A yellow Nano and its Able driver

The first time I sat in one and turned on the little two-cylinder motor, it juddered and rumbled . It was uncanny how much I loved it at that moment. And I have sat in many a car and felt little, if nothing. So I understand why author Vanessa Able has humanised her sunshine yellow Tata Nano by christening ‘her’ Abhilasha, ‘a dear wish or desire’ in Hindi and Sanskrit.

After we bought our lime green Tata Nano, I was hungry for reading materials on this back-to-basics engineering wonder. I was curious about other people’s experiences of driving the little tyke, I wanted to know more about its engine and engineering. Did anyone else besides me develop a weary right-foot issue? As the high seating position makes it awkward for smaller feet to reach for the gas pedal; a problem I solved by putting in a thick rubber door mat to increase floor height.

Basically I wanted to tap into the prime directive on the Nano. Luckily, for me at least, the Nano story, unlike other cars that run amok in this country, is very well documented. ‘Megafactories’ on National Geographic is one easy-to-access example and a good documentary on the Nano and its making.

And so recently, I found Able’s unputdownable book The Nanologues. She’s very funny, refreshingly genuine, and the writing wrought. Able has condensed all her driving strains into various humorous acronyms and termed them the result of driving many “high-octane hours” leading to “physio-neurological hazards”. In her case, the right-foot issue is more the “Accelerator Foot Strain or AFS”.

After following her  _ 10,000 km plus the odd give or take 300 km long _ adventure around India, you want to take your own little Nano out on a long drive. Somewhere on some dusty page in Google, I read that she doesn’t like being described as brave. But I will call her that, because I am a coward.

Over the years, I have found myself shedding my courage more and more, feeling inadequate in the mean cities of India and even meaner, conservative hinterlands. So I admire someone, who, unjaded by the Indian reality, willingly seeks out lonely highways and treacherous guardrail-free hill roads presumably teeming with highwaymen, that would have unnerved a large number of women here. Perhaps adrenalin helps, or just coming in from the outside, fresh and unburdened by Indianness and going back to the humdrum sanity of the Island of Jersey, which has something called a ‘Filter-In-Turn’ traffic management system at some intersections. From what I have read, it is left up to civilised islanders…their steering hands gripped, little fingers doffed up…to patiently allow each other to pass. Imagine that..

FOT559CHere, hardly anyone obeys traffic lights, unless there is a cop standing around. And at junctions without lights, it’s survival of the most obnoxious. Drivers joust with each other and drive into the tiniest gaps available to them, moving ahead like pieces on a chess board till the intersection is noisily cleared after much angry honking and several dent-inducing close calls with two-wheelers and reckless jaywalkers squeezing past. Able does mention at the end of The Nanologues that she goes back to Jersey and frightens a pregnant driver pulling out of a shopping-mart car park with her aggressive new driving style acquired in ye olde India.

It was in one of her web diaries, I found a description of how she tried to apply for foreigner’s registration in India. After wading through queues, and mulish bureaucracies in several cities on her route, she, I think, finally managed to pluckily procure the said document in Kochi, Kerala. Kudos to her, for not being put off.

In The Nanologues, you will also come across quaint Britishisms like the ‘Central Reservations’ on dual carriageways. These are the grassy caged-off knolls, separating up and down roads, that we in India vaguely refer to as ‘medians’. Sometimes these are entire grasslands or just park strips or shallow concrete barriers depending on the mindfulness of the highway authorities concerned. It is nice to know that the median, the only thing that stands between us and speeding Audis/breakneck SUVs intent on taking all of us to our maker along with them, has an official title. When I came to that passage about people praying on the Central Reservation in The Nanologues, I think at that bit, Able was driving from Kolkata to Bodh Gaya, my brain sent me images of businessmen having conferences and reserving dinner tables in the middle of the road. I had to quickly put the book down and sheepishly do a Google search.

After the book, I was inspired to be a little less lily-livered and venture out in the Nano more, as it deserves, much to the annoyance of other motorists on Indian roads, who largely as a rule detest the Nano. I know this because most drivers will try to overtake one every time they sight a Nano. And if they can’t, and you have the temerity to block them, they blare their deafening horns at you to get out of the way of their bigger brattier cars. This, Able has covered in a section in the book about a kind of car hierarchy or ‘aukaat’ operating on Indian roads, where the Nano comes in at the bottom just above autorickshaws, bikes, ruminants and canines.

Is it a middle-class aspirational thing as is suggested in the book? Or is it just a social meme that people imbibe then mindlessly repeat and pass on like a virus? A lot of folk like to be seen and heard looking down on the Nano, loudly declaring that they would prefer instead to get the cheapest Maruti Suzuki on offer. My father, a representative of this city-dwelling in-betweener and a Suzuki owner, said many disparaging things about the Nano, of course, before he knew I was getting one.

I watched the Nano commercials on television, and realised that the ‘Mad Men’ minding Tata Motors were trying to combat this prejudice by not just culting out the Nano in a halo of history, but also catering to the youthful car consumer. Indians finally have their very own Volkswagen Beetle/Mini, so why not cash in. Even the peppier colours of the Nano, the sunshine yellows, candy oranges and lime greens echo the age of flower power, far from the Nano’s recent origins in the new millennium, whence Ratan Tata dreamt of  giving the teetering bike-riding masses the ballast of four wheels.

By targeting the young in their ads, the hope might be that the middlers who gravitate to the beiges, silvers and whites of the vehicular Daleks popular on Indian roads may soon catch on. And keeping with the Dr Who theme, Tardis-like, the Nano does present more space and leg-room on the inside. Pondering its extraterrestrial egg-shaped exterior, you wonder how all the frugal engineering made that space possible.

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