June 10, 2010

A few years ago, when it had rained like hell in the afternoon, I left office early to beat the traffic and flooding and ended up in a most memorable but not very pleasant situation.

Yesterdat was a sort of sequel to that day.

When I saw the rain pelting down at 4.15 p.m., I again decided to leave early. As I drove through the downpour to the chidren’s daycare, I began to wonder whether it had been a wise decision. Then I saw the traffic backed up ahead of an underpass. Great – if this was what it looked like now, what would it look like when all the office traffic came pouring out?

It took me 15 minutes to crawl along till I came up against the root cause: the underpass was flooded. In fact, it was not an underpass so much as a river. On the other side of the road, a couple of vehicles roared past, raising a huge tidal wave of muddy rain water. At the entry to the underpass, various small cars had stopped and drivers stood around shaking their heads skeptically. I could see a Maruti Omni and a Canter lorry floating in the middle. In front of me was a large truck. He waited several minutes before wading in and roaring through.

Now what should I do? Trucks are high enough, they can get through. And if they get stuck, they can go to Plan B. But what would I do if I got stuck? My beautiful trousers, new socks, and formal black shoes would be wrecked as I stood around and pleaded with hangers-on to push my car through. And then I’d be stranded. Amit was busy in an office meeting and would be of no help whatsoever. How on earth would I get home and what would I do with the car?

But there was nothing to be gained by just standing there. Every minute, more vehicles were getting added to the never-ending queue of vehicles stretching behind us. And the water was not going to abate any time soon; there might even be more rain yet.

And the girls would get impatient. They’d need access to food and toilets.

I crawled to the edge of the water and got into first gear. There was a technique to driving through water, which my parents had taught me years – decades – ago. You had to keep one foot lightly on the brake to close the brake shoe and prevent water from getting into the brakes. This also had the effect of increasing the revs, preventing water from entering via the exhaust.

I took a deep breath,floored the accelerator and released the clutch. We raced through the initial stretch of water. Then, the depth of water increased and my car slowed down. Damn. I shifted my left foot to the brake and we almost stopped. Damn – that wasn’t what I wanted. I floored the accelerator again, and put my left foot back on the clutch. That increased the revs and hopefully prevented water from entering the exhaust. In any case, in another few seconds we made it through and then I had to brake sharply to avoid ramming the car in front of me, who had stalled after getting out of the river.

I was shaking with relief – as if I’d just driven through a ring of fire. The kids were firing questions about my sudden change in driving technique, which I tried my best to answer while still thinking of what would have happened if I hadn’t made it. In the rear view, I saw another car, a Maruti Omni, stall in the middle.

Having emerged from the flooded underpass, I saw the backup of vehicles on the other side of the road stretching for hundreds of metres. It was not even 5.30! It was going to be a very long evening for a very large number of people.

Beyond the underpass, there was no traffic on my side of the road at all. But at one busstop I saw a vast number of people waiting hopelessly. It was sad… the buses, which might actually have got through the water without any trouble, were completely stuck in the jam with no hope of getting through.

As for me, I made it home in record time after that… but there are no guarantees.

Nike – But Please Don’t Just Do It

May 22, 2006
I was standing quietly at a traffic light – a red light, mind you – on Ring Road, minding my own business, waiting for the light to change, when a Maruti 800 drove over my foot!

Now, to be absolutely honest, it didn’t feel like a Maruti 800; it felt like someone had stepped on my foot. So I wasn’t in any great pain. But I was hopping mad.

For one thing, it was my left foot, which means that it was on the right side of the car – i.e., the driver’s side. So it wasn’t as if he couldn’t have seen it if he wanted to.

For another thing, how can you just go and drive over some poor, hapless two-wheeler-rider’s foot without the slightest provocation? I mean, it just isn’t on.

Well, as I say, I wasn’t really hurt and anyway the light had changed and the car had gone ahead. Being on my rattletrap Scooty, it looked unlikely that I could catch up with him, so there wasn’t anything I could do, so I just continued on my way.

Strangely enough, the Maruti 800 went a good bit down the ring road and then pulled over to the left. Whether the fellow had to take a leak, or whether he was waiting for me to catch up so he could make amends, I don’t know, and I didn’t bother to find out. I pulled up next to him and let him have it the best I could. To his credit, he didn’t try to turn the blame on me, or even to defend himself. He made guttural, placatory noises while chewing gum at me like a cow chewing the cud. So, having let off a bit of steam (but nowhere near enough) and having refused to let him get a word in edgeways, I drove off.

(The whole effect was somewhat diluted by the fact that my stupid Scooty stalled on me and I had to use my left foot to kick-start it, thus wonderfully demonstrating that there was, in fact, nothing in the least bit wrong with my foot.)

I had already noticed that his car had a Delhi license number. Is it just my prejudice or is it true that Delhi drivers are much more ruthless, callous and utterly lacking in the least bit of courtesy than the rest of the modern world?

Anyway, my foot is fine – thank goodness for my Nike sneakers!

Strange Creatures on the Road

March 11, 2006

Love it or hate it, there’s never a dull moment in the daily commute to work. You have to admit that traffic on Indian roads is endlessly entertaining. Consider, for instance, the strange creatures sometimes sighted on the road:

The one-eyed jack: It’s a many-wheeler (sometimes as many as ten) with only one headlight, so that in the dark it looks like a two-wheeler. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of this fellow.

The asymmetrical beauty: This one usually has a significant part of its body bashed in. Injuries to the back and sides may appear spectacular enough, but when the front is missing and it’s still moving, it makes you wonder.

The powerless auto: This is an auto rickshaw without automotive power (either due to mechanical failure, or due to fuel demand-supply issues). It is usually powered by being temporarily attached to another vehicle, which may or may not be another auto. The attachment is often provided by means of a human limb extending from one vehicle to the other. Steering, as may be imagined, is a complicated affair. There’s very little control over speed.

The helmet-wearing two-wheeler: This is a two-wheeler with a helmet attached. In most cases, the helmet is attached somewhere near the handlebar, sometimes on the mirror. In a few instances, it dangles inelegantly from other parts of the vehicle. In no instance is the helmet seen upon the driver’s head. Research shows that the helmet is found to be most effective in protecting the vehicle from injury in case an accident occurs.

The dancing elephant: This refers to a jumbo vehicle (eight wheels or more) that moves in a path as straight as a Bangalore road. In addition to its apparently inebriated condition, it usually also suffers from severe pulmonary and cardio-vascular dysfunction, as evidenced by the gasping, panting sounds it makes while it struggles along the road. It is often heavily overweight and emits voluminous clouds of foul black exhaust.

Other variants of these rare creatures can also be spotted by a keen observer. For example:

  • The dancing auto
  • The powerless elephant
  • The asymmetrical one-eyed jack (this one’s been in some serious trouble)

Unfortunately, too few of these are on the endangered species list!

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