Out of Chennai and Into Madness on the Back of an Enfield
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 them 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. I asked an old Indian guy who was admiring Steven’s bike what he thought about the Enfield. He replied, “They are excellent sir, but they are not very good.”
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 from 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.
Every time that I take an overnight bus journey, the roads are clogged with slow moving trucks. The bus driver has a strict schedule to follow. Slow moving trucks and break-neck speed buses do not mix. Whenever I get brave enough to look toward the front of a bus I am in, it is driving at speed and is less than a metre behind the truck in front. It is always the same, so I tend not to look. Then the bus makes a sudden jerk to the right with the aim of overtaking. It makes another quick jerk – this time to the left to pull back in as there is on-coming traffic. After a few on-coming vehicles pass, the driver pulls out once more and goes for it. There is more on-coming traffic. We are on the wrong side of the road. The bus driver has the horn blurting non-stop. The truck we are attempting to overtake, slows so we may do so. We pull back in and miss the traffic coming our way by a whisker.
And that is the scenario all through the night. No sleep is guaranteed – not for foreigners – Indians sleep like logs through it all, being well used to it from early childhood. The worse thing is that everyone is at it. Horns blurting, sharp weaves in and out, and this is happening on either side of the road.
The last bus ride took 14 hours to go 270 miles thanks to the trucks, poor driving and long pit stops to have the bus blessed at road-side temples or for police checks for no apparent reason.
So when Steven invited me to go to Pondicherry 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, and we would be doing it in daylight, 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, visions of intensive care units came into mind and I knew it had been a wrong move. The Chennai traffic was already approaching mayhemic 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 sari 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. We are racing between posts that 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.
A few minutes later, we are lost. We pull over to ask someone for directions. We want the main road to Pondy. The pedestrian seems to understand us. He holds his arm aloft and waves his hand freely. We need him to be more precise. His arm is pointing slightly in one direction, but the hand on the end of it is waving about in a directionless manner. But I am used to this. Whenever I get lost on an Indian street and ask someone to point me in a certain direction, a similar arm and hand gesture ensues. What it means is “Somewhere else; not here”. The person hasn’t a clue about where it is that we want – only that it is not here. Obviously he thinks that he is being extremely helpful, and that we would never have guessed that the place we require is “not here”. We thank him for his expert knowledge of the city, move off and find the road – eventually.
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 foreigner, 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 walks 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. Pondicherry 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 is the author of Chasing Rainbows in Chennai, which reached No.3 in the bestseller list of India’s largest bookstore, Landmark. This piece is an extract from the book. All of the other chapters can be found in the India stories section of BootsnAll.