Friday, October 03, 2014

Book Review: NEVER MIND THE BULLOCKS

Title: Never Mind the Bullocks: One Girl's 10,000 km Adventure Around India in the World's Cheapest Car
Author: Vanessa Able
Publisher: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Pages: 288







Never mind the Bullocks is the intrepid story of the 10,000-km journey that British freelance travel writer Vanessa Able undertook across 12 states of India in a Tata Nano. 

Starting from Mumbai, she goes through Nagaon, Pune and Kolhapur in Maharashtra; Arambol in Goa; Hampi, Bangalore and Mysore in Karnataka; Fort Kochi in Kerala; Kanyakumari, Tiruchirapalli, Pondicherry and Chennai in Tamil Nadu; Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh; Bhubaneswar and Konark in Orissa; Bodh Gaya in Bihar; Nainital in Uttarakhand; McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh; New Delhi; Omkareshwar in Madhya Pradesh, and back to Mumbai.

Vanessa shows herself fully capable of navigating Indian terrain and understanding Indian sensibilities, despite her position as a single woman.

About to turn 33, what she describes as her “Jesus year,” the year when He took up active ministry and was put to death, she translates it to her own life as the year when she must make decisions and change things. And so, this self-described ‘leaf that floated in the breeze’ and didn’t believe in a steady 9-5 job, decides to buy a Tata Nano, and drive across India in all her splendid and squalid glory.

Having made up her mind to circumnavigate India in a Nano, she enlists the help of the friend of a friend to buy it. When one isn’t available for outright purchase, she authorises the buying of a secondhand Rs2,40,000 Nano with air-conditioning and electric windows.

Still in England, she receives photos of her Nano from the friend and is suddenly hit with the realization of how unroadworthy it looks. It is too late to back out, and so she opens a blog, the Nano diaries.

When she begins her journey, she is hesitant, unsure of herself, and rightly so. After all, she is attempting this journey with no GPS, no navigator by her side, bits of road that may or may not be marked, where drivers play by their own rules, armed with nothing but a map of India, an old edition of Lonely Planet India and a book called Beginner’s Hindi.

This was not Vanessa’s first cross-country driving experience. She had driven across New Zealand, Serbia, Turkey, the American deserts, Mexico City, France, Italy and Greece. And yet, none of her previous experience had prepared her for what she would encounter on the streets of the riot of sound, colour and sensation that is India.

The book is not always complimentary to India. Vanessa describes things as she sees them, as they appear to her. Seen from the veil of Western perception, India does appear to be a land of outrageous chaos, a land which follows its own rules. And yet, we must be slow to take offence as each perception is entitled to its own opinion.

But there is no negativity here. She genuinely allows herself to soak in the sights and smells of the country in her attempt to feel at home during the three months that the 10,000-km journey would inevitably take.

Along the way, she gives us the history of how the Nano came to be, the promise made by Ratan Tata, the then Chairman of Tata Motors and the Tata group. As if to strengthen the premise, she repeatedly encounters families of four, riding precariously on motorbikes, and gleans the truth of Mr Tata’s desire to build an affordable car.

The narrative brings a smile to the face. The lady does have a felicity for the language. Sometimes though the writing becomes LOL-worthy, particularly when she elaborates on the Delhi Traffic Police’s website instructions to “divide the road mentally into appropriate lanes,” when they are not marked.

Other hilarious descriptions talk about the madness displaying sessions at the Osho resort, and of her getting lost in the hinterland of Maharashtra. Seen from eyes for whom the spectacle of India is novel, it is rather funny. And Vanessa’s observations are forthright, precise and sharp.

She offers deep insights, from a Westerner’s perspective, into the land that is the canvas for her journey that is at once harebrained as it is spiritual. Her experiences include intestinal upheavals, suicidal overtaking of lumbering Tata trucks on narrow roads and a deflated tyre on a dark night in Delhi. The beginning of a romance with Thor, a French-American, who accompanies her through two states and who she marries later, is marked by severe incidence of Delhi Belly. She is also attacked by a herd of elephants, is shaken by a highway ending abruptly into a sheer drop down a cliff and is horrified to see a bunch of half-naked mendicants at her window, shortly before midnight, on an ill-lit road.

As a reader, you warm to her as she discovers truths. Whether you are a Porsche or a rickshaw, you have to struggle for space, she says. In a country whose road network seems bereft of rules, she makes up her own, ranging from ‘There are no rules,’ to ‘Horn OK please,’ ‘Stay Safe’ etc. There are also rules that are thrust on her: Don’t try anything cute in Naxalite country.

Vanessa frequently takes detours, stopping by with friends or sightseeing. She even signs up at Super Driving School at Pondicherry to learn “Indian” driving.

Those looking for descriptions of India’s must-visit destinations will be disappointed. Vanessa’s descriptions are limited to her experiences. She rarely lets you armchair travel through the places she drives through.

All manner of roads play out as her stage, from crowded alleys, to mountainous climbs and sharp highways with well maintained tarmac. Through it all, she, a non-Indian woman coping with Indian realities, keeps her grip on the steering wheel and her eyes on the road, as she meets the challenge of bullocks and trucks driven by alcohol- and possibly crack-stuffed drivers and fears of Nanos spontaneously combusting against the backdrop of a heat wave. 

Her trusted Nano, anthropologically named Abhilasha, Sanskrit for aspiration, proves to be a valuable contender in taking on the challenge of the great Indian outdoors, as it juggles its celebrity status with the challenge of the road ahead.

Only somebody crazy would sign up for this act of daring foolishness, I had thought when I started to read.

By the close of the book, even I began to feel weary and fatigued as though I had been her co-passenger, mostly silent, except when a turn of phrase or a piece of narration got me laughing uncontrollably.


(I received a free Kindle version of this book through Edelweiss.)




4 comments:

  1. It seems to be an interesting book from your review. I want to read it now. I shall add it to me reading list.

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  2. The review has triggered my interest. Look forward to reading it.

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  3. Do that, Menaka, it is a very interesting book. I always believe that if you want to revisit something familiar, you have to see it with unfamiliar eyes. This book about Indian driving and Indian roads, written by a non-Indian, let you do just that.

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  4. Happy to know that my review of the book has triggered your interest in it, Tomichan. I hope you like it. This is travel writing with a difference, though I am still thinking of the carbon emissions resulting from such a long journey.

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