Minus 10,366 km. The Parish of Grouville, Jersey, Channel Islands
‘Hello! Mr Shah?’ I yelled, echoing the unabashed bellows siphoning through the crackles on the phone line. ‘I’d – like – to – buy – your – Nano!’
‘Nano?’ Mr Shah shouted back. ‘Yes, your Nano! I want to buy it!’
There was no response and I couldn’t tell if he’d heard me. I sighed, frustrated. Purchasing a car in India from a continent and a half away was not proving to be easy. From under the wintry grey skies of an island in the English Channel, the idea of buying a Tata Nano and driving it around India had seemed so viable, so exotically rousing: a road trip to shake up the dusty snow dome of my 30s with enough romantic posturing to makeYash Chopra blush. TheTata Nano,a car the colour of sunshine and with the price tag of two iPhones, had caught my eye and my imagination. Made in India, it was the cheapest car ever to be mass-produced, the brainchild of Indian industry giant, Ratan Tata. Owing to its affordability and general revolutionary promise, it had been dubbed ‘The People’s Car’, the next Ford Model T.
Far from being a car geek, I had always been fairly indifferent to the auto market. but I couldn’t remember any single product since the iPhone that had floated my boat to this extent. A brand-new car that was cheaper than my laptop: was it really possible? I wasn’t alone in my excitement: USA Today ran a story that suggested the Nano ‘may yield a transportation revolution’, while Time magazine pegged it as ‘one of the most important cars ever designed’. The Financial Times claimed that the Nano encapsulated ‘the dream of millions of Indians groping for a shot at urban prosperity’ and Newsweek asserted that the Nano was ‘changing the rules of the road for the auto industry and society itself ’. ‘Indian streets may never be the same again,’ declared the BBC.
A few months after the Nano had come out – in early 2010 – I was at my parents’ house in Jersey, a prodigal daughter returned to fold and seeking refuge after the sad end of a long, live-in relationship. It was one of those periods of directional lack for which entire tomes of self- help books are written. As the chilly January wind whipped around my childhood home, a fading stuffed Roland Rat and a couple of Care bears glared at me remonstratively from across the pink swathes of my bedroom, reminders of a pre-adulthood that felt like it had popped up for another round.And as if that wasn’t evidence enough of my moral decline, a second-hand copy of Eat Pray Love mysteriously appeared by my bedside one day, courtesy, I believe, of my mother.
Such low notes had historically always called for a rectifying road trip; a break in the narrative flow during which my brain and spirit could put the kettle on, have a breather and rethink the strategies in play. No sooner had that thought drifted through my neural circuits than it took hold and started to nestle among the cosy cotton wool synapses of my frontal fantasy lobe.
The idea began to take shape, and that shape was small and yellow. Could a road trip across India really be viable in a Tata Nano? At first I dismissed the thought out of hand: having already been to India in a backpacking triple-whammy during my three summers at art school at the turn of the millennium, I drew the immediate conclusion that it probably wasn’t the kind of place primed for a road trip. I had travelled a great deal of the way from the mountains of Ladakh to the backwaters of Kerala by bus, and as far as I could remember, life on the Indian roads had been a constant subject of derision as well as a major source of dread. I had flashbacks of rocky rural highways, swarming with traffic that nonchalantly free-styled on both sides of a non-existent divider, ever on a collision course in a demented marathon of swerving and passing. Several months spent at the mercy of India’s public transport system had been an emotional and physical roller coaster of fear and loathing that, a decade on, was still marked on my psyche.
Yet, the truth was that – whether because of the current lull in optimism, my innate escapism at the first sign of malaise, or even Elizabeth Gilbert’s subconscious pull – I was yearning to go back to what I considered the most simultaneously exhilarating and exasperating country on earth.There seemed no better remedy for the drizzle trickling down the windows overlooking a dolorous English Channel than the electric, unpredictable hum of India.
