A road trip, however short, is by all means awesome. Mention that it is a family trip, with folks of all kinds cramped into the Maruti and still one shrugs but beams at the thought.
So it was that just under two years ago, yours truly was given the chance to pilot the vehicle on his very first proper road trip. Now let me for a moment, elucidate on the word 'proper' spoken there. There are, you might be aware, phenomena such as born-twice, etc during the course of a boy's lifetime (three, if the chap in question is a tambrahm). One being the all important biological birth. The next important one is the instant the boy gets his driver's license. (In the middle of this, tambrahm boys have the upanayanam - a second birth as it is called). For until that birth happens, it doesnt matter how many times you've driven the car perfectly in your dreams or in real life, you know for sure that once a traffic cop catches you there's no use even if you happen to have won the F1 Grand Prix many times in a row - you simply dont have that important card with your photo on it! It was, therefore, with no slight elation that I enthusiastically cleaned up (I dont usually do this even if I'm paid handsomely) the white and spotlessly-maintained M800 sleeping in the shed. Following which, I opened the bonnet and checked the status of things under the hood (yes I do this even if I'm paid to stay away from it). Brake oil, coolant, battery acid-level, even the windscreen washer-liquid level. All was fine.
So there it was. Up and ready at six in the morning to go. Contrary to what readers might have assumed, we werent really going as far as Goa, Chennai or something. Tirunelveli, to do shopping for uncle's wedding. Yes, I was gonna be stuck within the reach of vast legions of bales of fine cloth - RMKV, Pothys and the like.
The operative word being - But still.
Now when it comes to getting ready within a specific time, nothing beats my family. In terms of the hilarity that ensues, I mean. Amma would be the planner, setting limits for 'getting out on the road' as ambitious as five thirty. But everyone, including the lady herself, knows it is similar to the opening quote for an auction, and consequently everyone agrees to try to kick off at six twenty (the amazing precision in setting ten-minute-intervals as least count being merely a by-product of compromises and averaging that happens with multiple opinions). As always, I'm the one who wakes up last thanks to the exhaustion of having gone through the ordeal of having had to snooze my alarm five times. As it always turns out, I'm the first one who is out in the drivers seat and honking to elicit angry shouts from everyone else too. A bit of a childish obsession you may put that down to. Also to partial joblessness as all I have to do is take a quick shower, put on some stuff that resembles tees and jeans, and stuff my phone and camera into my pocket.
So once the water bottles, breakfast (piping hot dosas or idlis neatly folded and submitted to the embrace of plantain leaves lovingly wrapped under old newspapers under the strict grip of a few green and yellow rubber bands), and sundry items which family members carry about whenever they go out somewhere (never bothered to ask), not to forget the sibling, were nicely crammed inside the vaahanam, we set off, with all the dignity that happens with a modern family of homo sapiens living in the 21st century.
(Pic shot on the Madurai-Tenkasi section many years back)
Not so soon. The sibling shrieked that she had left something behind (some trifle that little girls usually forget.. some blue comb or better bit off a broken belt or something). We made a stop akin to how a prestigious express train stops much to its chagrin when someone pulls the chain moments after it has started pulling out of the stating station. A quick run back to the house, and a quicker run back again. Honk, chug out slowly.
Just like the express train, we cleared the points slowly (wallowed in traffic until we got to a wider portion of the road) and then prepared to notch up. Uncle was driving while I was fidgeting, clearly not concurring with his view that i should wait till we reached a better part of the route before taking the wheel.
The route from Trivandrum to Tirunelveli is dismal and irritating until one clears Nagercoil. The road till Nagercoil was apparently built for a maximum of a truck and a car to pass side by side without tempers flaring up on either side. And the road builder seems to have assiduously stuck to that motto throughout the stretch of gravel. To make things worse, the scenery one gets to dedicate the corner of ones eyes to, comprises mainly single-storeyed shops with hackneyed names or houses which you could've sworn you'd just passed a few minutes ago. After half an hour of meandering between trucks, cars and smoky two strokes, uncle had enough and we had a crew change.
It was like playing Roadrash all over agan. Peninsula.
