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Nanna, Cars & Me

Nanna taught me many things just by example. He taught me to experience life to it’s fullest; embrace whatever life brings you; to handle life’s challenges with authority;to be responsible for one’s actions; to live a moral and ethical life; to never let anything bring one down; to keep trying until you succeed when something is really important; to pursue one’s passions; to not pass up opportunities that are meaningful.

He was a man with few regrets in his life. I feel fortunate to be his son.

My Nanna had a huge influence over my life-long love for cars, driving and motorcycling. I wish to share some of my fondest memories with him while sharing his determined, adventurous and vibrant nature.

Company Willys Jeep—Old Neyveli

My earliest memory of Nanna and ‘wheels’ was from the old Neyveli home. This was the home where i was born. Nanna was a key player in the Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC). NLC was mining lignite, manufacturing cement and manufacturing fertilizer to help fuel the growth of independent India. Nanna was assigned a company Willys Jeep. The Jeep was a perfect vehicle for driving around the rough road conditions of a lignite mining town.

Nanna would enjoy navigating the Jeep through extreme conditions. One fond memory is when Nanna would take me for a ride in the Jeep around the neighbourhood before he left for his office in the morning. The Jeep had no doors.

Nanna would let me hang my head outside the Jeep so that i can see the wheels turn, watch them plough their way over rocks and ruts in the road. I would be hanging on to my dear life but thoroughly enjoying myself. He was ok with allowing me that thrill!

I looked forward to every time I got to ride in the Jeep with Nanna.

Standard Herald—Neyveli

The next car memory with Nanna was when he bought our first car. We had now moved to a ‘mansion’ in the H-block of Neyveli. It was the only home in Neyveli that had it’s own private swimming pool—which we enjoyed immensely.

Although we still had a company issued Jeep, Nanna wanted us to have our own car. Neyveli had grown a lot. Without public transportation, Amma was very reliant on others to take her places. So, this car was really for her so she can drive to shopping, ladies club and other activities by herself.

The car Nanna chose was not the mainstream Ambassador or Fiat which were the staple cars in India at that time. He was very particular in buying a Standard Herald. The Herald was the Indian version of a Triumph TR3, a two door sports coupe. It had features like bucket seats, high-output engine, high-caliber brakes, floor mounted shifter (vs. steering column shifter) and even an independent coil spring rear suspension—in 1961. This was a well regarded sports car of it’s time in England.

The Herald he bought was no ordinary one either. It was an early prototype assembled with parts from England—before the Indian factory downgraded the design (along with a decline in quality) to make it less costly to manufacture in India.

It had the original moulded dashboard, instrument panel, larger headlights and frontend, identical to the British Triumph TR3.

He bought the car in Chennai. The day Nanna brought it home to Neyveli was a thrilling day. Amma and I were anxiously waiting for him to pull into our driveway. At this point, we did not know what he had bought. Calling each other was not easy in those days. All we knew through someone, was he had purchased a car and he was driving it home that day.

When I first saw the car as Nanna was driving it up to the front porch, I was beyond excited. This car was not an Ambassador or Fiat. This car was special!

Nanna loved driving this car. While was conservative and extremely safety conscious, he would reach thrilling speeds in this car often.

One day Nanna decided that the engine needed to be re-built (overhauled). Why? because he felt it could get more power and fuel economy. This entire re-build took place in our H-block home and not at a repair shop! By this time we had two garages.

The main garage was for the Herald and a second garage was built for the company Jeep. In the main garage Nanna had an underground service pit dug out in the middle of the garage floor—like the pit in an oil change place just for this project. This pit was for the mechanic to jump down into, stand under the car and be able work on it’s entire length, front to back! We had a car repair shop in our home.

The mechanic was top notch. Nanna, as he had done for so many people, had helped him and his family get settled with a good job in Neyveli. Nanna trusted him and his mechanical abilities too. This mechanic would come to our home with the tools and parts he needed to do the engine re-build project. This was amazing for me.

