'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.’
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.
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.