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February 13, 2018

February 13, 2018

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On The Road to Cochin

There are plenty of dogs, but none sitting on the proverbial tucker box. They roam at will, large and

small, black and brindle and no owner pursues them here with a black plastic bag – this is India.

The driver of our sedate Ambassador – the vehicle of choice throughout all of India- introduces himself

as “Babu” and tells us that he is going to make our journey from Kochi (formerly Cochin) to Allapey,

“Much interesting of the sights sir”. With our luggage safely stowed in the boot, supervised by Babu, we

start off in a series of shuddering jumps.

 

Once Babu has oriented himself in the driver’s seat, pulled some cushions into place behind his small,

stooped back and changed down a couple of gears, we settle down for the trip to Allapey. Babu’s slight

hash-brown face, framed with white hair and matching moustache give him a sedate appearance

behind the wheel. This however belies his approach to the task of driving.

 

After lurching heavily over the pot holed roads leading out of Fort Kochi, passing the three wheeled

Piaggios, each named after a saint or other religious figure, we leave behind the crumbling European

style houses. Some of them are in such a state of disrepair that it is difficult to see how they can still

remain standing. This small detail however appears not to play heavily on the minds of the mothers with

their small children, standing at hingeless doors, scrubbing clothes on stone steps or staring vacantly

down the road after us. The colours of their saris, green, gold, light and dark blue, mauve and orange

stand in contrast to the rundown buildings through which cows, with large humped backs wander

unchecked.

 

The rain is gathering pace as we sway heavily from pothole to pothole, the muddy streets now filled

with a gush of ochre-red water. With alarm I note that Babu, who by now is so firmly hunched over

the steering wheel that it looks as though it is growing from his body, subscribes to the traditional

Indian school of driving – hand glued to the horn and right foot heavily planted on the accelerator.

Trying to gaze out of the side window, the skies suddenly open and cascades of rain descend on

our luckless vehicle, threatening to pound it into the mud. The windscreen wipers, if one can deign

to call the flimsy eight centimetres or so of rubber, by such a name, are clearly not up to the

job, as they weave erratically from side to side. They are if anything a mere gesture on behalf of the

vehicle, but Babu seems unperturbed by their ineffectual operation. With one hand clutching the

steering wheel and at the same time pounding the horn, Babu deftly wraps a cloth round his other

hand, wiping away the condensation that is threatening to blot out all visual contact with

the outside world.

 

“Slow down Babu, stop the car please,” I implore as our speed if anything increases. By this time the

car is beginning to resemble a Turkish bath, with all of its windows fully steamed up. Thunder rolls

above us and shard-like slivers of lightening hold the car in their white-hot prongs.

Babu pretends not to have heard me. Intently he peers through a small crescent shaped piece of

windscreen, the only “working” part of the wipers’ path that gives a myopic view of the road. The rain if

is getting heavier, though minutes before I could never have believed that such a weight of water could

be suspended in the sky. Babu appears to be bound on a mission of death – death to every cyclist,

truck, ox cart or pedestrian that happens to be on the road at the same time as us.

 

“Babu, I command you to pull over,” I say in my most imperious tone, suddenly realizing that the side of

the road appears to have metamorphosed into a large swirling lake or small ruddy-coloured inland sea.

“Babu, we have baby on board with us,” I wheedled, changing my tone to a desperate plea and trying to

appeal to his sense of family.

 

“I am having three chidrens all of them are very hard study, two girls and one boy, but my wife she is

stagnant now.” Babu turns to look at me and at that precise moment the car swerves violently, throwing

me against the door. Horn now in full operation, its dual tone competing with the rolling thunder, we are

swerving backwards and forwards across the road in a most alarming manner, but with no slackening of

speed.

 

I try again, ”Babu, Babu, we have baby please slow down ..”

 

“The brown and white one, he is very unfriendly and must not be ahead,” said Babu.

 

Looking out of the misted side window, I see the cause of Babu’s sudden angst. He is attempting to

pass a brown and white bus, which is pushing a bow wave before it like a loaded super tanker at sea.

Babu seizes the initiative and with his face almost on the windscreen, he urges the old Ambassador

triumphantly onward, drawing ahead of the bus on the wrong side of the road. I can see what appears

to be the outline of a truck coming in the opposite direction. Cutting in sharply and earning him a

strident double blast from the bus’ horn, Babu seeks to keep to the centre of the road.

 

As he chuckles to himself, without any warning a long “ BLLLLAAAAH” sounds and to my astonishment

a large, white four wheel drive vehicle of unknown description hurtles past us on the far side of the

road. Muddy water like curling ocean spray, is flung high into the air over our car and crashes on top of

some stalls, already half under water at the side of the road.

 

Meanwhile the truck, which is top heavy with a load of what looks like hay, swerves violently to avoid

both of us - we are by this time straddling the middle of the road again, in fierce competition with the

now fast disappearing white four wheel drive vehicle. I close my eyes, brace my feet against the floor

and wait for the inevitable crash. What happens I am unable to say, but as I reopen my eyes, I see the

brown and white bus passing on our left hand side, the words “Fast Passenger Transit” painted along

its brown flank.

 

The road appears to have been completely washed out and the stalls along each side, now marooned

in red, muddy lakes, are being hastily covered by blue, plastic sheets, suspended from impossibly

spindly frameworks of wire and branches, their owners swarming over them like soldier ants.

 

We cross a bridge over the Aroor River, its waters mingling with the muddy tide of the road and on

either bank, the crane-like sculptures of Chinese fishing nets protrude eerily above the grey landscape.

“Now, leaving Kochi very good sir,” said Babu, having turned off the windscreen wipers and returned his

cloth to the glove pocket.

 

It appears to me that however briefly it may last, there is a break in the weather.

“Babu, rain is clearing now please slow right down” I take hold of Babu’s arm, motioning with my hand

in a downward direction.

 

“No sir, plenty monsoon he is coming now, never stopping always coming and very, very fast sir,” Babu

replies, still hunched over the wheel swinging the vehicle from side to side, avoiding all manner of

humanity on the road that day.

 

His reply is slightly puzzling to me, as when we were leaving Kochi and the rain was just starting, I had

asked him about the monsoon. “Monsoon he has gone sir, never and not returning to us until sometime

sir forgetting his vegetables…

 

” Quite what the reference to the “vegetables” was, I had been given no clue, but Babu had seemed

fairly clear then that the monsoon did not pose a threat to us. Now under arches of dripping Naim trees,

their branches almost sweeping the roof of the car, we weave our way unsteadily down the centre of

the road, passing colourful stalls selling melons, apples on long strings like Christmas lights of red and

green, oranges and hands of dwarf bananas, propped against wooden frameworks. Stacks of fresh

coconuts, their husks removed, shining like orange fishing floats, bob up and down in a sea of green

vegetables, washed into untidy heaps at the side of the road, by the force of the downpour.

 

“4 x Fruit and Vegetables” says the crooked sign on one of the more inspiring stalls along the road.

“I wonder what ‘5 X Fruit and Vegetables’ is like?” I say to Babu. He looks at me puzzled, then gripping

the wheel more determinably than ever, he hurtles the car onwards, narrowly missing a cart, which is

leaning at an acute angle, one of its wheels stuck deep in a pothole, the luckless buffalo pulling it,

bellowing and rolling its eyes in terror.

 

Yes, this is India.

The End

 

 

 

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