Every moment I was home after school was spent in the garage with the mechanic. I would intensely watch him work on the Heraldand it’s engine. I would ask him endless questions. He was such a nice man. He would take the time to show me and explain what he was doing, how the tools worked and why those things were important. I was 8 or 9 years old at that time. I learned so much. I hated going to school because doing things like this was so much more interesting!

The engine re-build grew to replacing the shocks, brakes and many other mechanical parts of the car.

When all the work was done, the first drive in that car was beyond belief. The engine was so smooth. It revved so effortlessly. The car was ready and eager to run!.

The suspension was smooth and the handling precise. Nanna loved it! So did I.

Not soon after, Nanna took me to the Standard Motors factory in Chennai where the Herald was manufactured. I saw parts being fabricated and cars being assembled.

I had no idea at that time, what an impact this experience with the Herald would have throughout life.

For Amma, of course, none of this made any difference. She just loved the independence. Imagine, a lady driver in Neyveli driving by herself in her own car in the 60’s. I don’t think any other woman in Neyveli was driving her own car at that time.

She set such an example. She got more involved with her friends, social activities, helping others and the ladies club. Nanna helped make this happen for her.

Amma struggled to put that car in reverse. One had to push down on the shifter and then move it into position to get it into reverse instead of 1st gear. She just was not strong enough to do that.

When I was with her, I would help her and giggle.

Riding in that car was an opportunity I never missed with Amma or Nanna.

I never got to drive that car. We moved to New Delhi before I was tall enough to drive. With that move, we left the Herald in the good hands of Janardhan mama and his family. In Delhi I missed my cousins from Neyveli. But I also missed the Herald.

Nanna, early in my life, exposed me to the thrill of cars, mechanics, and working with my hands to build things. Special cars and tinkering has been an important part of my life, to this day.

Company Hindustan Ambassador Mark 3—New Delhi

When we moved to New Delhi, life was very different. Nanna left behind a relaxing life to embrace the long-hours, intense travel and massive responsibilities as Managing Director of National Research and Development Corporation (NRDC). He worked so much and for such long hours that he was assigned two drivers along with a Hindustan Ambassador.

One driver would pick him up from home early morning and be his driver till mid- afternoon. The second would then take over till the end of the day. This meant late into the night many times. Nanna had many business dinners and events after the regular work day was done.

Nanna no longer had time to pursue his interest in cars. During this time travel became the thing he loved. His job presented him with many opportunities to travel within India and all over the world.

When travel involved going somewhere by car, Nanna always took Amma and me with him. This was my first exposure to road trips. We went to Chandigarh, Jaipur, Rishikesh, Agra and many other places. During these trips we would stay at nice guest houses. He would never miss an opportunity to take me to tour product development labs and factories. I enjoyed these tours very much. No matter how busy his day was or how tired he was, he would want to sight see and check out places wherever we were. He would come to the guest house, rest a bit and all three of us would then go out. He never missed an opportunity to check out a new place.

It was during this time that I started driving. There were many times when the Ambassador and driver would just be waiting for Nanna at home. These wereopportunities for me to convince the drivers to let me drive.

What I was asking for was completely against the rules and laws. I was only 11 or 12 years old and the car belonged to the Indian government. The drivers could loose their jobs (or worse) if they allowed anyone else to drive the company car. Even

Nanna was not allowed to drive the company car.

I developed strong persuasion skills during this time and convinced the drivers to let me drive! At first the morning driver would let me move the car back and forth in the driveway of our home. I sometimes washed the car so he would let me do that.

Then the evening driver would let me drive the car around the neighborhood before he left for the day. I started doing both regularly. Then, occasionally if there was a trip to airport in the evening or night, when traffic had died down, I would drive the car to the airport or back during the leg when Nanna was not in the car.

