One Lap of India Part 2

29 states in 29 days Or One tight lap!How motoring history was made.

29 states in 29 days. Or how motoring history was madeAs you might have read earlier, for the first time ever, all the motoring magazines in the country came together to participate in the One Lap Of India One Lap For Safety – an event meant to raise awareness of safety and promote the cause of safe driving in the country. 

The idea was to take the award-winning Mahindra Scorpio and touch 29 states of India in 29 days. Driving the Scorpio were teams from Autocar India, Auto India, Auto Monitor, Auto Motor & Sport, Bike2Car, Man’s World, Overdrive, Times Motoring, and of course Business Standard Motoring, plus our columnist Murad Ali Baig and six-time national rally champion Hari Singh. 

Two Scorpios were prepped by DC Design, one for the journalists and the other as back-up, manned by Mahindra’s service and R&D teams. The entire lap was divided into six stages, and was devised as a relay format, where one team hands over the vehicle after completing their leg to the next. At such changeover points, the teams met up with the local media and spread the message of safety, while distributing specially printed leaflets on safe driving techniques all along the way. You would have read about the first leg, Mumbai to Jammu, driven by our team – Shubhabrata Marmar, Sameer Kumar and Parameswaran – in the March issue. The cars were flagged off from Mahindra Towers, Mumbai on 31st January, and had to make it back by the 28th of February 2003. And in the process, earn a place in the Limca Book of Records as the longest, fastest motoring event in India. Would it happen? Here’s the sequence of events as they unfolded.

LEG 1: Mumbai to jammu
States covered: Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Jammu &?Kashmir
2,010 km

Team: Shubhabrata Marmar, Sameer Kumar & Parameswaran

Leg 1 highlights

Most picturesque stretch: Picturesque? Hardly any good-looking
women anywhere

Best driving stretch: About 100 km out of Ahmedabad, and 200 km before Jaipur – a 300-km stretch that twisted and turned like the mythical Loch Ness monster! Sports car territory, pure and simple. It was like experiencing Need For Speed-II in real life.

Worst road: Mumbai to Ahmedabad. Very heavy traffic as we were getting into Gujarat, endless lines of smoke-spewing trucks and relentless hordes of horn-blowing buses 

Scariest moment: When Mahindra’s Behram Dhabar took the wheel of the Scorpio, and proceeded to demonstrate his ‘chamcha’ and ‘zup zup zup’ theories – which is basically about blowing
everyone and everything into the weeds. Dunno if it was scary or fun

Most wonderful/ moving moment: Shumi in the Ahmedabad dealership’s toilet, while the press was  waiting for the conference to begin. The moment was truly... er, moving!

Favourite music cassette: Desert Groove. Those Arabic tunes just rocked. Now if only there were those belly dancers to go with it...

PS: Wishing our leg was longer and more muscular.

LEG 2: Jammu to Lucknow
States covered: Jammu &?Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh
2,880 km

Team: Bijoy Kumar Y & Murad Ali Baig

Most picturesque stretch: Dharamsala to Mandi. The Dhauladhar range accompanied us, and kept changing colours as we were moving. By seven in the evening, they were golden

Best driving stretch: Paonta Sahib to Saharanpur, which wound through forests. It was night, the roads were empty and we had to make it in time

Worst road: Nothing was really bad, the entire stretch was decent, but Kanpur-Lucknow was avoidable, thanks to four-lane construction

Scariest moment: It was night, the fog was thick and a marriage party had taken possession of the road near Saharanpur. Almost drove into them

Most wonderful/moving moment: Thinking about Deepak, wishing he was around

Favourite music cassette: Sultans of Swing/Dire Straits

PS: Going to Jammu and Lucknow was different, these are uncommon junket destinations for journalists

One lap for a friend
Old friends,fond memories and great going in the second leg
Bijoy Kumar Y

Coincidences can be cruel. But at times, they also come as a blessing in disguise. I was driving the One Lap Of India car, towards the end of the second leg from Delhi to Lucknow, and it so happened that I was alone in the car. The fast Delhi-Agra road was deserted, and the dense February fog was flirting with it, making the Scorpio’s bright Hellas feel rather impotent.

