was followed by an unholy racket and emission of copious quantities of blue–black smoke from the exhaust pipe. The decibel level of the engine and the thickness of the smoke came down slowly after the captain had revved up the engine a few times. Once this stage was reached he pushed it out of the stand and got on it. Still creating unusual sounds that indicated some major fault in the engine, the scooter carried its master wherever he wanted to go.

After we became friendlier one day I asked the captain as to why he is sticking on with this ancient contraption. He said that this was the first vehicle he bought after getting commissioned in the Army and therefore he had an emotional attachment to it. He claimed that the scooter had never let him down anywhere and that the ride in that scooter was better than any other new and fancy machines. He also added that it was his knowledge of the machine and the constant attention he pays to it that kept the scooter running.

So it was a bit of a surprise to me when one day the captain announced that a new scooter has been allotted to him from the Canteen Stores Department [CSD]. To those of you who do not know, in the 60s and early70s the choice of scooters in India was limited to two brands. Both were of Italian origin being assembled in India. To obtain an allotment from the CSD was in itself akin to getting a blessing from heaven because the price of the scooter was almost 70% less in the CSD than in the outside civil market. Of the two brands of scooters available the more sought-after was a band called 'Vespa'. Subsequently the Indian factory, which was assembling this brand, bought out the principal from Italy. This scooter, in its new avatar, is a common feature of small towns and rural areas of India. In the 60s and early 70s to drive and a 'Vespa' scooter was a matter of pride; it was amplified many times more when the scooter was new.

In a weeks time the captain went and collected his shining, new 'Vespa' scooter and brought it to our mess. It really looked pretty in its sky blue color. As was the routine, we celebrated the occasion with a few more drinks than usual in the mess. Of course, the captain stood the drinks for all of us. I remember that it was also a Saturday evening and because of that some unfettered drinking went on because the next day was a holiday. I woke up on the Sunday morning at about 8 AM to the sound of some activity in the captain's room. I sauntered across to his room sipping my mandatory morning cup of tea to see what was happening there. To my utter surprise I found the new scooter inside his drawing room with the captain sitting on a stool beside it. He was without his turban and looked fully engaged in doing something with the engine of the scooter. Since the scooter was only a day old I asked him as to what was he doing with it. The answer came that he had taken it for a ride in the morning and noticed that there was some extra noise coming from the engine. Therefore, he had opened the side panels and was getting that fault rectified. I was appalled and I suggested that he should take it to the dealer in the city and get it examined because it was brand-new. He looked at me with a condescending smile and said that he knew what he was doing and he will get it rectified. I waited for a few moments more and then came back to my room.

The sounds of tinkering and activity went on till lunchtime and when I went to call him for lunch I found that he had completely dismantled the engine of the new scooter and was re-assembling it! I was lost for words and could only ask him whether he would like his lunch to be served in his room. He thanked me for the offer and told me that he will get the reassembling done by evening and everything will be fine. Sure enough, the evening saw the scooter in one piece even though there were marks of smudge and grease all over its pristine body. However, there was a problem. After reassembling the engine of the scooter the captain was left with three extra parts! When I asked him as to how and why this has happened, he glibly explained that these are unnecessary parts and will not affect the running of the scooter. I could only gape at him. I told him to get this checked up with the dealer as soon as possible. But he was confident that these three parts were not relevant in the main scheme of things, which was running of the scooter.

Nothing much happened during the week and when the weekend came few of us, the captain included, decided to go to Ambala for dinner. We were five and all of us decided to take our own two wheelers. The distance was about 30 km and it was nighttime. After about 10 km there was suddenly a loud sound from the captain's scooter and it stalled. All the efforts by him, aided and abetted by all of us under the streetlights, could not get it started. Ultimately, we pushed it to a nearby house and requested the owner of the house to keep the scooter till the time the captain came to retrieve it. In those days in Punjab there was great regard for the Army and then we identified us the house owner was more than happy to keep the scooter. As the next day was Sunday nothing could be done. On Monday, I took the captain as my pillion-rider to the dealer or the scooter. We managed to extricate one mechanic from there and brought him to the house where we had deposited the scooter. The mechanic had a detailed look at the scooter and immediately said that some parts of the carburetor were missing. I could see a sheepish grin on the face of the captain. He dug into his pockets and produced the three parts that were superfluous when he reassembled the scooter. The mechanic saw these and could not control his laughter. He said, “Captain Sahib! How did you manage to take these out of this new scooter? These are essential parts of the carburetor which ensure that the correct amount of fuel is made available every time. Anyway, now that you have shown me that you have the parts we will have it take the scooter to our workshop and reassemble the carburetor.” We requisitioned a military truck from the Ammunition Depot and transported the scooter to the dealer. The scooter was eventually restored and was brought back a couple of days later.

This incident was talking point in the mess for quite some time, the captain being the butt end of all the jokes. He used to vainly try and argue that what he did was right. Soon he too gave up and accepted his stupidity. I never met this gentleman after I left Lalru, but we used to occasionally keep in touch. In those days, without Internet and mobile telephones, our communication was restricted to letters and greetings on special occasions. He rose to the rank of brigadier and was the commandant of the very same ammunition depot where we met and where this incident took place. Once when I queried through my letters about his propensity for being an ace mechanic he replied that the scooter incident changed him and that he realized that he better leave such technical issues with competent people. Amen!

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