Nanna did not know anything about all this. He found out one day and got very angry with me. But he did not say anything to the drivers. He wanted plausibledeniability. He seriously told me never talk to him again about driving the company car . But, he did not forbid me to drive it! He considered the risk and let me have that opportunity.

The driving practice continued. I never drove in the main roads of Delhi or in traffic. I made sure what I was doing never caused a problem for Nanna.

One time, the nice evening driver was our assigned driver for a road trip to Dehradun. He had been teaching me and seeing my progress. During a stop on this trip he asked me out of the blue, “Do you want to drive?” I said, “You mean on the highway to Dehradun?” He said, “Yes, I think you will do just fine. The road is good and traffic is manageable.” But he also said, “You have to get permission from your father first.”

For the next two hours, as we got back on the road, I kept asking Nanna, over and over and over—“Can I please, please, please drive? The driver says it will be ok.

He knows how good I am and he is confident I will will drive well and safe.” Finally, Nanna agreed! After the next stop when we got to the highway, the driver pulled over and let me take the wheel! This was beyond belief for me. I am now driving on a public highway with Nanna in the car! I was barely a teenager. Fortunately I was tall enough now!

This was the first time Nanna had ever seen me drive. He didn’t say a word. He quietly observed and saw that I was driving well and the driver was guiding me well.

That was a fantastic trip!

After that, Nanna let me drive on highways during many road trips. I stayed away from driving in city traffic. I got great practice during this time.

Company Peugeot 504—Bangalore

When Nanna became Director of UNIDO’s RTCC, Amma and Nanna moved to Bangalore. I moved from Dhanbad to Bangalore as well.

During this time, the UN had assigned Nanna a Peugeot 504 with a driver who was educated and could speak English fluently.

This was the first time I ever got to experience what was then considered a ‘foreign’ car. The only cars built in India at that time were the domestic brands,

Importing cars had a 270% import duty fee. So, foreign brand cars were very rare.

Peugeot was even rarer as it was an expensive European luxury car.

The Peugeot was great for Indian roads. It had a hydraulic suspension that soaked up the bumps and potholes. The car would sail along at 120+ kmph on the worst roads and feel like we are going only 60 kmph. We went on many road trips in that car. As this was a UN car, Nanna simply forbid me to drive it. I only drove it on the grounds of the UN office.

After leaving the open roads of Neyveli, Nanna started hating speed and the dangers speed brings. It is possible that he was not comfortable when someone else was driving the car. He would forbid the driver to go faster than 80. But the Peugeot was so smooth that Nanna would not realize we were traveling at 120+. The driver and I would glance at each other in the front seats and smile, when he would speed up as Nanna took naps in the back seat.

After a while Nanna gained confidence with the driver and got comfortable with faster speeds in that car. He slowly became less restrictive and enjoyed the faster speeds too!

Bajaj Chetak Scooter—Bangalore

As a UN diplomat, Nanna had access to some things that other people in India did not. One of them was to buy an export version of the Bajaj Chetak scooter. While the locally sold model was of a certain quality, the export version was upgraded in every way. It had a bigger engine and was built to a higher standard that was marketable abroad.

Nanna decided to use this opportunity and buy himself a Bajaj Chetak scooter.

Amma was so against it. She could not understand why we needed one of these. She certainly would not ride it. Nanna had a great company car and driver. Public transportation with autos was plentiful in Bangalore. Regardless, the Chetak arrived one day.

It sat in the garage for a while. Then Nanna declared the he was going to ride the scooter! Amma and Nanna had a big fight that day. But, he went on to give it a try. He had not regularly driven anything for over a decade.

Nanna told our driver to take the Chetak to a field across my school. He met the driver there. Then he got on the scooter and gave it a run. The scooter had so much power that it did a wheelie (front wheel of the scooter lifted high into the air). He fell off the back of the scooter and the scooter landed on it’s side on the ground.

