One lap of India Part 1

After weeks of planning, organizing and preparing, the first stage of the ‘One Lap of India’ was flagged off on the 31st of January and the team reached Jammu on schedule, on the 3rd of last month. Here’s what happened along the way…

Ever since the One Lap of India was given the green light by the powers that be, we had been raring to go. Schumi, Param and I were the chosen ones – slated to drive the first leg, from Mumbai to Jammu. The event was scheduled to be flagged off on the 31st of January and as D-day approached, excitement amongst the team burbled and fizzled, accompanied by much haggling over what music to buy, allotment of bars of chocolate, buying of medicine (all too important, given team leader Schumi’s penchant for tummy
trouble! Whompa!) and preparation of route notes. Four days, two cars, six states and 2200 km – who wouldn’t want to have a go! And indeed, others in the Motoring team, doomed to sitting around in office and playing Colin McRae 2 on their PCs while they waited for their turn to arrive, weren’t too happy. Motoring’s perpetual travelers, the monsieurs Rao and Menon, offered surreptitious bribes. And assistant editor, the ‘Supercharged’ Srinivas even tried to pull rank and browbeat us into swapping places, but well, you can’t blame them for trying…

31st January (Day 1)
All systems go, and we are ready to start! The flag-off is scheduled for 10:30 in the morning, from the Mahindra Towers in Worli. The two Scorpios (one of them being the backup car carrying the support crew from Mahindra) are resplendent in their rally livery and proudly wear the ‘One Lap of India/One Lap for Safety’ insignia on their flanks. These big, capable diesels are kitted out with bull-bars and a quartet of fog-lamps and look all set to take on whatever is thrown at them. There’s a milling crown at the Mahindra Towers – correspondents from newspapers and magazines, television crews and senior officials from Business Standard and from M&M. There are interviews galore, and team leader Schumi has half a dozen TV cameras pointed at him but remains blasé about newfound stardom. It’s my birthday, and Bijoy has thrown a surprise at me – a huge chocolate cake which I cut amidst claps and cheers. There is a marker doing the rounds, and people scrawl their little messages on the cars and wish us well. Team clothing (One Lap of India caps and t-shirts specially made for the event) is donned and we are set to roll. Alan Durante of M&M flags us off, and the raid is on!

We have to reach Ahmedabad by night, and the day would be spent on the NH8. Between the three of us, we decide to split the driving in 3-hour slots, and I get the first one. On our way out of Mumbai, we stop over in Thane for a minute and collect lunch, which Rekha, the ed’s wife, has so graciously prepared and packed for us. Very sweet of you ma’am, and thanks a lot! The first two hundred kilometers are rather uneventful, and the Scorpios drone on rapidly. These are ideal mile-munchers – relaxed, comfortable, able to deal with bad terrain and perfectly happy loping along at rapid pace for hours. The NH8 is smoothly surfaced, but traffic is heavy and an impediment to progress at times. We stop at the Maharashtra-Gujarat border to shoot pictures of a signboard (evidence required for our entry in the Limca Book of Records, for the longest, fastest rally-raid ever…) and Param gets manhandled by a bunch of cops who all reek of alcohol. “Why didn’t you take permission?” is the question, and “How are we supposed to know that you need ‘permission’ to shoot an old, sagging signboard?!?” is the answer. Though we do not know this at the time, this routine would be repeated often. In any case, there is some waving of press cards, rendering of apologies and signing of papers – and “permission” is granted. 

Come afternoon, and I hand the keys to Param who then drives on. We encounter very heavy traffic – comprising mostly of over-laden trucks – around Valsad, and average speeds nosedive. Behram Dhabhar (who leads the Mahindra support crew in the back-up car) is bored with sluggish pace, but there’s little we can do. We drone on, with Param nipping in and out between unending lines of traffic and ultimately we stop for fuel. Diesel for the cars, and chai for us please. 

Behram hops over to our car in the evening, and offers to drive. Having done time with the R&D departments of various automobile companies in the past, he is an old hand at this sort of thing. He gets in, and immediately puts his “chamcha” theory to use. For the uninitiated, the “chamcha” is unrelenting use of the throttle. “Driving is like ballet,” he tells us, and proceeds to exhibit his not inconsiderable skills at this art form. He also explains how we must see openings in traffic as “gates” that are always either opening or
closing, and how to pound through them using the “zup zup zup” principle – which is basically about blowing everyone and everything into the weeds. Well, ahem…

Late evening, and Schumi takes over for the last 100 km or so. By now, we’ve seen an astonishing number of crashed trucks/buses/tractors on the road. Things look quite bad. The country really does need something to be done about road safety, and we hope our little expedition does its bit for helping the cause. We hit the Baroda-Ahmedabad Expressway, which is one arrow-straight (and almost completely deserted) stretch of smooth blacktop. Wish we had a Dodge Viper, but then again, the Scorpios don’t do too badly either. There is some light rain along the way, and we switch on our Hellas – which turn night into day. These fog-lamps pack some serious firepower! On the Expressway, we are supposed to pay a 24-rupee toll per car, but a guard waves us on without taking money. 

