Start me up – Bagging the £1,000 car
‘Let me get this straight: you’re planning to drive all the way around India in a Tata Nano?’ Naresh Fernandes, editor of Time Out Mumbai, asked me in a voice that sounded like disappointment. ‘Are you going to be planting lots of trees in your wake to compensate for the emissions?’
It was not the reaction I had hoped for. I sat across from him in his office, pathologically thumbing the retractor button of my biro and thinking of something witty to dredge me out of the mire of his opinion.
‘Umm, not exactly. No trees. But it is a fuel-efficient car, so I doubt it’ll cause too much… damage…’
‘Oh. Is it electric?’
‘No. But it goes a fair distance per litre.’
Folding under the pressure of the interrogation, my brain knocked random numbers around before drawing a blank and retreating with a whimper into the dank warren of its own inadequacy.
‘I’m not sure exactly,’ I said, trying to mask my inner dullard with an unconvincing veneer of cockiness, ‘but I know it’s a lot.’
‘What’s your route?’ ‘A big circle around the country. Going south first. 10,000 kilometres.’
‘Um. It’s a challenge?’
The chat was not going as planned.
I had come to Time Out Mumbai as part of a media out- reach strategy intended to generate a level of hype and enthu- siasm among the press similar to the one aroused in my loyal circle of support (namely my mum and my two best friends). I didn’t exactly imagine being drowned by a press tsunami, but I thought at least a little corporate nepotism might come into play with Naresh, given that I was a former Time Out editor myself. But this particular fish wasn’t in the least impressed by my plan and was most certainly not biting.
What I was too embarrassed to tell Naresh was that what had really drawn me to the Nano was one of my less virtuous traits, namely my limitless capacity for being motivated by a bargain. The car recently launched by Tata Motors – the com- pany that had bought Jaguar Land Rover in 2008 – was officially the world’s cheapest, and as such it had me at first sight: a hopeless sucker for marketing campaigns aimed at hopeless suckers bent on expanding their collection of easy electronic comestibles, I immediately added the vehicle (four doors, two cylinders and 624 cc of oomph, which, I was vaguely aware, was tantamount to a motorbike with a roof) to the tally of delecta- ble gadgets that were within reach of my credit card limit. It was the first time a new car had ever featured on that list, an event that inspired in me the warm rush of consumer anticipation.
‘What’s that, a Smart Car?’ asked my mum, squinting into the screen of my laptop.
‘Actually, Mum, it’s a Tata Nano. It’s the cheapest car in the world.’
‘I haven’t seen any about.’
‘That’s because we don’t have them here in Jersey.’
‘So where are they, then?’
This was the other part of the story. Although Tata had plans for releasing the Nano globally at some point in the future, for now the only place one could buy a model was in India. I was gutted: it had never occurred to me that, unlike laptops and phones, cars were not altogether international products.
‘So, yeah. I’m thinking of going over there to get one. Drive it around a bit.’
My mother didn’t flinch. In the last few weeks she had become accustomed to my reactionary rhetoric, a horrible regression in behaviour that followed my move back home after the sticky end of a four-year relationship.
‘Haven’t you been to India enough? What about getting a job instead?’
With the vexation of a vilified teen, I inhaled and slowly reeled off the same speech I had been laying on my parents for the last decade, namely that freelance travel writing was a job and a noble one at that. If she had the impression that my time was not sufficiently consumed by the pursuit, it was only because the publishing world was currently in crisis and work was thin on the ground. I had come here to my childhood home – nay, refuge – on the Channel Island of Jersey as an interim measure, to consider my future in the light of the cur- rent global climate and to decide what to do next. And what- ever that was, I indignantly assured her, it would certainly not involve any job of the nine-to-five variety. I was a free soul, a wanderer; a leaf that floated in the breeze and submitted hotel and restaurant reviews to paying publications. My wings might have been clipped, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me.
‘Anyway, it’s about to be my Jesus Year,’ I reminded my mother.
‘My Jesus Year. Thirty-three. It’s when you make things happen in your life. When you make decisions and change things.’
‘Why not make it the year you decide to finally enter a legit- imate workforce?’
I opted not to comment.
‘Besides, Jesus died when he was thirty-three. That’s so morbid.’
Rule of the Road #2: Pukka Protocol
As we pulled back onto the highway, a triad of menacing black SUVs whizzed past us in a dust cloud that left me giddy from the Doppler effect. Abhilasha shimmied slightly to the left in their wake. I sighed: two aukaat-fuelled drubbings in the space of five minutes. The Nano might be one of India’s new industrial darlings, but when it came to the pecking order of the road, she had to take her place among the hierarchy that was dictated by one simple rule: size.
