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Authors: Vanessa Able

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BOOK: Never Mind the Bullocks
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So it seemed to me that Tata's vision made sense both on an economic level and a humanitarian one. And despite being stuck in excruciating traffic, I was still able to draw some comfort from my situation and appreciate what a luxury the four-wheeled vehicle really was. The late-afternoon sun burned outside while an air-conditioned breeze blew through my hair; my steering hands were free to concentrate on turning the wheel and occasionally checking my phone, unencumbered as they were by the weight of an infant; my bags were piled safely
on the backseat and were not jiggling precariously between my knees.

But then there was the other consideration: traffic. As I and thousands of other drivers waited in line to shuffle out of Mumbai at a funereal pace, the motorbike family was long gone into the distance, as were the scores of other two-wheelers that passed me a dozen a minute. If Abhilasha were a bike, we'd be joining them, and by now, I fantasized, we'd be cruising an open country road. After all, if motorbikes really did count for three-quarters of all India's vehicles, then surely it was they that kept the country from coming to a nationwide standstill? I looked around at all the vehicles that were crowding around me in a bid to get out of the city, imagined our number amplified three times over and winced. How could India's roads ever stand such an escalation?

In theory, they should be able to. India has one of the lowest car densities in the world, meaning its car-to-kilometres-of-road ratio is very small indeed: 5,
13
to be precise, as opposed to the US's 38 and the UK's 77.
14
This is a shocking figure that basically attests to the fact that there are fifteen times fewer vehicles in proportion to the length of roads in India than there are in the UK. And although I had frequently been stuck in traffic in London, I had rarely seen gridlock of these proportions back home. So what was going wrong? What were the Indian authorities doing, or rather not doing, such that so few cars could cause this much congestion? The answer was not forthcoming, but I had 10,000 km to try to figure it out.

Landfall finally came in the form of a McDonald's whose golden arches appeared between the towers of Navi Mumbai, Bombay's
15
high-rise residential suburb. Three hours into the
journey and we hadn't even crossed the city limits – it beggared belief. I needed an incentive, a reason to continue pushing through the morass. Caffeine, processed protein, carbohydrates – anything would do. I nosed the Nano's flat-packed beak into the parking lot and went inside to find that this unremarkable roadside fast-food chain was in fact
the
place for the swinging youth of Navi Mumbai. It was mobbed with hipsters, kids in drainpipe jeans and gelled hair, who sat sipping coke floats and giving me the occasional ‘you're not from around here' side glance during lulls in their conversations.

I shuffled towards the counter with the furtive sheepishness of the new girl at school and ordered a cappuccino, which I half expected to be bullied off me by a gang of Big Mac–wielding hipsters. I could almost feel the conversation restart as the door closed behind me, and with a sigh that felt like I'd just had a brush with a hiding, I took out my phone to call Russell.

‘You're where?'

‘The Maccy-Dees in Navi Mumbai. You must know it. It's where all the cool kids hang.'

‘What the hell are you doing still in Mumbai? It's quarter to six.'

Russell was nervous, and for good reason. Daylight was fading and I had another 80 km to go to Nagaon. Driving at night appeared to be something that all Indians, or at least the ones I had spoken to – like Russell, Akhil, Prasad, Puran, Naresh and even Sunil the Sat Nav whizz in Croma – feared like the Bogeyman. Once the outlandish and idiotic idea that I was taking the Nano past the limits of Navi Mumbai was absorbed into the individual psyches of my advisers, all that usually remained was to utter grimly, ‘Be careful.' And then, ‘But whatever you do, just don't drive at night.'

Their words resounded through my guts and stirred a family of gremlins that resided deep inside. When I dared
to ask why, I was fed a litany of disaster scenarios and horror stories that ranged from the sheer paralysis of not being able to see a thing on an ill-lit, unmarked road, blinded by the full beams of oncoming traffic, to the apparent notoriety of long-distance truck drivers who aided their road concentration not through the traditional methods of stimulants like coffee, tea or the indigenous rocket fuel, Thums Up, but rather through the ingestion of copious alcohol. Not much fancying the prospect of a Mahindra lorry–Bagpiper whisky combo, I decided that this advice was best heeded and that all journeys would and must be completed by sunset. All, except of course this first one.

‘Holy – effing – shit.'

I was straining up a steep incline, my foot flooring the accelerator, causing Abhilasha to bleat indignantly. I was wedged between an unknown bushy darkness to my left on the edge of the road, a doddery truck up front, and another truck to my right that was attempting to overtake us by accelerating its lard-arse up the hill, heralding its laboured ascent with its thunderous horn. I was inches, seconds, decibels away from death by unpleasant squishing.

I scoured my driving databanks for possible bailout options, but there was nothing I had ever experienced to provide a solution to this truck sandwich: the only alternatives that seemed feasible were slamming on the brakes, or swerving left into the bushes where I could take respite and possibly cry. But a quick glance in my rear-view mirror assured me quickly that neither plan was going to work: the incandescent yellow glare told of an angry corpus of vehicles on my tail, salivating at the prospect of taking a punt at my posterior.

