The Sunday Times
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Most stirring tales of self-discovery don’t tend to climax with a woman having a panicked breakdown on a petrol forecourt 120 miles from the finish line at midnight. Mine does, however, and though it wasn’t really what I had in mind when I set out from Mumbai three months previously, with 6,000 miles of Indian roads ahead of me, hindsight does compel me to ask: “What the hell were you expecting?”
The dismal period following an emotional break-up, can, if handled correctly, be very productive. Especially when it coincides with a career lull and the general notion that the dust globe of one’s thirties needs a shake-up. So, back in 2010, newly single at 33 and a bit down in the dumps, I decided that the most constructive thing I could do was succumb to a twisted form of retail therapy meets wanderlust. And drive around India. My acquisition was the cheapest new car in the world — the £2,000 Tata Nano — and my challenge was India’s perilous road network.
In retrospect, there were kinder things I could have done for myself. I could have gone on a yoga retreat, taken up pottery or had a radical haircut. Instead, my decision to drive several thousand miles on some of the world’s most dangerous roads was an act of cowardly escapism. Only a quest for survival could silence the droning soliloquy of romantic woe. I imagined speeding between paddy fields at sunset, sending flocks of birds into the air as I sliced though rocky desert landscapes, waving back at happy locals, who welcomed me at every step.
Kanyakumari beach (Vanessa Able, Joakim Wange Larsson)
In fact, I practically swore my way around the country in a “road Tourette’s” kind of way. Within minutes of leaving Mumbai, heading south into rural Maharashtra, I came close to death by overtaking a truck; risked near-death by insanely bright headlights; death and punctures by multiple hungry potholes; nigh-on death by herds of advancing livestock; and permanent eardrum damage — if not quite death — by honking, gazillion-decibel horns. I nearly drove off an unfinished bridge, Road Runner-style, after failing to read the roadworks-diversion signs; and I narrowly avoided slamming into an HGV that had stopped perpendicular to oncoming traffic on the motorway, while performing several last-minute swerves to miss other trucks that were driving in both the fast lane and the wrong direction.
Which is why my eventual mini-meltdown came as no surprise, even if, by rights, I should have been wiped out weeks before by something far more violent. But it was during incidents such as my squaring up to a monkey who was hogging the loo in a petrol station — or cleaning elephant-trunk slime from the dashboard with a tiny wet-wipe, or getting drunk with the “Maharaja of Omkareshwar” and his pack of rodent-scragging dogs — that I clocked how much fun being out of my comfort zone actually was. And that I loved every white-knuckle, gas-guzzling, horn-blaring, cow-dodging minute. This twisted driving remedy was working, but not for the reasons I’d expected.
For the first few hundred miles, I was concerned with the basics: negotiating traffic, navigation, finding appropriate places to pee. Once I had those nailed, I moved on to deeper road issues, such as how to disperse a herd of bullocks without causing a stampede, and the best way to overtake uphill on a blind curve. The third, more spiritual stage involved dealing with inevitable road hypnosis and taming the control freak who always wanted to go further and faster. (At an average speed of 25mph, 6,000 miles can go by excruciatingly slowly.)
A wedding blessing for Thor and Vanessa (Vanessa Able, Joakim Wange Larsson)
Along the way I met the man who would become my husband. Thor is a French-American redhead with a PhD in maths and a love of meditation that brought him to an ashram in Madras on an annual basis. We hooked up in that casual, devil-may-care way that travellers in India do, except that on our first day together I had the squits and he had an acute allergic reaction to what we could only deduce was the air itself. We sat in a hotel room in Bangalore taking turns to run to the bathroom: him to empty his sinuses, me to empty my bowels. Hardly the epitome of romantic starts, but it worked for us. We hardly knew one another, but I decided to take a chance on him and let him into the passenger seat as far as Madras. Two years later, we were married and then remarried in India at Thor’s ashram.
Given the unlikeliness of it all, I’ve occasionally allowed myself to entertain the soft-focus fantasy that somehow this was all meant to be, and the fact that the book I wrote about the trip became a bestseller in India somehow supports this suspicion. Which brings me to the following metaphysical consideration. Going from a country of polite, rule-abiding drivers to a country of road anarchy and rules of thumb is an experience that, after the initial shredding of nerves, taught me the lost art of relinquishing control and going with the flow. What looked like chaos at first glance was actually a system subject to its own set of algorithms, just like any other. And once the dance was learnt, the experience was transforming.
A short sojourn at Osho Rajneesh’s ashram in Pune introduced me to the principles of sanctioned madness and letting go of one’s inhibitions, a crash course in insanity that stood me in good stead for the ups and downs that marked the remainder of the trip. After all, the decision to drive around India (why India? Why a Tata Nano?) can be explained logically (because it’s a fascinating country, because the car stands for India’s emerging economic might), but really the reasons I gave were just public alibis for the far less articulate urge that led me to open doors I never thought I had the bottle for.
They might be utterly bonkers, but India’s roads took good care of me. They were the place where I reclaimed my mojo.