If a person has to be asked what their aukaat is, the question is already an insult. Varma’s cautionary pointer might be perplexing if applied to social situations by a foreigner and an outsider like myself, but when I looked at his principle through the prism of highway etiquette, it was a no-brainer. On the roads it was clear who was boss: bulk and velocity ruled. If the oncoming vehicle was bigger than me, I relented; if it was smaller, I cut it up. It was that easy.
At the top of the highway power pyramid were the lumbering lorries, the articulated kind that measured about ten times the length of the Nano and moved at a majestic snail’s pace, scattering all terrified objects from their path with their formidable horns that could probably be heard from space.
On the next rung down were the smaller trucks, coaches and buses. They did have a slight speed advantage over the giant lorries in that they were often driven by boy racers who handled their bulky, aging torsos as though they were featherweight Ferraris with spruced-up horns designed to present a more intim- idating impression. Trucks and buses were followed by SUVs and cars, which contained many of their own subcategories, but it goes without saying that the humble low-cost Nano pretty much bookended the spectrum with the likes of a Porsche Cayenne Turbo at the other extreme (the one-lakh car versus the one-crore car). Within that hundredfold price difference lay all the other Tatas, Toyotas, Mahindras and Marutis.
The next category mostly comprised a more domesticated class of machinery. The horse- and bullock-drawn carts, charming and bucolic in appearance, were straightforward farmyard transport modes that were delightfully quaint and environmentally friendly, their only downside being their speed of bullock-miles per hour. Other members of this category included jugaads, vehicles recon- structed from the debris and spare parts harvested from the long since deceased. A motor from here, a gear box from there, some tractor wheels found near railway tracks and the disused wooden carriage that’s been rotting in the back field since the last horse died two years ago: put them all together and you have a weird hybrid tractor–cart thing that was invariably piled up with hay or people or both, and set to putter along the countryside roads in the early mornings or at dusk, taxiing its load from farms to villages and back again.
Next up were the auto-rickshaws and Tempos, three-wheelers often loaded with people that could hold anything up to an entire class of schoolchildren. In cities, rickshaws ruled the roost with their plucky moves and swift turns, but on the highways they were humbled by the sheer fact of their slowness, holding themselves rather sheepishly to the left as they let traffic hurl past them. Down another notch were the two-wheelers, a term encompassing everything from a moped to a high-speed Honda, although it usually meant a 125cc motorbike ridden by a minimum of three to four adults with the added option of children, livestock and industrial hardware balanced at various points for optimum weight distribution. They were closely followed by bicycles, which were capable of performing similar functions but at much lower speeds. And then there were those who travelled on foot: goats, dogs, hogs and, finally, people. At the bottom of the pyramid of power, pedestrians were molested the most: cars hurtled by them within inches of their elbows and honked at them angrily at road crossings where they’d let a cow pass with reverential awe.
But just as caste barriers were beginning to crumble in India with the advent of a new, modernizing wave of social structure, so too were road users trumping one another and undermining the rules of road aukaat by use of all manner of resources. Take cleanliness as an example: in a country rife with dust, fumes and the humidity to mix them into sticky pollution, cleanliness is very much next to godliness. Despite this, a pristine sunshine yellow coat was not something I was always able to arrange for Abhilasha: many were the mornings I drove her out into the world looking like the Swamp Thing after a particularly bitchy mud fight.
Power in numbers was another trick for manipulating the traf- fic to one’s will, and no road user displayed this ploy as well as humble livestock. A single sheep or goat by the side of the road was potential roadkill, but in herds they were formidable traffic stoppers who didn’t differentiate between high-speed highways and back-country roads.
Speed and sprightliness were another option for blindsiding other road users into giving way. If you could outrun or even dodge the bastard, it didn’t really matter how big he was. And this was the principle that I, by all rights a foreigner and an outcast, used from inside my yellow Indian avatar. When I was on form and Abhilasha in good fettle, the two of us were able to leave many a red-faced Maruti Zen or Tata Indica sprawling in our slipstream.
It seemed to me that social mobility was possible, at least as far as the roads were concerned. If I swerved, dodged and blared my horn enough in the face of my so-called superiors – leaving them in the sorry knowledge that maybe they weren’t the kings of the highway after all – then there was a small orifice in the fortress of aukaat through which the proles and their one-lakh cars could just about squeeze.
MISTER THOR – Girl Meets Boy
The machinations of gastro-intestinal upheaval in India are rarely worth going into. To me, puzzling over the causes of near-perpetual Delhi belly is about as useful an activity as debating the existence of beings in the metaphysical realm: whether they’re there or not, shit will invariably keep on happening. So in the same way, no matter which school of thought I subscribed to – be it the eat-anything-you-can-get- your-hands-on creed or the treat-all-food-with-high-suspicion doctrine – I always eventually ended up with an incendiary sphincter. For every several portions of street food I’d apprehensively eaten – uttering a silent prayer as I nervously ingested lunch from a dubious banana-leaf bowl – it seemed I was just as likely to be sent running to the loo after dining at an air- conditioned restaurant with tablecloths, proper menus and waiters with name badges. My best guess was the pithy excuse that I had a sensitive stomach and needed to be fed tasteless, starchy comfort food (read toast and eggs) at every available opportunity to balance out the spicy, oily fare that sustained me the rest of the time.