We reach Ahmedabad at around 11 in the night, and check into a hotel that serves some excellent kheema parathas for dinner. Ah, culinary bliss! Finally, we sleep…

1st February (Day 2)
At about 650 km, the Ahmedabad-Jaipur stretch is going to be a relatively long one. There are some delays with the formal flag-offs (not just one, but two of them!) and after handing out copies of our ‘29 tips on safe  driving’ pamphlet, we get off to a rather late start. Behram is scheduled to go back to Mumbai, and we bid him goodbye. We’ll miss the ever-cheerful presence of the man who gave us the “chamcha” and the “zup zup zup”…

Roads are good and we make quick, uninterrupted progress. Param takes the first slot, and drives till 1:30 in the afternoon but because of the delays in the morning, and stops for taking pictures along the way, we’ve only done about 130 km till then. Lunch is something of a surprise – there is none! It seemed there had been some confusion, and our “lunch packets” only contain some rather insubstantial Gujarati munchies, which are wholly inadequate for our ravenous appetites. We threaten the team leader with belligerent mutiny, but he calms us down and promises abundant food and drink in the evening. 

I take over, not knowing that I am in for the drive of my life. The next 250 km feature some of the most beautiful stretches of twisty tarmac I’ve ever driven, and it’s like experiencing the computer-generated environs of ‘Need for Speed - II’ in real life. Shift quickly, brake late and keep the engine on the boil – the Scorpio rolls and wallows but still takes everything that’s thrown at it. This is the most fun I’ve had in some time. Awesome! All roads should be like this! Bijoy….er, can we move the Motoring office to Udaipur, please? 

The twisting, undulating stretch of road never seems to end, but it’s evening already and Schumi takes over the last driving slot for the day. Not that I want to hand over the keys, but he uses his TL powers to humble me into submission. Alright mate, we’ll settle this when we get back to Mumbai…

There’s still another 250 km to go, and it looks like we are going to reach Jaipur late in the night. It’s also starting to get slightly cold. Schumi, the fastest man on motorcycles in the Motoring team, is adept on four wheels as well and we make rapid progress through the next giant set of twisties. The fun comes to an abrupt halt as we get caught in a massive traffic jam about 100 km before Jaipur, and speeds slow down to a crawl. We find a remedy – piping hot dinner at small road-side dhaba. The dal-fry, gatta sabzi, paneer masala and tandoori rotis are heavenly and we are all charged up immediately. 

The cars’ Hellas are notably effective, and other cars get out of our way at double-quick speed. Even buses and trucks give way when subjected to our barrage of lights. Schumi and Param have a brainwave (which only happens once a year or so…) and voila, the cars are now christened – the lead car named ‘Sunlight’ and the backup car, ‘Sunshine’. The Scorpios have proved to be tremendously capable, and our affection for the cars grows. We hit Jaipur at 12:00 in the night, and since all arrangements have already been made, we check into our hotel without much ado. Everyone is tired, and we hit our beds right away…

2nd February (Day 3)
The third day of driving, and we have to reach Jallandhar by evening. It’s fairly cold now, and the team is bundled up in a variety of jackets. We are scheduled to leave by 8:00 in the morning, but much to the team leader’s chagrin there are some inexplicable delays yet again. There are hiccups with the cars being cleaned and checked at the local Mahindra dealer, and we cool our heels in our hotel lobby while waiting for the cars to turn up. Finally, a beat-up looking Scorpio rumbles up the driveway, and it turns out that this is a 4x4 variant (yet to be launched commercially) which Motoring had tested some time ago. Param seems to have a special love for this car, and goes all misty-eyed at the sight of what he says is “his mud.” Presumably, he refers to the mud and slush plastered on the car by Bijoy and Param during the course of testing. We leave Jaipur at 9:30 and set off for Delhi, with Param taking Sunshine’s wheel.
We are still on NH8, and the road is mostly one straight stretch of smooth tarmac. We have a late breakfast, happily munching on some scrumptious aloo and gobhi parathas. We remind Schumi of his oft-upset stomach and try to talk him out of eating his share of the parathas, but he is man of steely resolve when it comes to food. Well, we had to try. Param keeps speeds in the higher reaches of the Scorpio’s capabilities, and Delhi approaches rapidly. Schumi, who hails from the capital city, takes over driving duties when we are about 25 km away from Delhi, and since he is familiar with every nook and cranny of this city, he
proceeds to slice and dice through traffic – so much so that the support car can barely keep up! The cars are getting lots of attention and we have people queueing up behind us at traffic signals to ask questions about the event and to read messages which other people have scrawled all over the tailgate. We are even stopped by the venerable Delhi Police, who ask us lots and lots of questions, inspect the cars’ papers and finally let us go. We give them copies of our safe driving pamphlet, and ask them to distribute those amongst motorists, for which they readily agree! Heck, given the number of completely totalled cars and trucks we’ve been seeing along the way, they should bloody well spread the word about safety. Anyway, after much smiles and shaking of hands, we are off again.

