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Excerpt #2

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.

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