It has been a while since I visited a new country but here I am in India for the first time. Most English people think we have an idea of this place. It is writ large in our history, cinema, television and literature. We've all read "The Jewel in the Crown", right (or at least watched the TV adaptation)? We all have Indian colleagues at work or Indian friends or neighbours. We all eat "Indian food" (though mostly adapted to our tastes, apparently).
This is not a trip for Speranza. I dropped her off for her annual service before heading to the airport yesterday. I will collect her when I return to England in ten days time, fettled and fitted with an Apple CarPlay system to bring her up to date. I wanted to work in a road trip though, so arranged to transfer from Delhi airport to Dehradun by car. This was a six hour trip that allowed me to see Indian life at ground level in cities, villages and countryside. I was strongly advised not to drive here and, after my experiences today, I understand why. I am a libertarian, but Indian drivers tend more to outright anarchism. They drive on the left, mostly. If a junction is coming up on the right, they sometimes decide to get into position a mile or two early, however. If a motorcyclist in a town sets off from the right side of the road, he may just stay there. When emerging from a junction, the Indian driver's trust in fate is impressive.
To be honest, I rather liked it. The further we traveled and the more I observed the local techniques, the more I wanted to have a go myself. It would have to be in a hire car though and preferably a four-wheel drive SUV – ideally of military specification. I would also like it to have a very loud horn, because that's a more important component here than the steering wheel. From my observations today, it seems that the person with the loudest horn has right of way. The driver we encountered with a Dukes of Hazzard "General Lee" type horn seemed to take even higher priority so, ideally, my hire car would have one of those.
The motorised road users were fun enough but when we left Delhi things got even more interesting. I am used to seeing cattle as I drive through the English countryside, but only out of side windows. Here you can see them from the others too. The composure of Indian drivers, who never seem to look angry or surprised no matter how fast or erratically you drive at them is only exceeded by the bovine pedestrians and their relatives pulling the bullock carts. My driver cut in on one so sharply that I thought we must spook him but Indian bullocks are made of stern stuff. I watched him in the mirror as we pulled away and he was completely unperturbed. We also encountered a goat herd and his flock. He was one of the few Indians not clutching a smartphone, though he may have had one about his person somewhere. Nothing about his dress or his demeanour contradicted the idea that he had time-travelled in from the Biblical era. In the next village another chap – in thoroughly modern dress and clutching a cellphone – was lounging in front of his home petting a goat which seemed to enjoy being stroked as much as any pet dog or cat. It was an oddly touching scene.
My favourite road users however were the serene and elegant Indian ladies riding pillion on motorcycles – sidesaddle. As the guy in charge of the machine (safety-helmeted as none of them were) dodged in and out of traffic, they sat upright and calm, one hand resting gently on the pillion. The voluminous fabric of their outfits swirled in the wind with such graceful abandon that the fate of Isadora Duncan seemed certain to be theirs. Yet they remained as poised and stable as the Spirit of Ecstasy on the front of a Rolls-Royce – even those with a child or three in hand.
The other thing that struck me on the journey was the high value Indians place on education. There were more advertisements for educational programmes than for consumer products and seats of learning (some more impressive than others) were dotted along the route. I am told that many of the students are being exploited by scoundrels whose diplomas are not worth the paper they're printed on, but I couldn't help liking Indians for their enthusiasm for learning, however naive.
As we passed over the hills on the final approach to Dehradun, the road become rougher and yet more dangerous. A new tunnel is being built and our route seemed to be across the construction site. This did not deter my valiant driver. He tackled the unfriendly surfaces with such vigour that he managed to get all four wheels of his clunker of a Chevrolet "mommy van" off the ground at one point. If he has been driving it this way from new, it is a credit to its makers that it only looks as scruffy as it does. It had over 160,000 kilometres "on the clock" and he seemed determined to destroy it before it reaches 170,000.
We had already encountered a couple of monkeys in the villages down below but on the hill roads, they were legion. I am no naturalist, but watching their mutual familial care at the roadside was fascinating.
I didn't see much of Dehradun before we reached my hotel. The picture below is the view from my room's window. I shall take a tour with camera in hand tomorrow. For now, I have just enjoyed the view from the rooftop bar of the foothills of the Himalayas and my first taste (in the hotel restaurant) of Indian food without the "sneer quotes". It tasted good, but less creamy or buttery than the version for English palates. On my current diet, that suits me just fine.