It was a dietary supplication that staff at the Ashley Inn, a family-run pension in Bangalore, were happy to accommodate on my first morning. Come day two, however, after an evening at a downtown restaurant gorging on what might have been the best spiced and barbequed chicken I had ever tasted, I was a no-show, locked in my loo, my belly carping and contracting at various intervals, while I flipped mournfully through a copy of India Today to distract myself from thinking just how inappropriate a situation this was to usher a new romance into my life.
My timing was horrible. Thor was due to reach the Ashley Inn in a few hours, possibly hoping to find me reclining seductively on the bed in my Ann Summers’ finest and a black feather boa, while the reality of our first encounter here in India was more likely to involve outings for loo roll and Immodium, me trying to disguise my intestinal noises with well-timed coughs. I brooded as I studied the foot of the bathroom door with fresh intensity. This was not quite how I imagined us igniting the flames of passion.
The demons of uncertainty tainted with pre-date nerves slithered into the toilet bowl from out of the sewer and began to whisper again in my ear; perhaps the universe was trying to tell me that kindling a new interest was a terrible idea. Here I was, on the journey of a lifetime, in my own uninterrupted heaven of selfish existence. The last thing I needed was another person and the inevitable necessity of compromise to encroach on that hard-won and highly enjoyable space, as well as to distract me from the work at hand.
And anyway, where was he going to sleep? Here? In the heady rush of pseudo-tentative emails exchanged about how he’d accompany me from Bangalore all the way through to Chennai (via Kanyakumari in the south and back up again; it was a roundabout route, but, both of us drunk with sexually charged romantic anticipation, we’d agreed it’d be fun), we had neglected to touch on the embarrassing practicalities of the instant intimacy that would be thrust on us, sharing a small car and numerous hotel rooms together over the coming fortnight.
Just as I was thinking about getting in the shower, the phone rang. I waddled into the bedroom with my pants still around my ankles.
‘Hello, madam, I am calling to inform you that your husband has arrived.’
‘Yes, madam, your husband,’ the woman said. ‘Mister Thor. He is on his way up to your room now.’
‘But, I’m not…’
There was a knock at the door. I slammed down the phone, froze by the unmade bed and pulled my pants up to their rightful position. Seconds passed as the room spun around me and I scoured the back rooms of my creative imagination for a way of fishing this situation out of the gutter.
‘Um, hello?’ I squeaked, despite my best attempt to deepen my voice to Dietrich-like standards of sexiness.
‘Hi, it’s Thor,’ came his voice, which I had to admit, despite all events conspiring to the contrary, turned some deep-set part of me to jelly.
‘Oh! Er, hello! You’re here,’ I grunted from the other side of the closed door.
‘Yes. My train got in early, would you believe? Or I screwed up the timetables. In any case, can I come in?’
‘Oh, of course. Of course!’ I exclaimed with a forced cheeriness that must have had him already regretting not taking the train straight to Chennai. ‘Just bear with me for a couple of minutes, will you?’
I ran into the bathroom to try to make myself presentable in under thirty seconds, then back into the bedroom where I rummaged through a mound of dirty T-shirts and some crumpled salwar kameez I’d bought the previous day in FabIndia as an act of concession to local fashion, comfort and climatic necessity. As far as I was concerned, the optimal thing to wear at that moment would have been a large paper bag to cover my body from head to foot. Instead, I settled on a conceptually similar billowy dress that concealed as much of me as possible. I blitzed the air around me with deodorant and tidied my hair into a bun. Then I took it down again; too matronly.
Thor was in all probability reconsidering his options by the time I came round to opening the door. When I finally did, I washed over with a goosefleshy species of fairy dust at the sight of the figure who was looking no more glamorous or date-worthy than myself, clad in a coffee-stained white T-shirt and road-worn drawstring linen trousers, and clutching a green holdall about the size of my cosmetics bag that oozed the miasma of overnight train journey. He was a picture, I conceded almost jealously. How was it that a guy could look like he’d just had a fight with a tipsy tea urn after not bathing for a week and still be a candidate for a GQ fashion shoot? Unlike me, who probably looked mildly trauma- tized, Thor was grinning, clearly oblivious to either of our appearances, or the pit of infirmity that lay beyond the door. I exhaled.
‘Hi. I believe you’re my husband?’
‘Sorry about that,’ he smiled. ‘Just keeping up appearances, you know. We don’t want to cause any scandals, do we?’
‘Certainly not, Mister Thor. What would the neighbours think?’
He stepped into the room, dropped his bag and threw himself onto the bed, to my horror right on top of an overlooked bra and some discarded pants.