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Machines and the man

Soumitra Das | Updated on January 11, 2019

Wheels of time: Piklu Deka is the owner of some of the first cars to be imported to India. He is planning to move his hilltop museum near Guwahati to a suburb of the city   -  IMAGES: SOUMITRA DAS

A collector’s once-gleaming fleet of cars and motorcycles faces a rather rusty future

A museum of vintage and classic cars —jalopies almost visibly undergoing oxidisation and turning into junk — could well be a metaphor for the ineluctable march of time.

The collection is perched on a hill on the upper reaches of the densely-forested Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary at Kamarkuchi, Sonapur, about 18 km from Guwahati in Assam. Treasured Wheels covers 30 bighas encircled by a deep trench to ward off elephants.

It is here that Piklu Deka, an engineer of the Assam State Electricity Board, has over the years, built up his dream collection of cars, motorcycles and bicycles manufactured in Europe and America between the 1930s and ’40s and earlier, and collected mostly from Assam.

Here is an Oldsmobile of 1919 make with only a plastic cover to protect it from the elements. Creepers and vegetation threaten to swallow a 1945 Buick, a Jeep, a 1921 Chevrolet, a 1922 Austin-7, a 1936 Fiat Topolino, Morris and Fords. His Volkswagen Beetle, a convertible Sunbeam and a host of other cars may be parked under a rickety shed, but that too is not weather-proof any longer.

 

Deka’s collection of motorbikes dating back to the period before and during World War II is priceless. It includes a Norton 650 of 1932, a US-made Paradrop Scooter of 1933, a Triumph 350 of 1934, a BSA 500 of 1938, a Royal Enfield of 1940 and a Sunbeam 500 of 1942, But they are all in disarray, quite unlike the earlier neat displays. One can almost visualise Dali’s melting watches as one surveys this picture of slow decay and dissipation. The cars and motorcycles are becoming wraiths.

 

 

This once-gleaming fleet — including some of the first cars to be imported to India — will soon leave this hilltop abode. Deka, who is in his mid-50s, has been ordered by the forest department to move out as the museum is located in a wildlife sanctuary. Even the Gauhati High Court, to which Deka had appealed, has ordered him out by February 10.

The SUV carrying me to his eyrie resists the uphill trek as it follows a dirt track as narrow as it is steep, tunnelling through a wall of trees and bushes, leaving behind the sprawling campus of the Don Bosco University. How was this giant construction allowed in the midst of lush greenery?

A Dibrugarh lad, Deka developed a penchant for automobiles in junior school when he first set his eyes upon a Renault 4 CV that belonged to Basanta Ghosh, an automobile engineer from the same town. Deka pledged that day that he would become its owner someday. And sure enough, once he was employed in 1989, he bought the vehicle for ₹3,000.

By the early ’90s, Deka had overhauled the vehicle and he loved it when passers-by smiled as he drove the car. Thereafter, he spent the bulk of his earnings — “my life’s income” in his own words — to collect anything from clocks, gramophones, cycles and motorcycles, besides cars, mostly sourced from his trips around Assam. “This goes to show that Assam had them all even back then,” says Deka. There was hardly any room left in his house as his collection grew. He now possesses more than 50 cars and as many motorcycles, 30 bicycles, a grand piano dating back to 1839, 1,000 watches, over 30 old radios, telephones and cameras. He felt only a museum could do justice to his collection and he sought land from the government. But he came back empty-handed.

Then he discovered the hilltop where the museum stands now, complete with a tree house. The entire project was self-financed, and at times he had to take loans to keep it going. “I still live in the office quarters. I don’t have a house of my own. Save my wife and daughter, everybody is against it,” says Deka.

Also a popular picnic spot, the museum attracts visitors from Guwahati and around, and his cars and motorcycles have been displayed in the main auditorium of the National Games in 2007 on the request of the then chief minister Tarun Gogoi, at the Kaziranga Festival, and at IIT-Guwahati in 2008.

But now that he has been asked to move out, Deka has rented a three-bigha plot at Megha Kuchi, a Guwahati suburb, where he is trying to construct a shed with the help of the three men he employs for the upkeep of his museum. “The government is indifferent to my plight. They feel since it is a personal passion they cannot have anything to do with it,” laments Deka. “But aren’t many good projects sparked by personal ideas and interest?” Yes indeed. But is the government listening?

Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist

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Published on January 11, 2019
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