I was running a steady 80 kph when the Delhi FM radio signal started to go weak. The digital display was now jumping up and down and interrupting my music. Suddenly I was not alone in the car. I could almost see Deepak Tolani, our late lensman, fiddling with the controls of the music system. He was a compulsive fiddler and could spend a day tuning a car stereo and still be unsatis­fied. If not for a cruel road accident he would have been with me. Deepak never let me go long distances alone and together we had driven thousands of kilometres. Thousands of happy kilometres. But for now, I was enjoying his company again. In any case, the One Lap Of India One Lap for Safety was a tribute to my dearest friend.

There he was cheering me up, egging me on... to cover more distances than ever before. I have kept count of the occasions that I have cried as an adult. And there were tears, along with the long tentacles of dense fog blurring my vision now. 

The second leg of the mammoth event had started from Jammu. I met up with my driving partner and long time friend Murad Ali Baig on Feb 2 at the Delhi airport to board an Airbus A320 that would take us to the cell phone-free world of Jammu. There was army green everywhere and light machine guns stood guard in place of lathis that would suffice in any other part of the country.My colleagues Shumi, Param and Sameer drove in to Jammu the day after I arrived and immediately got the One Lap cars thoroughly serviced. We held a safety-speech-cum-press conference that afternoon, combined with a formal flag-off by the minister of food and supplies of J&K. But the real driving would begin only next morning, and I was getting really impatient to do just that.

February 4
At eight in the morning as we drove off, Murad and I were accompanied in the second Scorpio by the support crew headed by N S Bal and Kailash Jat of Mahindra R&D. And an hour from Jammu, we were hopelessly lost. While we waited for the support crew to catch up at Pathankot, they had taken the Pathankot bye-pass and were well on their way to Mandi. After losing an hour, we met again and from then on, decided that the support car would stay in the rear-view of our car at all times. 

Our first destination was Dharamsala, where we would seek the blessings of the Dalai Lama before carrying on with our journey. Throughout the 207 km drive to Dharamsala, we had the magnificent Dhauladhar range to our left. I have driven on roads lined by great oceans and at times, by hills, but to have the Himalayas for company as you blast through the valley is a magnificent feeling. The Lama was on a month long retreat, but his receptionist, Tenzin Wayden, let us drive the Scorpio twins all the way up to the palace in Dharamsala and even scribbled a good luck message in Tibetan on the lead car.

The road to Shimla was pretty good and traffic sparse. The all-Indian SUV is a tad nervous on the mountains, but once you get used to the idea of attacking corners with a near one-and-a-half tonne vehicle, it becomes fun. The going was brisk till we hit a traffic-blocking landslide, 262 km into the
day. The option was to wait until bulldozers arrived at the scene or to take a detour into unknown, unmapped territory and see if we could somehow reach Mandi instead of Shimla, our proposed night halt. We took option two and before we knew it, we were quite lost. Thanks to some help from locals, we eventually emerged a few km on the better side of the landslide. It had taken all of three hours and the evening was getting really cold. Luckily the road to Mandi was winding yet fast. We made good progress, reached Mandi just in time to catch some dinner.

February 5
Mandi is a cold transit town where tourists stop by for nothing more than a chai while on their way to more exotic places that lie ahead. The Scorpios, with all six lights blazing, were a great sight at the old suspension bridge there and once the mandatory pic was taken, we were off to Shimla.
The Bilaspur-Shimla state highway was well maintained, but had unpredictable corners. Some corkscrewed on us, while others let us carry decent speeds through. After a quick stop at a plastic-free Shimla for a welcome from the local Mahindra dealer who greeted us with slightly sad flowers (they were expecting us the previous evening), we were off. The brewery town of Solan came and went like a breeze and we took a state highway towards Paonta Sahib – generally, in the direction of the newly formed state of Uttaranchal. At five past ten, we crossed the small town of Nahan where we stopped for a few pics next to the Lytton Memorial. 

Then on, it was a brilliant evening drive for 50-odd km, with a magnificent orange sun playing hide and seek with smaller hills and providing us with not one, but many a sunset. As the sun stopped performing for us, we reached Paonta Sahib. Across the Yamuna rolled our Scorpios and the bright green
welcome signs on the other end signalled our entry into Uttaranchal. We were almost back in the plains, and got on to the beautiful forest road in the Mussourie hills to Saharanpur, where, after a fuel stop, we cruised on the national highway 58 to New Delhi.

February 6
The original idea was to explore a tad more of Uttaranchal and then head out to Nathuakhan, 350 km from Delhi, via Moradabad, Haldwani and Nainital. But Murad had a big family wedding and related responsibilities to take care of. That meant I would be driving alone for the second part of our journey. The support car needed a bit of cosmetic work after a harmless brush with a stationary truck at a level crossing the previous day. So
I opted instead to attend a few media calls
for the day in Delhi and head for Kanpur the next day.