It tires you out. The 40 odd horses under the hood (however meagre compared to SUVs and the like) struggle to be let free while all you can do is keep letting them go and suddenly pulling on the reins to avoid killing someone on a blind curve. On one hand it feels awesome and God-like to be at the controls of and be one with something weighing so much more than all the people inside it, making it dance and charge at your very whim and fancy; but on the other hand it pains you that it is being so under-utilised.
And then there is the phenomenon of mom-in-the-back seat.
Moms are, to the highest possible degree, discouraged from sitting nothing other than blindfolded in the back seat. For if given anything more than a crack to peer out of, they will have eyes on everything from the road ahead, all four corners of the car, the speedometer, to what gesture your left hand is making while you're overtaking a particularly annoying biker. It is not the omnipresence of their vision that bothers, though. Mom has this particularly blood-curdling way of calling your attention to probably significant things when they are nothing more than a speck in the horizon (in any direction). And this results in involuntarily swerving to avoid what was actually a few hundred metres away and travelling at a safely slow pace. You get the gist, I presume. You would, for I'm told moms are universally like that.
Speeds hardly stayed above 70 for more than half a minute each time.
The section was, like you must've figured by now, largely uneventful. Until we cleared that busy town called Nagercoil. From there I was in for a very satisfying ride. The road suddenly became much more than benign. It became the truly luxuriant gun-the-throttle-feeling-inducing carpet of asphalty awesomeness in six lanes. (Or was it eight? I dont remember exactly). It was at this juncture my rightful stomp on the accelerator pedal ordered the ECU to feed the horses their rightful amount of petrol-and-air (much like whiskey and soda to the parched), which got them singing. For at this moment they purred like satisfied tabbies, and the engine sound changed from the quiet whines the tiny little 800 (the MPFI version) is famous for, to a much more masculine growl befitting any well bred IC engine. "Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen, we're in for a ride!", I said, mostly to myself. And how. There comes the first time a legal driver in the country stops hedging around bumpers of cars in city traffic and sips the true taste of taking the car out on the fertile highway at a speed only limited by his guts or that of the engine. I steadily took the old horse to eighty, and followed by a brief nod from dad (and words of caution from good old mommy dear) the orange needle snogged 100. Followed by rather train-like braking to enter a toll booth and some mandatory monetary offering made to encourage infrastructure growth of this type.
Which reminds me, my driving instructor's first question (while manoeuvring an old diesel Ambassador through a particularly bad road) to me was "Hey have you driven a car before?". I assume it was in a positive sense.
In a serious vein, the whole NH from Chennai to Tirunelveli and beyond is pretty awesome. Yessir, treat to drive. And for train freaks, the best place to pretend you're driving one. Oh yeah, I'll make it bold, my confession. I sometimes pretend to be piloting a train when I'm on highways. The method varies with which loco I've decided to take out for the day though :P If you're lucky it might be the WAP5/7 - which guarantees near-normal driving you'd expect with a car. If for some reason I imagine a lower class one, or worse, a freighter with a particularly tiring load, prepare to endure it. But the long honking and graceful brakes stay.
Oh yes, I'm pretty insane at times.
The pit-stop to have breakfast is a story in itself. When the hunger call happens, and majority of the passengers approve of it, we start hunting for a pit to pull over at. After we find a courteous shelter under some tree, out come the hampers. A smell of fermented curd fills the car on my request for the anesthetic (un-aesthetic to some) liquid goodness. A bit of bickering for this and that, mostly by sis. After a set of happy tummies are filled, the earth around is made damp by many sets of hands being washed (and the crew answering nature's call in a well hidden part of the road.. HEY we're the crew, we do anything we want! Anyone with a problem may please alight and walk back home, thank you!). The car purrs happily in response to a satisfied crew member at its reins. Even the traffic becomes more benign. The sound of human voices in the vehicle slowly dies down, most of the passengers having resigned themselves to a happy stupor, while the crew members lower themselves to conversing in hushed voices, discussing cricket or music or philosophy. The wind and the monotonous rant of the engine keep us company. The travel continues in a subdued manner :)
Into the horizon, destroying the miles. Till the journey ends, or till a road-side molaku-bajji vendor's ware is so attractive that one whiff awakens everyone and we simply have to make a pit-stop.
Dedicated to the faithful automobile, the hardworking road-layers who work at night to fabricate stretches of national highways to enable people like us to travel in comfort, and to anything you wish to attribute this to. Cheerio!