Still an indefinite prisoner in my soft-toy populated den of memories, I decided to indulge my fancy further by dusting off two fat photo albums and scanning their contents for supporting evidence of the happier, blither days of my travelling youth.The dank sea air had stuck the plastic pages of the albums together, and as I peeled them apart, I was tickled by the sight of a younger, dirtier, ganglier version of myself, clad in charity-shop-meets-subcontinental-chic and grinning out from under layers of sweat, grime and a makeshift red turban. There were various happy poses with my travelling companions at key moments in our adventures: in the back of a rickshaw; on a bench with some furtive-looking red-eyed sadhus; under a sign advertising ‘special lassis’ (big grins and thumbs in the air here); in a hotel room that looked more like a prison cell, my foot in a bandage and brandishing what looked like a carrot-sized joint; on a train, slumped unconscious over a rucksack, and being positively mobbed by a gang of howling, out-of-focus schoolchildren.
That’s it, I thought. That’s living. No other place I had been to in the last decade had produced such a set of invigorating images that communicated so well the visceral ferocity of an experience and contrasted so sharply with the prospect of an afternoon’s outing to the local spar supermarket for milk and crumpets. Was it time to go back, and if so, could I do it on my own terms? I remembered the envy aroused in me by the sight of the hot-headed Israelis and stout-hearted Antipodeans who had spurned buses and trains in favour of mounting home-grown Enfield motorbikes as their Indian steeds. Watching them speed by from the window of a bus, I had started to long for a similar kind of independence: while I was a slave to the slow queues and bureaucratic shenanigans of the train ticket offices, they were free birds, roaming the land on their own dollar; while I was dispatched from one messy urban bus station to another, they were able to off-road through villages, stopping to swim in rivers and frolic carelessly through rice fields. And I would have followed in their tyre treads too, was I not absolutely terrified of two-wheelers with engines more powerful than a 50cc hairdryer.
A motorbike was not for me. What I had really wanted was my own car, but at the time it was a domain reserved for more moneyed travellers who could afford the luxury of hiring a vehicle and a driver,as self-drive rentals were rare.but referring back to the onlineTata Nano specs, and doing some loose calculations in my head that very roughly balanced the sum of my savings against the (highly underestimated, it turned out) price of jaunt in my very own Nano, it seemed that driving myself around India was possible. On the computer screen before my eyes was a four-door, two-cylinder, 624cc affordable option for the India of a new millennium. After all, I reasoned, it had been more than a decade since I had visited the subcontinent and a lot of things had surely changed. For one, the country had undergone a major economic turnaround: India had generated and was maintaining a steady 7 per cent growth rate; the country had developed its industry, technology and engineering to the point where it was now the global innovator of a low-cost car set to bring empowerment and mobility to an emerging middle class.And if that wasn’t enough, they had also built some new roads: I had read about the famous Golden Quadrilateral, a state-of-the-art freeway that connected the country’s major cities, that had transformed the experience of driving in the country.
I pondered as I spun around the little 3-D Nano on Tata’s website. Would it be possible, I mused, to buy this car and take it all the way around India? Could the cheapest car in the world really survive such an ordeal? What was it made from, after all? Was it a real car, or just a compromise, and if it was a real car, then why had no one else thought of making one before? And would the trip even be an ordeal anyway? All this talk of India’s famous growing economy and sparkling new roads meant that I would most probably encounter a country a world away from the one I had sped through, butt cheeks clamped shut, ten years ago. Would this new India, one of emerging markets, infotech experts, booming industries and freshly laid tarmac even be recognizable to me?
There was only one way to find out, I surmised: buy one of these Nanos, pack my bags (a suitcase this time, not a rucksack) and test- drive this much-hyped vehicle to see: a) if it was any good, and b) what it really meant for modern India, the chaotic, anarchic, economically struggling country of my memories, to have produced such a globally revered piece of engineering.
For me at least,theTata Nano meant the epic road trip was no longer confined to the West: the highways of the East had opened for business and their calling card was compact, cheap and exceedingly desirable.