February 7
Kailash Jat, our R&D man, ensured that the support Scorpio looked as good as new but that meant he was with the denting and painting wing of the Delhi Mahindra dealer till 2:30 in the morning. Soon we were tackling the Delhi-Agra highway which was where you found me at the beginning of this article. A spanking new Scorpio showroom at Agra was to be our first stop, where we were met with the enthusiastic dealer and his crew.

The NH 2, like most other highways in our country, is going through an expansion programme and to me, that meant a day of watching truck rears. It was easy to feel disappointed, but what was unfurling around me was a part of our country that I had very little experience with. A very late lunch at Etawah with a very enthusiastic dealer later, we rolled into Kanpur, where a roaring reception from not one, but two Mahindra dealers awaited us.
 
February 8
All that highway battle the previous day meant I had only 86 km to do on my final day of the One Lap of India. I was already in touch with the Autocar India/Auto Monitor team that had reached Lucknow to take over for the third leg of the event. More four-laning roadwork meant the last 86 km took all of two and a half hours to finish. A few receptions, another safety talk and a press conference followed. The next morning the new team would roll away from the almost 150-year old Carlton Hotel. It was just five in the morning, but Kailash and I were up to get another look at our beloved Scorpios. “Isn’t it magical? You spend a few days in a car, you really get attached to it,” he said. The lump in my throat told me that I agreed with him completely.

LEG 3: Lucknow to Guwahati
States covered: Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam 2,600 km
Team: Ashley Baxter & Joy Chaudhuri (Autocar India), Mayur Shah (Auto Monitor)

Leg 3 highlights
Most picturesque stretch: Siliguri to Gangtok. We couldn’t decide what was more breathtaking, the landscape or the women

Best driving stretch: Same as above

Worst road: It’s a neck-to-neck race between Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand for this honour. Your body’s always tense, with fearful anticipation of the next jolt

Scariest moment: Assam. The roads are deserted and we are being escorted by a police van filled with armed policemen in bulletproof vests. The van suddenly stops and the policemen jump out of the vehicle and take up position by the side of the road. We can’t see any other soul in sight. We don’t know if they have spotted some militants hiding behind some bushes. After five nerve-wracking minutes they return to their van, and we continue. Phew!

Most wonderful/moving moment: Sitting by the roadside at a dhaba, and discovering that we could spend the night in Bhutan instead of Cooch Behar. And deciding that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Add a country to the list of 29 states!

Favourite music cassette: The stereo gave up on the third day

PS: We have been to Jhumritalaiya!

Back of beyond
Could the team and the cars withstand the tough Lucknow-to-Guwahati stretch?

The third leg of the One Lap Of India One Lap For Safety was one of the most
difficult of the six legs. It had to cover formidable states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Sikkim and Assam, in its attempt to get from Lucknow to Guwahati in six days. Would the team do it? And would the Scorpios take the beating?

February 9
The team left the old world charm of Lucknow’s Carlton hotel in the early hours of the morning. Their intended route was through Kanpur, Chhatarpur, Panna, Satna and finally, Reva. Because the famous Khajuraho temples were just 20 km away from Chhatarpur, they took a detour for some photographs, and then got back to the original route. The roads were decent,but there were quite a few bad stretches. They passed through the Panna tiger sanctuary, which was picturesque – the tarmac was dark, the sides of the road were light and the forest was green on either side. The moment the Scorpios reached Satna, the local
Mahindra dealer took over. The whole town turned out to watch the two One Lap Scorpios – the stars of a cavalcade – led by three Hero Hondas and several other Mahindra vehicles. The team then reached Reva and halted there for the night.

February 10
It was an early morning start again. The One Lappers’ route would take them through Katni, Shahdol, Ambikapur in Chhattisgarh to Ranchi in Jharkhand. Little did they know what was in store for them. Based on the advice given by locals, the One Lap team decided to go through Govindgarh and Jaisingnagar to get to Shahdol, instead of Katni – the route was supposedly much better. But as luck would have it, a thick fog descended, which made visibility less than 10 feet. There were no roads either; the Scorpios’ tyres had to endure some really terrible surfaces. Eventually, they made it to Shahdol. They still had to reach Ranchi, but were told that the border between Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand was sealed at night. Which meant a late night halt at the sleepy border town of Jashpurnagar – and waking up the reluctant lodge owner for a night’s stay. The team were behind schedule and Ranchi was still 200 km away.