Soon, we are out of Delhi and into Haryana. I have taken the wheel from Schumi, and am driving at a relaxed pace. For me, the Scorpio is the four-wheeled equivalent of a Harley Davidson. “Relax. Cruise along at a steady pace. We’ll get there all in good time, so what’s the hurry?” is what it seem to tell me, and I’m ready to play along. We break for lunch late in the afternoon, and Param and Mr. Mandale (as in Mandalay), on the support crew, seem to be ravenous. There’s chicken and paneer and dal makhni, all of which disappear rapidly from our plates. Not ones to give up, Param and Mandale keep at it, smearing gobs of butter on their tandoori rotis and going for it. Well, god must certainly love happy diners, so there!
Off once again, and soon we are turning off the NH8, and getting on to NH1 after Ambala. Traffic is heavy – especially personal car traffic – but our cars live up to their names even as the Hellas work their magic once more. I suppose the lights are a wee bit of a nuisance to other cars, but I can barely suppress a grin when I see this sea of traffic part way, as if by magic, when faced with our blazing duo. Schumi takes the wheel, while I plant myself on the back seat and push the back as far as it will go. Being lulled into sleep in a Scorpio, to the strains of Abba and Boney M was strangely calming. We get to Jallandhar by 10:30 in the night, and check into the swanky Leo Fortune – a Welcomgroup hotel. We are met by a certain Bal sahab, a turbocharged sardarji who seems to be perpetually on the move. He will lead us into Jammu tomorrow, we are told and with that we retire to our magnificent room, feeling like kings as we swagger in…

3rd February (Day 4)
Our last day of driving, and with only about 250 km to drive today, we are scheduled to reach Jammu by mid-afternoon. It’s 8:30 in the morning, and after a hearty breakfast we head out of town. The weather is cold and crisp, and there is some fog. Roads are under construction, and ‘Stop! Men at Work’ signs abound. Progress is slow. We bypass Pathankot and hit the NH1A, which is nice and curvy. Luck seems to favour us, for when we stop to click pictures, lensman Param, who is a difficult man to please at the best of times, actually gets the shots he was looking for.

Pictures done with, we continue driving. Somehow, the prospect of the first leg of our event coming to an end is slightly unsettling, and we give Behram’s “chamcha” principle a rest today. Driving at an unhurried pace over scenic terrain, we come across heavy military traffic; there’s an abundance of old Nissan Jongas
(can you believe these are still being used!?!), massive Shaktiman trucks and even a tank-carrier or two ambling along. Suddenly, militant overtones are everywhere and it’s almost eerie to see how these army vehicles change the atmosphere completely. The road doesn’t twist and turn as much as it undulates up and down, and if we were traveling faster, the Scorpios would have definitely left terra firma frequently. Bal sahab in the backup car is quite enjoying himself, and a genial smile is permanently fixed on his countenance.
The drive today is uneventful, and we are in Jammu only all too soon. More military convoys, policemen everywhere and check-posts in between. We are stopped in some places and many pairs of wary eyes peer into the car. Then Bal sahab works his magic and we are waved through everywhere with a cheery “jaiyye janab!”

We reach the Scorpio dealer’s showroom in Jammu, and are welcomed with gusto. There’s hot tea waiting to be guzzled and snacks waiting to be devoured. Ever hungry, we do the honours happily. As soon as we take out our luggage from the cars, an army of mechanics descend on them and start cleaning and scrubbing vigourously. For us, it’s time to say good-bye to the cars and go to the Hotel Hari Niwas Palace where Bijoy and Murad Ali Baig are waiting for us. Parting with Sunshine and Sunlight is sad. The darlings ferried us over a distance of more than 2200 km, and never missed a beat along the way. We are going to miss the cars. 

We are driven to the hotel (which turns out to be a well-maintained heritage building from the Raj era) in an Ambassador taxi of 1977 vintage. The driver has, it seems, been watching too many F1 races on TV and the drive up and down the narrow hilly roads of Jammu gets scary in places! Hey, this is supposed to be the ‘One Lap for Safety’ remember?!Rest of the day is spent lounging around on the lawns of Hari Niwas Palace and swapping stories. The second leg (Jammu to Lucknow) gets a formal flag-off in the evening, and the local press is in full attendance. 

Bijoy and Murad will start driving tomorrow, and the message of safety will continue to spread far and wide. But that’s another day, another story…