“There is a bit of that magic about cars”, she says, making you smile. Aged 77, Prabha Nene from Pune could be your average grandmother. But she’s not.
The auto-enthusiast, one of the oldest of in the country, has won many awards at vintage car rallies in a love affair that started in the seventies and has continued till this date. While staying with a friend who was a motor mechanic, Nene grew interested in automobiles and one day she saw her. “I call her saheli (a female friend)”, Nene says of the blue Austin 7. She bought it for Rs. 5000.
“I celebrated her eightieth birthday last year”, she chuckles, adding that the car was older than her. When asked of her first rallying experience though, Nene says that it wasn’t on four wheels.
My first scooter-rally was in 1970, from Nagpur to Bombay (as it was then), on an Italian vespa. I saw an advertisement in the newspaper. My parents asked me to withdraw from the event, she says,
– Prabha Nene
The rally was 896 kilometres long.
“I did it in 24 hours” she says with pride. When asked how much time the winner took, she responds, ruefully: “My pillion rider didn’t read the road map correctly”.
Her fascination with feeling the wind by her side though had taken off. Nene says she took part in several rallies winning prizes since then, listing her best performance award at the Statesman vintage car rally in 1971 as the first.
Even if the event had her driving to Kashmir, she followed the trail, winning an award for the longest distance covered at a rally in 1976. Titles and honours have since kept coming her way and just last year she was awarded with a lifetime achievement award at a vintage car rally event.
She hates unruly driving and has also spent her time helping managing the traffic on two streets in Pune for more than ten years now. The story of how Nene got to the city she now calls home though is an interesting one, and one set in a time when India wasn’t independent and the second world war was on, forcing her family to flee Myanmar.
“We used to stay in a village two miles away from Rangoon”, she remembers, saying that her family had to leave the house during the war and the only way out was to British-ruled India then. “My father would hire a coolie and make us ride piggy-back since my siblings and I would get tired walking at times”.
“We hitch-hiked from Burma, to Bangladesh and finally Bombay in 1940. We hardly had anything to eat and survived on potatoes and salt sometimes”. And though she was hardly aged seven then, Nene still does remember seeing the “wonderful hills of Manipur” along the way. After getting to Bombay, the family stayed at her uncle’s place for close to two years.
In 1942, Nene’s family finally reached Pune, where she has continued to live since and makes passersby raise an eyebrow, or maybe two, at the woman in the blue Austin 7.