February 11
The road to Ranchi was the worst stretch ever. Yet the vehicles took it. The One Lap team reached Ranchi at 8 am, and handed over the Scorpios to the local dealer for a thorough check-up and wash. The cars were covered in dust, and even the decals were not visible. They were back on the road again, making it in good time to reachthe famous Jhumritalaiya in Bihar. They passed through Nawada, which was in the news for the outbreak of caste violence, but the One Lappers were blissfully unaware that trouble was brewing in the town. They had to get to Purnia, but they didn’t know how far it was because the milestones had a difference of opinion between themselves. Finally, they reached Purnia at 12.30 at night, after enduring heavy truck traffic on the outskirts.

February 12
The aim was to reach Gangtok from Purnia through Siliguri. The roads were good, and at one point before Siliguri, India was just 12 km wide – on one side was Nepal, and on the other, Bangladesh. They made it to Siliguri in good time, and after addressing the local media, immediately left for Gangtok in Sikkim. After the dry and dusty plains, the winding road to Gangtok was manna for the soul. With the Teesta river accompanying them, the entire stretch was picturesque. They reached Gangtok early in the evening, and took a well-deserved rest.

February 13
In the morning, after addressing the local press on road safety, the Scorpios were flagged-off from the Mahindra dealership. The original plan was to take a 60 km detour into Cooch Behar. Instead, the One Lap team took a turn-off at Sevoke and headed towards Guwahati, passing through Alipur Tuar. They discovered that the Bhutan border was just 20 km away, so Phuntsholing it was for the night. Which meant 29 states 1 country in 29 days!

February 14
After leaving Phuntsholing early, the One Lap cars made good progress towards the Assam border. They encountered surprisingly zilch traffic, only to realise later that it was because of an Assam bandh. At the border, there was a massive line of over 500 trucks waiting for things to settle. The team made their way to the local police station for help. Sure, said the cops, and escorted them safely. The One Lap cars managed to reach Bongaigoan without a hitch, but they still had 200 km to reach Guwahati. Mayur had a flight to catch at four in the evening, and it was almost noon. But thanks to the bandh, traffic was light, and the roads were good – which meant the chap did catch his flight. The cars were delivered at the Mahindra dealership in Guwahati, where the Overdrive team was waiting to take over. It was a mind-numbing journey, but Ashley, Joy and Mayur made it, and so did the two Scorpios. Flawlessly.

LEG 4: Guwahati to Kolkata
States covered: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur, West Bengal 3,150 km

Team: Sirish Chandran, Suresh Narayanan & Hari Singh (Overdrive)

Leg 4 highlights
Most picturesque stretch: The 60 km between Nungma and Jiribaum, on the road from Imphal to Silchar. Tropical rain forest, no roads (honestly), full moon night, tiny bailey bridges over rivers and gorges. And that stretch is a no-man’s land... the Nagas have their own parallel government here. The army commandant at Nungma warned us against risking life, limb and possessions in undertaking it, but what the hell...

Best driving stretch: Karimganj to Shillong to Guwahati. All hills, good surface. Picturesque, but then
this entire part of the country is so beautiful that it blows your mind. Also Darjeeling to Silchar via the shortcut. Tea gardens all around, ultra-narrow road and steep like hell. Brilliant, and oh, we were up in the clouds for half the journey.

Worst road: Silchar to Churaibari, at the Tripura border. This road is built on an embankment 30-40 ft high, yet it has been washed off in floods nine times! The road was being rebuilt and it was awful. Very fine mud got stuck in our throats and coated everything in the cars. The kicked-up dust was so bad in places that we had to stop for it to clear up. Pity the guys in the back-up car

Scariest moment: Nungma to Jiribaum again. No army, no police, news of a gunfight earlier in the day
filtering through. Can’t take off your ring? The finger goes. Can’t remove your ear-ring? The ear goes

Most wonderful/moving moment: Moments, actually. Entering Bhalakpung in Arunachal Pradesh was like arriving in Switzerland. Seeing a rhino for the first time enroute to Kaziranga. Crossing the army checkpost at Jiribaum in one piece. Rolling into the Hyatt in Kolkata after successfully completing an extraordinary leg...

Favourite music cassette: College Classics I, II, III. Especially the song that goes, “All night long, it’s gonna be all night long...” It reflected our driving!

