You are six years old, dressed in a pair of brown boy-shorts and a yellow tank top. Your father parallel parks the metallic green Ambassador* and you jump out. Summers are meant for the drive-in restaurant but your grandfather always insists you get down the car and take a walk before you get your table, which is usually reserved for 4 pm.
One could walk in without a reservation too, if they knew the manager.
You walk alongside the endless greenery, flanked by trees in all shapes and heights, and bushes on either side neatly pruned – prim and perfect. The weather in Chennai is always sweltering hot, sometimes running up to 45 degrees Celsius, but the temperature drops magically once you are inside the drive-in.
The trees bear lush summer fruits – the mangoes are dull green, unripe and yet worth a steal, and the coconut tree fronds sway to the gentle breeze and bow to you, welcoming you. The shrubs are tied tight, and bear flowers of varied colours. The scent of red roses, white magnolias, and jasmines waft through the air, mixing with the strong aroma of ginger tea and masala dosas. Sometimes it is the piping hot carrot halwa steaming from the kitchen with a dash of powdered cardamom on it.
Waiters wear red and white uniforms with lopsided chef caps and run about balancing trays of food with cups of coffee, sugar, tall glasses of cold lassi, milkshakes or juices for the ones sitting inside their cars. You always exclaim you want to sit in the car and enjoy the drive-in food but the Ambassador* does not have AC and your grandfather always asks what could ever be better than the shade of a magnificent tree.
Both of you halt now and then to check out the names of the trees. Your grandfather reads out the botanical and common names from the label dangling from the string strung along the girth of the trees, their origin, and history. You take a pocket notebook with you and carefully note them down and memorise them for general knowledge. You find an affinity for the lone Banyan in the middle of the drive-in, its extensive branches sprawling across the breadth of the drive-in, its roots swaying gently, seeking attention. When you see the Flame-of-the-forest with its bright orange flowers, you decide you want one too. You go home and plant one, diligently watering it, until it juts out of the wall of your compound and extends to the narrow road outside. Its height is formidable, and you are its proud caretaker. The municipal corporation workers thank you for it as they open their lunch boxes under its shade.
In 2006, the municipal workers are forced to axe it down to extend the road.
In 2007, your grandfather leaves you a garden filled with memories of flowers and fruits.
In 2008, Woodlands Drive-in shuts down.
All you hold on to is some eroded parts of your childhood you can never get back, even if you go to the drive-in, now turned into a horticultural disappointment.
*Morris Oxford Series III, 1970 model