| Driving people crazy
After four months of London and other points UK, it’s good to be back in New Delhi again. My circle of PLU (People Like Us), media types, journalists, writers, film-makers and the ilk, are in fine form, still caught in their usual cycle of partying hard and then working even harder to pay for all the partying. Besides the ongoing south Delhi bacchanalias, my friends also have to deploy their money for the occasional splurge on large consumer products — here a new car, there a new G4 computer, and there again a new TV and DVD (“Come on! This is not a luxury, I actually need this for my work you know!”, etc).
One couple I am close to is made up of the wife, T, an intrepid and hard-working journalist employed by a foreign news organization, and the husband, B, who is a happening cinematographer in Bombay films. T and B are __ Airways’ favourite non-company customers from their income bracket because one or the other spouse commutes between Bombay and Delhi every weekend and sometimes even more often. Soon after I get back, I go over to say hi to T and B.
B greets me with cries of joy and choice Punjabi epithets. Then he tells me that T has gone off to cover the Kashmir elections and he is on his own for the next couple of days. “Good,” I say, “so we can watch the ICC trophy without interference from your Missus.” B’s face takes on a look of evil mischief. “No,” he says, “we will not watch cricket, we will go shopping.” I express some bemusement and curiosity for B is not famous as a shopaholic. “What,” I ask, gingerly putting my head into the noose, “do you want to buy' And why can’t we send T to buy it when she comes back'”
This is enough to send B off on a saga: you Delhi people have no sense of clothes; in order to be worn, clothes need to be clean; R (the woman who has been coming to clean T’s flat since years before she married B) is lazy and the clothes she washes end up dirtier than when you first give them to her; he has had enough; T won’t listen to all this so he has decided he is going to go and commit the act while she is away, after which it will be a fait accompli; it’s not cheap, but it’s a great bargain for twenty thousand rupees.
“What brand'” I ask, the penny dropping. He tells me and I say I didn’t know that Porsche, the German sportscar makers, had entered the home appliances market. He shakes his head at my inability to differentiate between “b” sound and “p” sound and carries on about the washing machine’s capabilities. A few days later, the thing is ceremoniously wheeled in by two men and set up in the covered space in the back courtyard. A few days later still, I walk in to hear the sound of R smashing wet clothes on the bathroom floor. B has left for a shoot in Bombay, and T is too busy filing copy to figure out the intricacies of flying the washing machine. “E ki' Washing machine ki holo'” I ask T, who is a probaashi Bangali. T gets an evil look on her face. “Oh that' I just gave her a few things to wash. Baakigulo clothes I’m piling up. When B comes back for the weekend he can drive his toy and wash them.”
The reference to driving reminds me of another friend of mine, nicknamed “Squidgy”. The nickname is appropriate in that it is completely inappropriate, Squidgy being a large, hairy and quite imposing man. But, sitting in the passenger seat when Squidgy is driving, I do make a connection between his namesake, Princess Di, and her fate. The Squidge has spent many years in America before returning to India a few years ago and, while his driving skills are evident, he still drives as if he is on the freeway between LA and San Diego.
Not for Squidgy the quaint Indian precaution of warning the cycle-thela veering into his 80 km/h path with the horn, nor the parochial use of brakes when a three-wheeler jumps out of a side-lane just in front of him, nor any proper slowing down in a residential colony with its potential of stray dogs and ball-chasing kids. The point here is that Squidgy is sublimely confident of his own skill and reactions but he takes no account of the limitations and stupidities of others, thus giving himself and others no chance should things go wrong, as they often do. Every time I try talking to Squidgy about this I am met with a dismissive noise, a grunt which says, “You criticize my driving at severe peril to your life.”
Talking about severe peril to life brings me to my friend, J, another journalist. J is different from Squidgy in that he got his driving license two years ago but is yet to learn how to drive. The fact that he has no control over his car, nor any judgement of surrounding traffic, does not stop J from trying to imitate Grand Prix Champion Michael Schumacher, especially when he is drunk.
The other night, two other friends and I found ourselves in the unfortunate position of sitting in the brand new Zen given to J by his employers at a national newsmagazine. Despite all out efforts, J, who was very drunk, had insisted on driving, and because we had no other way of getting where we needed to, we foolishly let him. J punched in the Bob Marley tape and took off at great speed. Once on the road, he began to swerve from side to side, showing off, and speeding up even more when we shouted to him to slow down. It was only by the full expenditure of all the good karma that all of us (and each of our fourteen generations preceding) had gathered that we remained not only alive, but unhurt.
Reading and watching the whole Salman Khan business evokes two contradictory responses. On the one hand, here in Delhi, there is still the left-over anger at how easily Nanda and his gang of rich kids got away after killing four people with his brand new BMW a few years ago. So, in the Salman Khan business there is a very strong feeling that the wealthy should not be allowed to get away with murder, (nor with hunting protected animals, nor with beating up their girlfriends). On the other hand, if one has to be the victim — or related to a victim — of lethal driving, then one is forced to hope that the killer driver is driving a Lexus or Land Cruiser and not a Delhi Transport Corporation Skid Missile or a brakeless Calcutta Minibus. For, there are no lakhs and lakhs of rupees worth of compensation available to the victims of quotidian injuries inflicted by drivers of trucks and public transport.
Until we look hard at this and do something about it, there are going to be potential killers among every class of Indians, from the sons of arms trade billionaires and film-stars to the sleep-deprived 17-year-old badli driver whose feet can barely reach the brakes of his ageing Tata truck, and, yes, also among the supposedly socially conscious media/ intelligentsia types like me and my friends.