PS: If you haven’t been to the north-east you are missing something outtathisworld. Brilliant landscapes, friendly people, sensible drivers, usually good roads, 100 per cent fresh air outside the cities, wildlife all over (wild elephants sleep on the roads!). Could go on and on and on. Thanks to Among, Along, Vikshe, Atikur, Bezbarua

On Cloud Seven
Taking on the beautiful yet tough seven north-eastern states
-Sirish Chandran

The fourth leg of the One Lap Of India One Lap For Safety would take the Overdrive magazine team from Guwahati to Kolkata on a loop through the seven north-eastern states of the country. The team would go to a land less travelled, rarely explored, overwhelming in its beauty... and about which they knew next to nothing. They needed Inner Line Permits to enter half the states in the region, discovered that
roads marked as National Highways in the maps didn’t exist, and to compound it further, landed there at the height of election frenzy – which meant militant, and consequently, army activity. Yes, it had all the makings of a memorable drive. Here are the entries from their diary.

February 15
Rendezvous-ed with the service vehicle at Mahindra’s Guwahati dealership at 7 am and suffered the first of five punctures. Good roads in Assam, surprisingly disciplined traffic,amazing landscapes and two crossings of the mighty Brahmaputra made up a thoroughly enjoyable drive to Bhalakpung in Arunachal Pradesh. And we could be in Switzerland for that matter – lush green mountains, clear rivers… it’s difficult to stop drooling.
Later on in the day, we wound our way back into Assam to head for the Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary. Managed to take the Scorpios into the sanctuary in the evening, and almost got charged at by an irate rhino as we desperately inched closer to the humongous beast for Suresh to click his ‘deadly shots’.

February 16
Sleep? What sleep? Hauled out of our rooms at 4 am for the elephant ride into the sanctuary. Honestly, we couldn’t have cared less but films need exposing, so we dutifully clambered on to the (softly sprung and constantly misfiring) elephants in the freezing cold and set out to spot the rhinos. Sadly the tiger stayed away. A quick breakfast later, we headed for Dimapur in Nagaland. The drive was lovely, but we had hills, hills and more hills – the Scorpios were superb for climbing, with their phenomenal torque and driveability. At Dimapur, members of NAMSA (Nagaland Adventure and Motorsport Association) had a reception lined up for us and then escorted us to Kohima in convoy for a knock-out dinner. 

February 17
Kohima (cold, beautiful and built on the hill slopes) to Imphal (dry, dusty and hot) was less than memorable. At Imphal, we realised that the NH through Churachandpur heading to Aizawl in Mizoram doesn’t exist over the rivers, and is so dangerous that only the suicidal will attempt getting there by this route. So we struck out for Silchar for one of the most memorable drives of our lives. The 60 km stretch from Nungma to Jiribaum is no man’s land, the army outpost at Nungma signalling the end of Indian government control.

Here on, there were no roads; just a mud trail much like the Malaysian rain forest challenge, with bailey bridges over rivers and gorges that swayed disconcertingly under the Scorpio’s weight, while the vegetation brought back memories of classic Vietnam war movies. And all this was attempted in the night! No two ways about it, we were lucky to reach Silchar in one piece. Tough vehicles, these Scorpios,handled all the abuse with aplomb.

February 18
Took off from Silchar by 7 am for Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram. Lovely state, lovely roads and picture postcard beautiful (the women that is!). As luck would have it, we got entangled in the ‘save Mizoram’ agitation and were held up for over four hours. Aizawl was thus out and we headed back to Silchar and then on to Dharmanagar in Tripura. This drive turned out to be the worst of the entire journey. This stretch of road was washed off nine times in floods and was in the process of being rebuilt. The Scorpios took it well, and
touched Churaibari in Tripura and halted for the night at Karimgang (40 km from Bangladesh).

February 19
Left Karimgang at 3 am, having spent the night in an absolute dump, and were relieved to get out of what seemed to be Bangladesh itself. Reached Shillong for breakfast and then headed for Guwahati to get the stereo repaired. The roads were good but they wind up and down the hills all the way through. The original plan was to head for Manas sanctuary and stay with the forest officer, but the gunning down of six BLT guerrillas put paid to our plans, so we headed off to Cooch Behar.

February 20
On impulse, we set off for Darjeeling in the morning and landed up among the clouds for the best lunch of the trip – momos and thukse in authentic Tibetan style. Siliguri to Darjeeling was an absolutely fantastic drive through tea plantations that these parts are famous for. Our plan was to halt at Malda for the night but we missed a turn and spent over four hours bumping about in Bihar. Eventually we retraced our tyre tracks and took a vote on the plan of action. 

