Parag is a software developer turned writer who loves travel, the open sky, animals, books, and writing.
Where's my fuel gone?
The first ten days in Tiruvannamalai were spent mostly in getting settled, doing my freelancing work, and visiting the ashram. Being busy with these activities, I did not find time to start my car. I knew it was parked in a safe place next to Bala’s house, so there was no urgency to check on it.
But after ten days, I thought it might be a good idea to start the car. I wasn’t expecting anything to be wrong, but just wanted to get the engine going and move the wheels a bit.
The next evening, I left for the ashram a little early and went to the parking space first. The car’s body was dusty, and the windshield had a medium-thick layer of dust on which I wrote ‘Tiruvannamalai’ with my fingers, just for fun. I wanted to clean the car, but I needed more than the small piece of cloth I had inside. I made a mental note to find someone to clean the car a couple of times every week. But for now, just starting the car would have to suffice.
I got in the car and turned on the ignition key. The engine made a sound. It cranked. It was trying to ignite the fuel, but it couldn’t. It just kept on cranking and the car didn’t start.
I looked at the fuel indicator, which to my utter horror, showed empty. This was impossible. The tank was somewhere between half and three-fourth full when I had parked the car ten days back. That was about 20 - 25 liters of petrol.
I had double-checked the fuel gauge and also noted the mileage by taking a photograph of the milometer while parking the car.
I pulled out my phone and checked the photograph to get the details. The milometer showed the exact same number. The car hadn’t moved an inch.
I wondered if the fuel had leaked. I got out and squatted near the fuel tank and tried to sniff for any indication of leakage. There was none. Neither any smell nor dark patches under the car. This was very strange. I called Bala to ask him if he had smelled petrol or if anyone who lived in that lane had reported a strong petrol smell. He said that he had visited the parking area a couple of times in the past ten days and had never smelled leaking petrol. No one in the lane had reported anything either.
This was incredibly weird. The car had not been driven. The fuel had not leaked. Where, then, had the fuel disappeared?
Could someone have stolen the fuel? I checked the fuel lid. It was locked. I opened the lid and noticed that the cap was properly screwed in. Well, if someone had taken the fuel, they certainly made sure to close everything properly. Thieves are rarely that conscientious. In any case, I did not believe that the petrol was stolen. The car was parked safely and the people around were very nice and helpful.
I turned the ignition on and off a few times but the fuel gauge stayed at ‘E’ and the car refused to start. I checked the headlights to make sure the battery was in good shape - which it was.
This was a real mystery. Where had all the petrol gone? I was completely clueless, so I decided to do the only thing I could think of at that time.
Mystery of the disappearing fuel
I called Bala to ask him if there was a petrol pump close by.
There was a pump about two kilometres away from where I filled a 5 litre can with petrol and got it back to the car.
Bala found a sturdy pipe in his house and we cut an old plastic bottle to create a funnel. With this makeshift apparatus in place, we transferred the petrol into the car.
I turned the ignition key, filled with hope. I really wanted to see the fuel indicator move. But it didn’t. It refused to budge, even a millimetre.
Could it be that five litres weren’t enough? It really should have been enough, but I decided to get some more. Off I went to the petrol pump and came back with some more fuel, which was quickly transferred into the car.
Once again I turned on the key and once again the indicator refused to move.
By now, it was clear that lack of fuel was not the problem. The problem lay somewhere else. Something — and I didn’t know what — was causing malfunction in the fuel indicator and preventing the car from starting. But the problem was way beyond my scanty knowledge of cars.
I needed a mechanic but it was 6:30 PM--a bit late to call for a mechanic right now. I asked Bala if he knew a good mechanic who could come the next day. He promised to find out from his uncle, who owned a “tour and travels” business. He said his uncle had a few taxis and would know a good mechanic for sure.
After thanking Bala for his help, I proceeded to the ashram, sat there for some time in the meditation hall, had dinner, and returned home. That night, on the terrace, instead of looking at the stars and Arunachala, I browsed through my mobile, trying to find solutions to my problem.
As I browsed through various Internet forums, one particular discussion caught my attention. The OP had the exact same problem. He had fuel in his car, but the fuel gauge showed empty and his car didn’t start. Someone suggested that there could be a fuel pump malfunction.
