‘What??’ I said, horrified. I was in Bangalore for a vacation and alone in the house for a couple of days when my friend proposed that I accompany him on a road trip to Kanchi. He was running a Travel Taxi agency at an age when I was in my first year at engineering college. He had apparently got a trip booked, had found a car but not a driver. The horror was occasioned by the fact that he was proposing to drive himself. Considering that his knowledge of driving was restricted to a vague idea about the location of the accelerator and brake, you will agree that the horror was justified.
The problem was that I was young. It seemed like an adventure to me and I had not yet learned that adventures were unpleasant things happening to other people! By the end of the conversation, I had agreed to his proposal and the only fly in my ointment was that we had to start at 4 AM – the existence of which time of the day I knew exclusively by hearsay having never seen it myself.
The journey started inauspiciously. When Uday started the Ambassador (we are talking about the early eighties, guys, and the Ambassador was as hi-fi as cars in India got then!) it jumped like a fractious war-horse for twenty feet and grazed the nearest lamp-post. I started wondering which of the three was the most fool-hardy – the chap who lent the car, Uday for choosing to drive it or me for accompanying him. I think I won by a short head since the chap was only risking his car and if Uday was risking his life he was, at least, theoretically in control of it.
After that explosive start, Uday drove the car around the town at a blazing speed of about 20 KMPH picking up his passengers. As a consequence of this high speed we exited the city of Bangalore by about 9 AM. Having to reach Kanchi by about 12 PM, the passengers were, understandably, doubtful about the progress but they did swallow Uday’s assurances about getting there on time, albeit with an audible gulp. If they really want to, people can believe anything!
Gaining in confidence, Uday upped the speed to a zippy 40 KMPH and we were proceeding merrily on our way till we reached a place called Palmaner. Uday took the car around a roundabout and unerringly hit a stationary bullock cart parked well to the side of the road. The relative sturdiness of wood vs. glass was proved by a tinkling noise that heralded the destruction of one head-light.
It was a silent deserted road up to then. The very next second almost the entire population of Palmaner had materialized around the car by what could only have been teleportation. After half an hour of wrangling, Uday parted with a hundred bucks for having used the bullock cart to break his headlight and we started on our way again.
We were about 25 KMs from Kanchi and it was 1.30 PM. From somewhere around 11.30 AM, the passengers had started bemoaning their choice of travel. Between them, they had rung every change on the various other options that they could have tried but didn’t. At last, exhausted with the sustained effort one of them pleaded with Uday to get them there at least by 2 PM. Uday was all confidence about it when the car did a Spanish tango all over the road and halted. Tire puncture!
Whatever one may say about his driving skills, Uday had the mechanical end pat! Within 15 minutes the tire had been changed and the passengers were in the car. He started off with a flourish and drove another twenty feet when the car decided to complete its interrupted dance. Another tire gone!
There was a shop nearby to take care of this issue. Uday was convincing the passengers that he could still get them to Kanchi by 2 PM. Considering that it was nearly 2 PM then the only way he could have done it was by time travel. Realizing that the technology for time travel didn’t yet exist, the passengers wisely chose to take a bus to Kanchi.
Both tires were duly handed over for running repairs and we sat at the nearby dhaba for a meal. No amount of pleading with the server helped in assuring him that we did not want the food to contain samples of the soil in which the rice was grown. By the end of the meal, we were truly sons of the soil!
Both of us sat around thanking our lucky stars that the car tires were punctured in the near vicinity of the repairer. We were young and innocent, guys, and did not know that we had the cause and effect interchanged. That shopkeeper may not have studied in Harvard but he knew how to get customers for his service. All it cost him were a few nails strewn artistically on the road abutting his shop.
Once the car was ready, we decided to return to Bangalore rather than make it to Kanchi. (Maybe I should have named this post ‘A road trip to somewhere near Kanchi’!!). About six we ascended one of those steep inclines in the road with the sides falling off into fields and stopped for a break. A costly break it proved to be for the car failed to start!
Up to now, the journey was a pleasure trip for me. All the nuisances of the trip were for Uday to handle and I was the merest spectator! Here the sinecure ended and I found that coming along would put me in the position of pushing the car to help it start. I pushed the car downhill and Uday tried starting the car. It gave a weird moan and refused to start.
The real heavy work started then. I had to push the car uphill so that he could coast downhill again and try starting the car. No go! Once more up the incline. Once more down the slope with the car sounding death groans! Once more! Things could have seemed monotonous to me but for the fact that every muscle in my body was issuing groans in symphony with the car.
Uday must have felt the monotony and, by way of variation, slid the car down the embankment into the fields. One look at my face and the request to try pushing it back up on the road died still-born on his lips. Anyway, it would have taken King-Kong to have done it and I have never actually been accused of being King-Kong even if some chaps had said that I looked like him.
You have no idea how rapidly the imagined charms of sleeping under the sky vanish when faced with a soggy field and ominous clouds in the sky. Like it or lump it, it did seem like we were in for a night in the car. Luckily, however, a passing lorry stopped upon hearing our piteous cries. The driver said that our battery was down. He connected his battery to ours, started our car, zipped it on to the road and instructed us to go on without shutting down the engine since there was no power in the battery to start it again.
Onwards we went and the Heavens opened up. With no battery, the headlight (singular intended. Remember the Palmaner incident!) wasn’t about to go on and wipers would not function. Thus, it was for me to put my head out one window and direct him to the right when he was about to run off the road while he put his head out the other window periodically to check whether the glare he was seeing in the windshield was a motorbike or a lorry. Every time the head was to be put out it was like shoving it under a waterfall. Never in the history of driving could a journey have been made in exactly this fashion.
We had decided to stop over at Uday’s sister’s place in Tumkur for the night and leave for Bangalore the next morning. About 10 KMs from Tumkur the car shut down again! With a comfortable destination in sight it was that much harder to contemplate the idea of sleeping in the car. Luckily, a passing motorist picked Uday up and took him to a garage in the town. By the time I had exhausted the entertainment value of rain pattering on the car roof, Uday was back with a mechanic. The chap started the car somehow, dropped us off at Uday’s sister’s place and took the car along to the garage.
Next day morning, the car was back and presumably in fine shape. It went like a breeze till we reached the intersection of the MG Road and Brigade Road and stopped bang in the middle of the intersection. This vengefulness of the car was inexplicable but the consequences could be very expensive indeed. A chap who knew no driving obviously had no driving license either and, in the times of Sangliana – who was heading the traffic division of the police – traffic offenses were a serious issue for the offender.
Luckily the traffic cop was more interested in clearing the intersection and he pushed the car and started it again. We set off like a startled deer only to have the car stop bang in the middle of the next intersection. There must have been some Sicilian blood in that car and it had, apparently, declared a vendetta on Uday – maybe for breaking that headlight! Our luck was still in, however, and there was no traffic cop around. We quickly pushed the car into a nearby parking slot and quietly vamoosed to the bus stand.
Apparently the battery was bereft of water which was the cause of all the problems that we had. That information came much later after we had quietly snuck home by bus. I have traveled often enough by road since then but no journey has ever even come close to becoming as incredible a story as this unfinished trip to Kanchi.