‘Holy – effing – shit.’
I was straining up a steep incline, my foot flooring the accelerator, despite the car’s indignant bleats of protest. I was wedged in 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 who was attempting to overtake us by accelerating his lard-arse up the hill, heralding his laboured ascent with his own 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 two alternatives that seemed feasible were slamming 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 reflected there 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 behind the wheel of a Tata Nano that was 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-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 highbeams 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 one set of lights came into my field of vision, it completely 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 at an even keel and out of the way of the bumbling behemoths.Although the Nano’s speedometer was reading a meagre 30 kmph, I actually felt more like I was negotiating a Formula One racecourse withVaseline 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 suddenly began to bear sharply to the right, pushing into the truck next to it and forcing it 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 suddenly 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 now executing an overhaul of its own. Through the grey cloud of the accelerating vehicle’s exhaust fumes, the hind legs of a large black bullock came into view to my left, then another pair, and then another, all of which were soon accompanied by torsos, tails and lolling heads. Within a few seconds, a bunch of bullocks had turned into a 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 hit the Nano’s bodywork as we crawled past the indifferent beasts in a respectful and silent cortège.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 had 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 it would, 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...’) I finally edged past the behemoth and was left with nothing but a dark, open road ahead.
The NH66, my route from Mumbai down to Maharashtra’s seaside Nagaon, stretched ahead of us into the murk. 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 and activate the full beams, I became aware that the dividing tracks of the road were shifting to the left underneath me. For some idiotically naïve 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 to be immersed by a torrent of light coupled with an outraged honk somewhere right in front of me. I instinctively swerved to the left and missed the oncoming vehicle (for all I know, it could have been a UFO; I could only see blinding light) 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?
49 km. NH66, Maharashtra