The bright side of being wedged at right angles between two metal giants was that the one on my right was temporarily shielding me from the stream of traffic coming from the opposite direction. The procession, which I presumed had been forced off the road due to the presence of a large lorry in their own lane, had been burning headlight-shaped troughs into my retina in a carpet-bomb succession of nuclear explosions for the last hour. I wasn't sure if they all had their high beams on, or if it was the quality of the air, the dust, the humidity, or smoke from evening fires that diffused, reflected and even magnified the photons, but each time a set of lights came into my field of vision, it annihilated everything else around it, including the vehicle in front. This would force me to negotiate my way along the road, according to the principle of keeping the bastard bright beams always on my right and the truck in front in a state of cloudy near-visibility.

Jesus, this is not a joke, I thought, as I sat up straight, gripped the wheel and put every inch of my being and focus into keeping the car on an even keel and out of the way. Although the Nano's speedometer was reading a meagre 30 kmph, I actually felt more like I was negotiating a Formula One circuit with Vaseline in my eyes, against a cast of raving truck drivers who were all jumped up on some rather mettle-enhancing crack.

There was no choice but to keep up, although even this was soon an insufficient strategy. The truck in front of me began to bear sharply to the right, pushing into the truck next to it and forcing that further back into the oncoming lane. The manoeuvre was accompanied from all sides with a doleful roar of horns, including from the line of traffic in the opposite direction that was once again propelled off the road by the obstinate truck hogging their own god-given thoroughfare.

‘What could he possibly be…' I started to mutter incredulously, before it became clear that what I was witnessing, and indeed was in the vortex of, was a daredevil double overtake: the truck in front that was already being so painfully passed by another was executing an overhaul of its own. Through the grey cloud of the accelerating vehicle's exhaust fumes, the hind legs of some large black animal came into view to my left, then another pair, and then another, all of which were soon accompanied by torsos, tails and lolling heads. They were bullocks – bulls without balls – and, as I was set to find out, as common a form of transport in India as the village tractor.

Within a few seconds, the bunch of bullocks had turned into a veritable herd, plodding contentedly at the command of a tiny man with a dirty-white turban who walked in their midst holding aloft a cane as though he were a tourist guide herding a sightseeing flock. I felt the thwack of a couple of shit-caked tails hitting the Nano's bodywork as we crawled past the indifferent beasts in a respectful and silent cortege. The last bullock behind us, the horns restarted, as did the efforts of the big fat lorry to get ahead of his counterpart. It was harrowing to watch, but he ultimately made it in front, with a left-ways wiggle that elicited a surprise whoop of relief from me.

Within minutes that particular party was over and traffic on the road thinned out. Then it was just me and the huge truck I'd been trailing for over an hour now; I'd been overtaken by every member of the impatient mob that had been straining behind me, leaving in their wake an eerily quiet instant of respite. Deciding the moment was ripe to try a little overtaking of my own, I shifted down into third gear and hit the gas. We were still on a bit of an incline and the Nano didn't pick up speed with quite as much gusto as I hoped, but after some
gentle encouragement and motivation tricks (‘Come on girl, you know you can do it. Let's show fatty here what we're made of') we finally edged past the behemoth and had nothing but a dark, open road ahead of us.

The NH66, my route from Navi Mumbai down to Maharashtra's seaside Nagaon, stretched ahead of us into the darkness. But the Nano's headlights, not a jot on the stadium-strength peepers of its peers, were not doing the best job lighting the way, and while I was fumbling with the switches to try to activate the full beams, I became aware that the dividing tracks of the road were shifting to the left underneath me. For some idiotically naive reason, I put this down to the road having widened to two lanes in either direction and congratulated myself for having passed through the eye of the storm and the worst part of the road unscathed. Now we'd be cruising all the way to the ocean.

This assumption turned out to be a very bad error of judgement. I rounded a bend only to be immersed in an explosion of light coupled with an outraged honk somewhere right in front of me. I instinctively swerved to the left and missed the oncoming vehicle by inches. It transpired that my two-lane fantasy was just that; in the end the road was only one lane in each direction, and I had been driving, quite evidently, in the
wrong
one. Within hours of my first auto outing in India, I had come close to being trouser-pressed by lumbering lorries, had my eyeballs fried, and then nearly annihilated myself by way of sheer stupidity, almost dragging the Mother Ship down with me into the jaws of hell. Was this what the next 10,000 km would look like?

The following hour passed in a blur while I maintained the concentration of a tightrope walker. The calm that had been broken by my earlier veering-off into the wrong lane turned out to be something of an oddity. The traffic was back in full monsoon-level flow on both sides, headlights blazing, horns blaring. I assumed a stiff, white-knuckled position behind the wheel, my nose almost touching the windscreen, my eyes squinting into the approaching glare. I hardly dared blink: one wrong move and I'd be tinned meat in a little yellow can.

BOOK: Never Mind the Bullocks
7.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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