Four Wheels Good Two Wheels Crazy
Out of Chennai and Into Madness on the Back of an Enfield
had two passions in life - motorbikes and rum. Fortunately, he did
not really mix the two. He always carried a metal hip flask, which
was topped up with Old Monk Indian rum from the bottle shop on Triplicane
High Road. But I never once saw him drunk. He had just bought a
brand new 500cc Enfield motorbike from a dealership in Chennai,
and planned to travel through India on it, ending his trip in Delhi
five months later. I could never work out whether foreigners who
travel India by motorbike were either brave or mad. These days I
am convinced it is the latter.
was a burly Englishman from Yorkshire. He seemed to know everything
about bikes. Next to my know-how about them, even a little knowledge
would almost qualify as "everything". So, to me, he seemed
like an expert. I was also impressed by his commitment to safety. He
had brought with him from England his crash helmet, and leather jacket,
trousers and boots. He insisted on wearing then regardless of the sweltering
Chennai heat. From the way he talked, I assumed that he must have had
many years experience of motorbiking in England under his belt. After
he acquired the bike from the dealership, he eased into things by taking
short trips through the streets of the city.
Despite my ignorance of bikes, I used to own one. It was a "CZ"
make. It also looked impressive. It was made in Czechoslovakia long
before the fall of the Soviet empire and the birth of the Czech Republic
and Slovakia. It may have looked good, but it was a heap of junk. It
broke down too often, and had all the power of a feather. The Enfield
was no different, at least according to Steven. He said that to compare
the Enfield with a Japanese bike, is like comparing an autorickshaw
with a Porche. That may have been a slight exaggeration, but remembering
my old CZ, I think I knew what he meant. What Enfields may lack in quality,
however, they make up for with status. And "doing" India by
Enfield is a major achievement for some foreigners. Don't ask me why.
I know all about Indian roads and Indian traffic. Two years ago I once
hired a moped and nearly died as I came flying off with Yvonne, my passenger,
breaking her fall by landing on top of me. The fault lay with the jeep
which had cut across my path. But that did not the police coming along
and demanding cash from me. Apart from that misfortune the rest of my
road experience has been gained from taking scores of hair-raising (and
hare-brained) trips throughout India by bus. The biggest vehicle rules
the roost on an Indian road, and it becomes an effort not to be driven
off the tarmac and into a ditch (or into another vehicle). The whole
thing is insane. So when Steven invited me to go to Pondycherry on the
back of the Enfield, I had a quick rush of blood to the head and accepted.
The reason behind my stupidity was that Pondy is only a four hour or
so ride down the coast, so surely nothing could go wrong.
I was also impressed by Steven's apparent motorbiking credentials.
I will never learn.
By the time the bike was loaded with his gear, it was almost the width
of a car. I thought that if he was going to make the thing into some
slow moving, sluggish bulk - and given that it was an Enfield, it was
already well on its way to being a slow moving sluggish bulk anyhow
- then why did he not just buy a car, or take a bus? We started out
at seven in the morning to "avoid the worst of the Madras traffic"
according to Steven. He appeared in full battle gear - helmet, leather
jacket, trousers and knee-high boots. I appeared in T -shirt, cotton
trousers and hiking boots. No prizes for guessing who would be the first
end up in intensive care if we came off.
Within ten seconds of hopping on the back, I knew it had been a wrong
move. The Chennai traffic was already approaching mayhem proportions
by that time, and Steven cut right across it with seemingly little thought
as we pulled out of the side-street and onto Triplicane High Road. It
was not so much a case of mad traffic, but insane driving - by Steven.
You can usually tell if the driver of the vehicle you happen to be in
(or on) lacks confidence, and it was clear that Steven did. And it became
even clearer as we turned left into Pycrofts Road. I used to have fond
memories of that road with its silk and saree shops. I had spent many
an hour there having things made and walking along gazing at the neon
shop signs at dusk. With a piece of unfettered driving madness, Steven
managed to wreck it all in one fell swoop. A slow moving metal hulk
of a bus blocked our path. Instead of sitting-in and waiting for it
to accelerate, he pulls out with his slow moving metal hulk of a bike
heading straight into the path of an on-coming autorick. He then pulls
even further out to the wrong side of the road to avoid it. At that
stage, we are where the pavement should be (if one had existed) on the
opposite side of the road, weaving between a telegraph post and an unsuspecting
pedestrian. We had not been gone for more than two minutes and my heart
had been in my mouth twice. And that is where it remained.
We crawled along South Beach Road and into Mylapore. Steven's confidence
was not improving. In fact, I could feel it worsening with each close
encounter. Still in Chennai, some fifteen minutes later, Steven decides
that it is time for another near death experience. Yet again, there
is a bus, but this time he decides to overtake on the inside. There
was no road. This did not matter to Steven. Once again, but this time
through free choice, he went onto what passes for a pavement in India.
We are racing between posts which hold up a veranda and emerge into
a crossroad junction just ahead of the bus, and carry on regardless
of any consideration for right of way issues. Unbelievable. But we make
it in one piece. Later he told me that he felt the air current from
the bus against his leg as we managed to miss it my what must have been
Apparently, the staff in the dealership had told Steven if he was involved
in an accident then he should not stop - or at least get back on (if
able) and drive off. The reasoning behind this was that no matter whose
fault it may have been, as a foriegner, demands for a large wad of money
would be made by the gathering crowd - and have no doubt, a gathering
crowd there would be. I knew this from my accident two years back. It
was good advice, for as soon as we get into the countryside we hit a
pedestrian. It is not our fault - honest! He is an old guy who waltzes
out across the road, totally oblivious to the fact he is actually on
a road. He keeps waking to the right. Steven begins steering to the
right. He carries on to the right and so do we. It gets to the point
where Steven thinks the guy must surely wake up and turn back and go
to the left, so we cannot really afford to take the risk of veering
left. The inevitable happens. Steven protruding luggage clips him. We
shake but manage to stay upright. He falls and lands on the floor. Steven
sees him in the mirror, on his backside, shaking his sandal in our direction.
Well that was enough for me. Pondycherry cannot come quick enough. Pondy
is unusual for an Indian city. It is planned and has a central grid
system. Unfortunately, this makes for a convoluted and confusing array
of one-way systems. So we have to make numerous right-angled turns on
this tank of a bike. In order to complete such sharp turns, the bike
almost comes to a stop. Just when I am convinced we are about to fall
completely over, the bike picks up speed, completes the turn and returns
to an upright position. The turns go on forever - until we manage to
find our designated hotel.
What a performance. In the hotel, Steven tells me he has only been driving
for two years. Bang goes the veteran status I accorded him. He also
tells me that back in the UK he rides thirty kilometres to and from
work each day and has at least three near misses per day. And that is
on the relative safety of British roads. So much for his apparent commitment
to safety issues. Two days later he asks if I want to continue with
him on his next leg to Mysore - a much more serious undertaking than
the Chennai to Pondy route. Steven justifies his reckless driving (which
he of course did not regard as reckless) by saying that Indian drivers
will drive you off the road if you do not stand your ground. His philosophy
seemed to be to try to drive them off the road first. Not a good idea
on a motorbike. I take the bus back to Chennai. Reckless driving is
better experienced from the comfort of a passenger seat in a bus rather
than from the back seat of a bike.
© Colin Todhunter October 2002
IN CHENNAI - The Madras Diaries
Traveller Tales on the Road in India
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