The one room apartment of Mrs. Prabha Nene, stacked high with newspapers, documents, magazines and sundries punctuated with old-fashioned wooden furniture looks like any old ordinary apartment would look. But the person living in it is anything but ordinary. Prabha Nene is one of India’s first women rally car drivers.
The 77-year-old stands 5 feet tall and looks just like all grandmas do -frail and unassuming. She is anything but. Nene has taken part in almost every scooter/car rally since 1960. Her prized possession, a blue Austin 7 has been a constant companion throughout the last 50 odd years and has helped her win many a trophy in the numerous rallies that she has been part of.
Her tryst with automobiles started when, as 20-something girl she moved in with the Jog family who were close friends of hers in order to be closer to her work. The Jog family owned an auto mechanic shop and that is where Nene learned about different cars and how to drive them.
She was also, incidentally, one of the first three people in India to have imported a Vespa scooter straight from Italy. “I used to work for a company that used to make computer systems and the office would be about 13-14 kilometers away from where I used to stay, so with the help of my uncle, I ordered my Vespa so that I could travel to work easily” she says smilingly.
It would be this Vespa that she would drive, a year later, in her first ever scooter rally. She and a family friend acting as a pillion rider rode from Pune to Nagpur in 24 hours straight. “The man who came first made it to Nagpur in 22 hours. I would have to, but my pillion rider misread the map and we ended up losing our way in the middle. It took us 2 hours to get back on track and we made it in 24 hours,” she adds a little ruefully.
Even though she had not won, this fuelled Nene to take part in more rallies. However, what she truly desired was a car for herself. “One day I was with my uncle in Camp, and I spotted a blue Austin 7 parked on the side of the street. I instantaneously fell in love with it. I waited for the owner of the car to come back and asked him if he would like to sell it to me. He however, refused saying he wasn’t selling.” She says. Undeterred, she pressed her visiting card into his hand and asked him to call her the moment he wanted to sell the car. “Within 3-4 months after, he gave me a call and I ran to get the car” she adds with a chuckle.
Nene and her Austin 7 have been in countless rallies, but when asked about her first, her eyes light up and an ecstatic smile spreads across her face. “It was so exciting!” she gushes, and a glimpse of an excited young woman driving by herself for the first time can be caught. Although many rallies were intra-city, others involved going across the nation as well. Nene recounts a particularly proud moment of finishing a cross-country rally that took her from Mumbai to Chennai to Kolkata to Delhi and back to Mumbai in 7 days straight. “I love that car so much, that I actually wash it with warm water in winters!” she adds laughing.
In the past few years, Nene’s participation in rallies has reduced. Although, that could be due to her active participation in Pune’s Traffic Control squad as a volunteer. Every morning she helps control and direct traffic around the Kothrud area, and has been recognized for her efforts by the PMC on more than one occasion. She thinks Pune has many rash drivers and people don’t follow traffic rules anymore, which acts as a motivation for her. When asked what she thinks of the stereotype that women can’t drive, Nene laughs loudly, “I don’t understand! How can that be? Women would be more careful and cautious drivers in fact!” she exclaims.
Nene celebrated the car’s 80th birthday last year with much pomp and enthusiasm. “The car is actually older than me. I bought it when it was 30 years old already,” she explains as she adoringly looks at a photo of the birthday. The look on her face when she looks at her car is what makes you know for sure that the two belong together.