Fortunately, the ground was soft and Nanna was not hurt. The scooter had minimal damage too. The driver brought he scooter back home.

That was the beginning and end of Nanna ever riding any type of two wheeler! Amma was very happy.

However, I got to ride that scooter quite a bit. I learned to ride a two-wheeler on that scooter. I was still underage and could not get a driver’s license. I was only allowed to ride the scooter to see my friends and do errands for Amma — all in our neighbourhood.

One day, a friend told me that he knew someone that works for a radio station and we would be allowed to visit a radio transmission tower and facility. We were both into electronics and it would be fascinating for us to see the workings of a radio transmission tower. The only problem was that we needed a way to get there.

Although I was not allowed to take the Chetak that far, we used the Chetak anyway.

One day, without telling Amma or Nanna, we took off to see the radio transmission tower. Everything was going great, until I was stopped by a policeman on the return trip. As we were not familiar with the roads in that area, I took a wrong turn and was going the wrong way on a one way street. I got multiple tickets: going the wrong way on a one way; not able to produce a license; and carrying a passenger while riding without a license. The scooter was registered to Nanna. So, there was no escaping this. Eventually, this would become a problem for Nanna.

So, the very same day, I went to Nanna and fessed up on everything. After a thorough scolding, he ordered me to come to his UN office the next day. At his office he introduced me to the head of UN office’s security team. This intimidating man in uniform and a gun lectured me for about an hour!. He took the tickets from me and told me he will see what he can do. That was the end of it. Perhaps as a diplomat’s son, I was given diplomatic immunity. I never knew how it was settled. Nanna had arranged for the problem to be handled through the head of security!

Isuzu Gemini—Bangalore

In 1979 at the age of 17, I left of America. Nanna had tried so hard to make this happen for me. After multiple tries and rejections by the U.S. consulate, my student visa was magically approved. Besides taking care of my health issues in Delhi, this was

Nanna’s greatest gift to me. While I was struggling with studies in India, I thrived in America.

I came to live in Texas and attend college here. I got my first driver’s license here.

Although I had been in Texas only 9 months, I got to spend the summer of 1980 in Bangalore with Amma and Nanna.

Another opportunity Nanna had as a UN diplomat, was to import one personal car of his choice duty free. He decided to import an Isuzu Gemini diesel sedan direct from the factory in Japan. The red-tape involved was not an easy thing for him to navigate through. I suppose he needed another challenge to deal with government authorities, after he was successful in getting my student visa.

This car shipped to Chennai and was stuck in customs for months. After doing what he typically does, Nanna was able to get this car released from the port. This happened during the summer when I was in India. So, Amma, Nanna, a driver and me went to Chennai to pick up the car.

When we saw the car at the port, we were shocked. The Isuzu was stored in the corner of a huge warehouse unprotected. The warehouse was full of bags of cement.

And the car, which was supposed to be yellow, was gray because it was covered in cement. With the moisture of the nearby sea, a layer of cement had caked on to the car. Even the doors were sealed shut by the cement.

Using a piece of wet wood (to avoid scratching the car) we slowly scraped around the door frames and got the doors open. We got the car pushed to a nearby mechanic shop and got it started. Nanna was so stressed during this whole time.

When the car started up, he was relieved.

We cleaned the windows enough to be able see the road and started heading to Bangalore with the driver driving. I kept suggesting Nanna that I should drive the car.

But, the driver was there and he wanted the driver to drive. Within 5 minutes, Nanna did not like the driver’s driving. So, I ended up driving it back to Bangalore.

The following week we tried different ways to get the cement removed. With Nanna’s knowledge of chemicals, minerals and cement (Neyveli), he came up with the brilliant idea of using lemon juice to dissolve the cement. We must have used a hundred lemons. But, it worked great. The car cleaned up well without any trace of the cement anywhere.

