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September 02

Four Wheels Good Two Wheels Crazy
Out of Chennai and Into Madness on the Back of an Enfield

Colin Todhunter

Steven 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.

Steven 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 millimetres.

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

- The Madras Diaries
Traveller Tales on the Road in India
a new book by Colin Todhunter
available now
£4.99 or $11.99 CND
To Order Go to Paypal
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Read Colin's Collection of India Stories now available, with new unpublished additions in Hacktreks first work in print.

ISBN 0-9731861-0-0 Chasing Rainbows in Chennai - The Madras Diaries

Colin Todhunter in India
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From Copenhagen to Byron Bay:
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"In India first you get married and then you work these things out", he said with amazing casualness.

Poison Kiss
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Colin Todhunter finds himself the unexpected 'star' of an Indian movie.

The unique experience of going to the gym in India
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Me, God and Jerry Seinfeld: spaced out in India
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I got the impression that he thought he was a living God. He was lost in space.

Chennai Tax Office and the Trail of the Banana Pancake
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'as people get to where they think they want to be, many realise that they didn’t want to be there in the first place or at least want to be somewhere else - somewhere better'.

Back to the Future on Triplicane High Road
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I found women with love in their eyes, and women with flowers in their hair, but not both together.

More Journeys in Hacktreks

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