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The Front Passenger Seat

September 25, 2015

The front passenger seat in Indian cars is a billion dollar seat given the small size of our nuclear families and familial sentiments.

Spouses with 2 kids have the luxury of sharing the front driver and passenger seats between themselves. In rare cases, I have been witness to ugly brawls between siblings for the coveted spot next to the head of the family, their superhero.

However with 1 kid, there is a lot to bargain for.

Mostly parents with single kids are asked, why the wife is not taking the front seat. Only mothers know, it is rather interesting watching your son/daughter share precious family moments with his/her father. Shared quality family times are rare these days. It can be just as relaxing to see the good vibes in family from the comfort of your back seat that’s heavenly. A mother would by no means want to wrench such a seat of power from her kid in selfish pursuit of her own happiness.

For women, ‘happiness’ is a relative term in life once we enter the threshold of matrimony.

You have to  be born an Indian of my generation to discover what a first (small) car means to our families. Most of us grew up with the sole and principal ambition in life, of owning a precious ‘Maruti 800’ someday. Middle-class dreams. Later many of us may have also traveled miles in diverse directions of life, yet the first car is a milestone that marked a turning point for each and every one of us.

Our first car ever was a rough and battered Suzuki SUV (unfashionably referred to as the ‘jeep’ in late ’90s) when my son was 4-5 years old.  We still have fresh memories (and video recordings) of the long highway drives to the interiors and forest stretches of Malaysia as family in the undependable jeep that luckily never waylaid us in the thick of greens where no handphones (mobile phones) worked. One such a weekly late evening visit was to an estate temple in the state of Terengganu where we lived for over 2 years, that lay deep within quiet and eerie rubber estates with very sparse human population for tens of kilometers. The drives to the Genting Highlands and to Penang & Langakawi will also stay special in my heart. Remember those were the non-GPRS days! Sometimes I would think, the jeep loved us back the same way we loved it!

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For a 10 day road trip of Malaysia, we hired a car so our son could sleep in the back seat and also play but could get back to my lap as and when he pleased! Upto his 7th year, the front passenger seat was mama’s.

One of the fondest memories we share is of my son’s dozing in my lap for hours in our jeep travel, thumbsucking all the way! The last year in Malaysia, the red devil was replaced with a white Suzuki Jimny which was far roadworthy and a comfortable version. But it was the good and old 4771  that stole our hearts and carried with it sweetest memories.

On return to India, I found that with a growing son I was starting to lose the front passenger seat claim. By this time, I could no more hoist him in my lap over 3-4 minutes! Neither did he want it!

7 years and my impatient son wanted to sit along with his father be it in our modest Maruti at home or in Qualis (office car) (during the short India stint). And I had no heart to send him back to look out gloomily at the passing scene. That’s the time when parents could realize the influence and importance of companionship for their single children. Typical of boys, the inquisitiveness about gear shift, engine etc etc became my son’s favourite topics of conversation with his father. ‘You must never give up your position for your kid’ pointed people around this time and it has continued ever since.

driving thro'NH47 Chennai-Bangalore Highway Jan 2015

driving thro’NH47 Chennai-Bangalore Highway Jan 2015

Over the years I have had the pleasure of watching my men in pride as they occupied the front seats, from the rear of the car. We are not frequent car changers. Our Maruti 800 lasted us over a good 10 years. We changed it only when our son got his own driving licence on his 18th birthday. (Meanwhile I did start driving our car but an overbearing MIL of mine prevented and prevailed over me successfully from taking to the roads in the absence of my NRI husband).

In the intervening years, I have also observed how the flow of conversations shifted to maturer subjects between the men. From Gameboys and Playstations, topics ranged and switched from cricket and soccer to movies and universities and then finally to occupation and money and holidays. Growing up in an all-girl environment, male-speak was rather new to me even if it could be a mere dad-son regular family talk.

In last 3 years, my heart has been humming and singing as father and son switch places between the driver’s seat and the front passenger’s seat which marks another turning point in our lives. For the beaming father, nothing is more pleasurable than being driven around by a young and enthusiastic teenage son. I think every parent goes through these emotions like us, in pride as well as in trepidation. My most anxious moments are when my son would try to park our Brio on climbing the steep ramp in our house or in a multi-level mall carpark. But driving in Indian cities makes a thorough pro of you I guess. From raining the Chennai slang on criss-crossing fellow motorists to waving the beat police with an ‘anna!’ salute to winding his way cleverly through the messy maze called city traffic, my son quickly got more adept with urban driving than my husband has ever done over all these years!

In Doha, driving seat is to the left – the American way. Prado gives you a good road view. The highways would make the young man restless who wanted to take over the wheels from his father many a time! We have no car-hangups. Any office car is good enough. Before Prado, there have been Vitara and Fortuner. But I guess for boys, it’s a different story. It mattered to our son what we drove.

There are videos from highschool days where as music plays, father & son discuss everything under the sun driving. For a mother, there can be no other bliss.

‘Make a life for yourself Ma’ said son before leaving abroad for higher studies. I thought I would think of him during every meal. Funny, I think of him more now getting into the front passenger seat. Like I am usurping his birthright. Father would jokingly ask son, ‘would you send your wife to the backseat like I have done? like you have done with my wife?’

Now we go out almost every evening as a couple  – for long walks, long drives… all without our son. More than half a dozen times I opened the back seat door to climb in when a bemused husband of mine held open for me the front passenger door.  Old habits die hard. Even as I blog this piece, my eyes mist. I miss more my son when I don’t see him in the front passenger seat besides his father’s driver’s seat. I miss my baby….

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