Driving Through India

©2012 by Kalpana Mohan

It’s one thing to grow up in India’s middle class and travel as a local. But traveling as a well-to-do non-resident Indian who is taking in everything around her as part of her work requires wearing trifocals. I was peering into things that I had taken for granted when I lived in India as a young woman; I wanted to talk to people I would not have deigned to talk to in the past. I was interested in doing things that I’d never have dared to do before. On this trip, drivers became my best friends.

In Mumbai, Avdesh, a driver who spoke mostly Hindi and Marathi, received me at Sahar airport. He drove me from Chembur to Juhu and Ghatkopar and then to Powai (all in one day, no mean feat in Mumbai traffic during monsoon season). En route, Avdesh pointed out Juhu beach, the best coffee shops, the two homes of Bollywood mega star Amitabh Bachchan, five-star hotels and mammoth malls. He tried pidgin English. I spoke bad Hindi scaffolded by English. We traded snippets – about his young wife, his last job, dreadful Mumbai traffic and people in America.

From Mumbai to the town of Ahmednagar three hours away I drove with a burly, mustached gentleman called PJ. My friend Usha and I were there to meet women in Ahmednagar’s red light district. PJ kept a discreet distance, never asking what we were doing there. A good driver in India is one who never talks. The best of the species is one who talks in monosyllables. Usha told me PJ’s daughter attended an excellent English-medium school in Mumbai. Education was the only way out of poverty and everywhere across the length and breadth of India, families were dredging their bank accounts to educate their children “in English medium”.

In the state of Gujarat, I broke bread, laddoo (chickpea flour balls) and ribbon pakoda (spicy rice flour snack) with yet another young driver, Mansingh, a reed-like man clad in tight-fitting polyester shirts and pants, who spoke no English.

At the Champaner-Pavagadh in Gujarat
At the Champaner-Pavagadh in Gujarat

With Mansingh at the wheel, I pulled up at palaces and museums in Baroda and Ahmedabad even though, many times, I didn’t know if we would reach our destination at all. His driving was dreadful, but it was his only marketable skill. And in any case, his disarming nature made up for the wild ride. While I sank into a plush bed at Ahmedabad’s St. Laurn Towers, Mansingh slept in his little purple Tata Indica, all six feet of him folded into a fetal position inside the backseat. If he so much as lowered the window by a half an inch and let the cool night air waft in, a swarm of mosquitoes would flurry in and dine on him.

Gujarat photos by Rahul Gajjar
Gujarat photos by Rahul Gajjar

Wherever I went, I let drivers also decide where I should eat and so I ended up dining at several questionable truck stops. At a dhaba (highway trucker’s stop) on the Shanthipur-Kolkata road in West Bengal, the roti (thin round bread) was unpuffed, the dhal (spicy lentil soup) was flavorless, the okra, formless. Everything reeked of roasted fish. The vegetarian in me curled away from the plate. While others at this dhaba ate out of stained, stainless steel plates, I was served on dented upscale china. The only waiter who looked like a goonda – one of those hired thugs from Bollywood movies – sported a white sleeveless vest so dirty that I knew that the only way to keep my food in my stomach was to not visit the kitchen. With one sip of the bottled water, I knew it was bottled behind the dhaba’s kitchen, but no sooner had the waiter served me his steaming masala chai than everything turned right with the world. There’s a reason why people come back to India despite the frustrations. It’s always that chai.

On that same drive to Kolkata I remember telling Driver – often drivers get assigned this convenient first name by passengers – to stop in the middle of the one-lane highway. In the glut of green, a farmer squatted on his haunches, supervising women who were working the field for him.

Endless fields of jute en route from Kolkata to Fulia in West Bengal
Endless fields of jute en route from Kolkata to Fulia in West Bengal (C. Mohan, photo)

The man sat there under an umbrella, smoking, while arrows of water poked the ground around him. Rain pelting my face, I ran out of the car towards the paddy fields. Ten feet away, seven or eight sari-clad women were bent over, sopping wet , picking and pulling and transplanting seedlings. “How much do you pay them?” I asked. “Hundred rupees ($2) per day,” he shot back in Bengali, chewing the cigarette between his lips, challenging me with a look in his face that said that it really was none of my business.

While reflecting on my road trips through India, I came across Ted Conover’s work, The Routes of Man. Conover laments that while roads lead to opportunities for faraway people they also, invariably, lead to the loss of cultures and traditions. “The same roads that carry medicine also hasten the spread of deadly disease; the same roads that bring outside connection and knowledge to people starving for them sometimes spell the end of indigenous cultures; the same roads that help develop the human economy open the way for destruction of the non-human environment.”

On this road trip I experienced the attrition of local culture in many places in South India, where highways and fast toll roads have rapidly connected towns and villages in the last five years. I wish they had only changed the landscape. Unfortunately, they’re changing attitudes and livelihoods in ancient silk manufacturing centers like Kanchipuram, where they’re wresting old values away from families that have been experts in traditional crafts for over a thousand years.

I traveled through India with the intent of breaking free from my mental fetters about caste and class. I spent many days in the company of unknown people – many of them from the lower social and economic strata – whom I considered the anonymous cogs in the machinery called India. It didn’t matter how much money or power each of us had. We were all exactly like one another – trying to find our place in the world, trying to make sense of the new and the old orders while chasing a piece of the action that eluded us for reasons we would probably understand only later.

Photo by L. Ganapathy-Ravikiran
Photo by L. Ganapathy-Ravikiran

Kalpana Mohan’s essays and articles have appeared in national, regional and local publications, including NPR, Business Week Online and San Francisco Chronicle. In 2009, she received the New America Media award in the “Arts, Sports and Entertainment” category for a story that she wrote for India Currents Magazine. In January 2011, she won a book pitch event called Pitchapalooza hosted at Kepler’s Books in Mountain View. The prize gave her the courage to dream about a collection of narratives about India. She blogs about her work on India and Indians in the diaspora at http://www.saritorial.com. Kalpana also writes short stories about Indian-Americans whose lives are derailed by way of Google, social networking, SAT scores, masalas and mantras. She lives in Saratoga. To know more about her work, visit http://www.kalpanamohan.org.