Published On: Wed, Jan 4th, 2017

The Engine Story by C. Radhakrishnan

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Eminent writer C Radhakrishnan reminiscences his association with vehicles on board a flight from Kochi to Delhi

By C Radhakrishnan

I write this article for Smartdrive on board a flight from Kochi to Delhi. The seatbelt sign is just off. Mine is the aisle seat in the last row; traffic to the toilets is heavy. I am too close to the comfort station to feel much comfortable.

Gone are the days when one was welcomed on board with a tray of toffees, freshness tissue and cotton to ward off discomfort in the ear. All these are now rolled into a smile not broad enough to cover up the range of losses.

It is my seventy-sixth birthday, so I happen to recall the vehicles I have known and used before. In the part of the world where I was born the bicycle was a miracle. I remember joining a crowd watching someone moving fast on a shining two-wheeled contraption held between his legs! It was a great break from the rumbling bullock-cart rambling along. A few years later, one could rent a bicycle from a shop next to our school at six paisa an hour and learn to ride. The first day I tried it, in the company of a friend, I fell into a pond by the side of the road; I swam away but the bicycle sank to the depths! However, the art of balancing was learnt on subsequent forays, a couple of bruises notwithstanding.

The next ambitious venture was with the motorbike but that had to wait till I got a job with the Astrophysical Observatory at Kodaikanal. This time my teacher was a well experienced driver; the process of learning went smooth. But the mistake on my part was the proud lift I offered my father. He was on a visit to the hill station to find out how I was faring. He got off the pinion seat, appreciated the experience, praised the manufacturers of the bike for its great capacity for speed, took hold of the keys and insisted I sell the vehicle pronto! “Get something with four wheels and lesser noise”, he advised.


A motor car was beyond my budget. I could buy one some years later after reaching Delhi as a journalist. It was a beautiful vehicle; I loved it. This happy marriage too was not destined to last. I remember driving merrily along a deserted Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg on a winter eve and finding my way suddenly blocked by a double-decker DTU bus, the bonnet of my car buried beneath its front! The veteran driver of the bus, a kindhearted Sardar, had seen me approaching and, assessing by a sixth sense that I was going to crash head on, had stopped the bus and invited the passengers to watch the event! The wealth of his wisdom saved my life; he told me: “Son, you better don’t drive at all!” And I haven’t, ever after.

Longevity has given me the chance to know all generations of public transport vehicles. Iron-wheeled ‘buses’ with wooden bodies had to be started with a crankshaft and someone had to hold the gear in position lest it slipped while the driver was employing all of his muscle power to steer the clamouring thing moving at the fantastic speed of 6 km/h. A friendly driver often gave me the ‘chance’ to perform the coveted job. The next were coal gas buses, to fill the gas tanks of which one had to keep turning a wheel at the rear for hours to work a pair of bellows. We children earnestly awaited our turn at this wheel.

The first train I travelled had a coal wagon and three compartments besides the engine. The compartments did not have closures for doors and windows. One was lucky if one could find a spot on the bug-ridden wooden bench. By the time I detrained after the 40 km journey I looked a worker emerging from a coal mine. That was the shape I appeared for the interview for admission to college education. I was not rejected, probably because there were several in the same make-up.


The first airplane I boarded was an Avro flight from Mumbai to Chennai. The year was 1963. The fare was a whooping Rs. 250. It proved a terribly bumpy flight, more so, as I gathered later, because the pilot wanted to settle some score with the hostesses who had to attend to the mess created by nauseated passengers! The pilot had maintained a height lower than the prescribed, inviting greater turbulence.

I had to shut down my ‘electronic equipment’ as the landing announcement came, and a few minutes later, I missed a couple of heartbeats when I sensed the engines re-employing full thrust just a few feet before touchdown. The averted approach path would have made the craft touchdown way before the beginning of the runway! Rolling to rest after a spine-chilling landing, while all passengers got ready to get off, came the announcement of delay as the door had got jammed.

That is how I got the chance to finish this note on board itself. We had taken off an hour late and now it was past midnight; if the hostess bids me goodbye with a ‘Goodnight, sir!’ I will be able to smile back with the suggestion of a correction: ‘Good morning, miss!’

(Guess which airline was this. You can’t miss; even if you do, you won’t be wide the mark!)

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