He went on to explain that the fuel pump is located under the fuel tank at the rear of the car. According to him, it was not uncommon for rodents to chew up the wires causing such malfunctions. If the wires were chewed up and disconnected, it would prevent the fuel gauge from getting any voltage, resulting in an empty reading even if the tank was full. It would also cause a malfunction preventing the fuel pump from transferring fuel to the ignition unit. That was why the car didn’t start.
This seemed like a very likely problem. There were rodents in the parking space. Moreover, I had not started the car for ten days, so there was a good chance that a few rodents had found a good place to play and decided to feast on the wires.
Understanding the problem is half the solution. Armed with this information, I felt somewhat more relaxed. I looked at the stars and Arunachala for a few minutes before retiring for the day.
Meanwhile, Bala had obtained the address of a good mechanic. He told me we could go on his bike to the garage in the morning.
An unlikely maternity home
The next morning, as promised, Bala took me to the mechanic. The garage was about three kilometres away.
I explained the problem to the mechanic and also told him about what I had read on the Internet. He said he would send someone to check the fuel pump circuit.
With nothing else to do, we returned to the car, and I waited for the mechanic to come—which he did, about half-hour later.
Based on the web page I had read the previous night, I assumed the mechanic would come with a voltmeter. Instead, this guy came with a battery and lots of wires which he fitted in different places to check the electrical circuit. I was a little puzzled. I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to do.
After about fifteen minutes of checking, he declared that the circuit was in perfect condition.
“No fuel pump problem, sir…” he said rather confidently.
“Don’t you need a voltmeter to check the circuit?” I asked, a little exasperated.
“No sir, I check with this.” He pointed to the battery.
“Let’s please check again with a voltmeter,” I almost pleaded.
“Not needed sir. Circuit good. No problem.”
I didn’t know what to say. I had pinned all my hopes on the rodents chewing up the fuel pump wires. But now he was saying they weren’t the problem. I was back to square one.
“So what is the problem?” I asked him.
“I don’t know sir. You take car to Maruti Service Centre.”
“Ok, where is the service centre?”
“On Chennai highway sir. Thirty-two kilometres from here.”
Good God! Thirty-two kilometres!!! Never before in my life had I been so disappointed that rodents hadn’t chewed up something important.
“So I will have to tow the car?”
“Yes sir.” He said with a grim look on his face.
I was mortified. A thirty-two-kilometre expedition to the Maruti Service Centre was the last thing I wanted to do.
I watched helplessly as he wrapped up his stuff and mounted his bike to leave. I paid him for the visit and he started his bike.
Just as he was about to leave the parking space, I realized that I had not seen him get under the car even once. I shouted, “Wait, wait!”
He stopped and looked behind.
“Did you look under the car in the fuel pump area?” I was slightly out of breath as I asked him.
“No sir not needed. All circuit good.”
“No no. Please check the fuel pump area. Get under the car and check the fuel pump wires… Fuel pump wires. Please check.” I repeated in a desperate attempt to stop him.
He shook his head as if I was a child who refused to understand a simple thing.
But he stopped his bike and pulled out a small jack from his backpack. He raised the car on the side where the fuel pump was located and slid under the car.
I stood by the side, looking at him expectantly. Hoping that he would find some chewed wires.
I could see that he was struggling with something. He came out from under the car after about five minutes showing me his hands.
He was a well-built person and apparently, his palm, wrists, and forearms were too large to reach the fuel pump area where the wires were located.
For a moment, I wondered if I should volunteer to find the wires. My hands were thin and if he could give me directions, then I could get to the wires.
However, he promised to return with one of his colleagues (who’d be able to reach the fuel pump comfortably) before I could suggest myself for the job.
I was in two minds. I really wanted to check this myself, but he assured me that he would keep his word. Even though I was a bit hesitant to let him go, I thanked him and said that I’ll wait for his call.
Fortunately, the mechanic kept his promise. He returned after two hours with a slimmer colleague and a larger, industrial-sized, jack.