It was then time to get the car registered. During this process, Nanna was asked how the car was transported from Chennai to Bangalore. Apparently driving it without a temporary permit on public roads was a problem. But somehow Nanna was able to get through another red-tape obstacle without any bribes like he always did.

Nanna enjoyed the Isuzu very much. Having a foreign car was rare at that time.

He once again, had special car. The car was comfortable and ran well. Although we had a driver, he would often drive the car himself and started driving regularly again.

Toyota Celica GT—Houston

In Houston, Texas, I found employment at the age of 19. I had not completed my college yet. So, I worked during the day and continued to attend college at night. With my income, I was able to now support myself and pay for my college entirely on my own. It was a relief for Nanna.

As he still worked for the UN, he somehow managed to visit me in Texas every year. During one of his visits we travelled to New Orleans. He enjoyed the history and architecture of this unique place very much. We did not travel a lot within the U.S. My work and college schedule did not allow the days off I would need for such trips.

When I started working in Houston, I bought a cheap 1974 Toyota Corona for $1,000. The car needed constants attention to keep it running. But, that’s all I could afford at that time. One day, while Nanna was visiting me in Houston, the front axle of the Corona broke as I was driving home from my office. It was a dangerous and scary incident. I was going to get it repaired and keep it running. I was on starting position salary and was still paying international tuition fees. I was also determined to be independent and not ask Nanna for money.

Nanna insisted that I replace the Corona as the car was unsafe. He also observed that I was spending too much time taking it to repair shops or doing repairs on it myself. He helped me shop for a replacement. He has always been generous. He saw that the cars I could afford on my own were really no better than the Corona I already had. He wanted me to have a better and more reliable car. He bought me my 2nd car!

This was in 1983 and the car was a 1980 Toyota Celica GT. There was a choice of two such cars available. One was $4,000 and the other was $5,000. He could have easily bought me the cheaper one. I would have been thrilled. But, he saw that the more expensive one was a limited edition version. It was much nicer looking and had more features and options. So, he bought me the nicer one. While he was always very careful with money his love for cars showed through this purchase.

The Celica was a very dependable car that served me for 8 years! My passion for tinkering continued. On this car, I added an after market cruise control system and upgraded the audio system. I see the exact same model on collector car auction sites every now and then. I wish I had never sold it.

BMW M3—Houston

In 2018, I bought a very special car after searching for almost 2 years. It’s a 2011 BMW M3 convertible. It’s built by BMW’s motorsports division and includes a hand- built V8 engine. This car is an absolute beast. I appreciate every bit of it every time I drive it.

This car reminds me of Nanna and his passion for cars. It reminds of how particular he was when he bought his first car, the Standard Herald. The M3 reminds me of the Standard Herald. It’s a sports car with special engineering and higher than typical performance, much like the Standard Herald.

BMW K1300 GT Motorcycle—Houston

In 2018, I also bought a 2010 BMW sport touring motorcycle. I purchased it in San Diego, California and rode it back to Houston. This was no ordinary trip. I was a sightseeing trip across the U.S. I took a leisurely 6 days. I avoided the freeways and took routes that took me though countless scenic routes and notable places.

I imagine Nanna would have done something very similar (perhaps on 4 wheels).

This trip was combination of my passions for ‘wheels’ and travel — both instilled in me by Nanna.

Since that time, I have been riding motorcycles regularly, going on group trips across Texas and neighbouring states.

I wish Nanna and I went on more road trips in the U.S. Unfortunately, when he retired, he stopped his visits to the U.S.

Nanna instilled his passion for cars and mechanical things in me, early in my life.

This passion has made my life a whole lot richer. While he has done so many things for me and made such a difference in my life, these memories always make me smile.

Nanna is regarded to be a very serious person, someone who was authoritative and strict. People looked up to him and often feared him. He was a man who loved everyone in his life, cared about everyone, was engaged in life, enjoyed what life had to offer him. He was also a lot of fun to be with.

Love you Nanna!


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