Sunday, April 13, 2008

Don't tell Monu...

Mr Roland rather racily suggests taking a tuk-tuk home. We’re at the D-Mart, which is only a hop across an open drain, and a skip over a pile of rubble, away from home. But we’ve got our arms full of pineapples and lentils and guava juice and cucumbers, and it’s 36 degrees. Even the construction site workers are melting in the shade of a tree, on the hot pavement. I say, “What will Monu say?” And Mr Roland, with his habitual Akela-logic, says, “Monu isn’t here.”

(We go out with friends to a hotel restaurant, and I make the mistake of offering Monu the night off, after he drops us, so he doesn’t have to kick around on the pavement, waiting for us to emerge again at eleven. “We can take a tuk-tuk home.” Monu takes his hands off the wheel, in shock – “No tuk-tuk, THIS car! Tuk-tuk danger drivers!” I’m suitably chastened, then Monu relents and says, “My Mum, she like tuk-tuk. No you.” And that’s final.)

I concede reluctantly to Mr Roland’s anarchic idea – I’m never going to broach life in the fast tuk-tuk lane toute seule, after all. He leans into the tiny cab, and says, “Verona?” The driver shrugs and shakes his head. I see this all the time, waiting for Monu outside In Orbit mall, the tuk-tuk drivers are picky about where they’re prepared to go. Would-be passengers shrug back, and stroll on to tackle the next little black and yellow cab in waiting. Mr Roland, incarcerated in his air-conditioned ivory tower all the livelong week, doesn’t know this, however, and leaps in with alacrity, saying, “I’ll show you!”
So we climb in, stowing our worldly goods at our feet. Before our backsides have made contact with the plastic seat, the driver pulls out of the queue, wrenching right on the handlebars, to turn perpendicularly into the stream of traffic. He’s got one bare foot tucked cosily under him, and is patently the Indian son of Evel Knievel, since he Knows No Fear. He’s also a Star Trek junkie, his maxim clearly being To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before. Never mind man, he goes, we now discover, where WD40 wouldn’t.

It comes to me, with what I imagine are my last breaths, that our lovely Monu is a Top Driver: he slows to zero miles an hour, to tackle the tussocks and crevices of the highway. “I sorry, Mumbai road, no very good!” he says daily, laughing at me, doing my aerobic work-out, to keep upright in the back of the car. Our tuk-tuk driver, on the other hand, seems to think it’s a steeplechase, and hits every pebble full tilt. Even a brand-new tuk-tuk has 0 suspension to worry about, so it shouldn’t be surprising.

In Jaipur, we see tuk-tuks - “three passengers only” hopefully painted on their sides – with ten, twelve, fifteen people on board, hanging on by their toenails, with a baby or a goat held between the teeth. We’re only two (plus shopping), but I’m still deeply unsure about the whole endeavour. Did I say, there’s nothing but fresh air between me and the tarmac, as we pole-vault our way home? It’s entirely due to gravity and momentum, that we stay in our seats, at all. I hate relying on science.
We’re back at Verona, in less than two minutes. It’s only a couple of blocks, but it whittles years off my life. Mr Roland airily hands over ten rupees, while I try to make my wobbly legs work again. Maybe Monu has a point after all.