They first raised one side of the car with the jack. It was a huge jack with which they were able to raise it really high. The slimmer of the two got under the car and expertly maneuvered his hands to get to the fuel pump area. He emerged after about five minutes and declared that he would have to unscrew the fuel tank partly and lower it in order to get to the wires.
I wasn’t sure if all this needed, but because I didn’t know any better, I left it to them, asking them to do whatever they had to do.
“Please be careful and put everything back together properly,” I requested, silently hoping they knew what they were doing.
This was going to take some time, so instead of just standing there, I started walking around the parking space until…
Until I heard a scream from under my car.
Apparently, the person who was unscrewing the petrol tank did not realize that it was over three-fourth full. He was expecting an empty tank. When he unscrewed the tank, it came down from one side, almost crushing him.
Fortunately, the other mechanic was big and strong. He quickly slid under the car and held the tank above the other guy while he went back to locate the fuel pump wires.
I decided to stand there and watch just in case a third person’s help was required for something. Very soon there was another shriek from the slimmer guy, followed by a laugh from the other, more stocky mechanic.
“What was going on?” I wondered.
I didn’t have to wait too long for an answer. A squirrel leaped onto this guy’s chest from the fuel pump area and was rapidly sprinting from chest to stomach to knee to the outside world. Within a minute, it had run away and was out of sight into some nook or behind a stone or hole in the ground.
One of the mechanics continued holding the fuel tank as I saw the thinner of the two emerge with a flat, square, nest-like structure made of grass and other throwaway stuff. Within this structure were two small squirrel babies. He held the squirrel babies in one hand and some chewed wires in the other.
“Oh my God,” I exclaimed. The squirrel that had just jumped out some time back was a mama squirrel who had birthed two babies near the car’s fuel pump. My car had become an unlikely squirrel maternity home.
I looked at the babies. They were very little and very cute. Their eyes were shut and their body expanded and contracted as they breathed.
The mechanic held the grass bed gently and put it down under a tree. After that, he showed me bits of wires which the mama squirrel had chewed away.
It was a moment of mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was happy that they had finally figured out the problem and my car would soon be fixed, but I also felt guilty that these little squirrels had been separated from their mother and were now unprotected against predators. I could hear crows cawing from the trees around that space, and prowling cats couldn’t be ruled out either.
Squirrels get scared very easily and the mama squirrel had taken off in fear. But I did not know if she had abandoned her babies or was hiding somewhere waiting for the right time to get them back.
I stood beside the babies to make sure they were safe while the mechanics were working on the car.
Once again, I checked the Internet to figure out what to do. One of the articles suggested that one could take the baby squirrels to a local animal shelter. That felt like a good solution.
I asked Bala if he knew of any animal shelters in Tiruvannamalai. He didn’t. I asked him if he knew of any vets. He didn’t know any vets either but said that he could find out. We continued with our discussion, trying to figure out various possibilities.
Meanwhile, the mechanics fixed the car, and they called me for the key. The stockier mechanic got into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition key one notch to start the electrical system. He wanted to explain something to me. He asked me to look out for a “grrrrrr” sort of sound from the back of the car.
“This is the fuel pump sound,” he said.
He explained that the car makes this sound every time you turn the key one notch. It meant that the fuel pump was starting. If we don’t hear the sound, it could indicate a problem with the fuel pump.
Next, he folded his hands, closed his eyes, chanted “Om Namah Shivaya”, and turned the key one more notch to give the ignition. The car cranked and fired like its good old self. For the second time in this trip, the slightly harsh sound of my car coming back to life reminded me of the sweet and melodious singer -- Shreya Ghosal.
Relieved that the car was sorted out, I suddenly realized that I had left the squirrel babies alone for a long time. I turned back towards the tree to look for them. That’s when I saw Bala smiling as he walked with me to the tree.
The nest was empty. Bala said that while we were near the car, he also moved away from the tree to answer a phone call. Interestingly, once everyone was away from the babies, the mama squirrel came and quietly took its babies away.
Ultimately everything ended well, and I happily paid the mechanics, adding a good tip. I thanked them and Bala a dozen times and decided to take the car for a little drive in Tiruvannamalai.
© 2021 Parag Shah 333