And so it was that we ditched the Malda plans and headed straight for Kolkata and cosy beds. Driving in the night was less of a hassle, with no traffic through the towns and villages, and the wildlife off the roads too. We made good time and eventually rolled into Kolkata in the wee hours of the morning and indulged ourselves, checking into the Hyatt for a hot bath and slumber. Next in line are the team from Auto Motor & Sport and Times Motoring, who’ll take the Scorpios on the penultimate leg, from Kolkata to Chennai. All the best, guys!

LEG 5: Kolkata to Chennai
States covered:?Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu1,700 km

Team: Sachin Chavan (Auto Motor & Sport), Raju Kane & Sushant Balsekar (Times Motoring)

Leg 5 highlights
Most picturesque stretch: Rajahmundry to Vijayawada. After Rajahmundry, you pass over this three km long bridge, then the road passes through beautiful countryside with paddy fields on both sides. The road has long meandering turns which also make the drive interesting. Later, on the toll road to Vijayawada, you can actually relax and watch the scenery while cruising at a cool 100-110 kph

Best driving stretch: Same as above

Worst road: Between Kharagpur and Baripada,especially where the NH 6 passes through Jharkhand. Traffic jam along the border and really bad roads. We were worried whether the Scorpio would have enough clearance to go through. Lot of places were a first gear crawl. Some places were like an off-road tarmac course, if it can be termed that.

Scariest moment: Trying to squeeze between trucks while making way through a traffic jam on the Jharkhand border. There were just millimetres between the Scorpio and a container truck; the truck
driver seemed to be deaf, and kept inching forward. Luckily we cleared

Most wonderful/moving moment: When we finally reached the Chennai showroom and handed over the cars without a single hiccup in the entire drive

Favourite music cassette : Kaante, after listening to only English collections till Visakhapatnam

PS: Overall an interesting experience, but the roads were boring most of the time, with average speeds dropping down to 30-40 kph, even without stops. And innumerable railway crossings.

Baywatch
Driving along the Bay of Bengal - from Kolkata to Chennai on Leg 5
Sachin Chavan

After the tough yet gorgeous north-east leg, the One Lap Of India One Lap For Safety moved on to the fifth leg, from Kolkata to Chennai. The Overdrive team of Sirish Chandran, Suresh Narayanan and Hari Singh arrived in Kolkata on the evening of 21st February and handed over the Scorpio to Sachin Chavan of Auto Motor & Sport and Raju Kane and Sushant Balsekar of Times Motoring. They had to cover a distance of around 2,000 km in three days, and pass through West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Here is the story in their own words.

February 21
Kolkata is probably one of the worst cities in India to drive in. And that’s not just because of the roads (though it could have been an ideal test of the Scorpio’s off-road capabilities), but also due to the traffic
regulations. We noticed that sometimes one-way traffic changed according to the time of the day, or perhaps based on the whims of the cops, and at other places, there was flyover construction going on.
It was about six in the evening that the Overdrive team handed over the Scorpio to us, and it was immediately despatched for a service and clean-up at the dealership. From there, it was a distance of just 12 km to our hotel, but that took us over three hours to cover! Even having the local Mahindra people drive us was of no use – couldn’t imagine it what would have happened if we had to do it ourselves.

February 22
It was a nice early morning start and we got out of the city before the traffic started to pile up. Given our experience the previous night, we though it prudent to let the back-up Scorpio lead us out of the city. We took the pretty looking new Howrah bridge and headed towards Kharagpur. Because of work on the four-laning going on full steam, the road was narrow, but as we mentioned earlier, the traffic was also light.
The countryside was flat, and the lush green of the paddy fields on both sides of the road was simply mind-blowing. It is a shade of green that you rarely see anywhere around Mumbai. The route we had chalked out would take us via the NH 6 up to Kharagpur, then it was on to a state highway going south, before joining NH 5 just before Balasore. The problem was that one of the local mechanics who claimed to know the route insisted that we keep going on straight on the NH 6. A little mistake.

We trusted his knowledge and landed up in Jharkhand. The roads in Jharkhand were atrocious, to put it very politely. The funny part was that our route consultant – the mechanic who had led us into the state (and was a local Jharkhand man) – insisted that after the bifurcation of the state from Bihar, the roads had actually improved! God alone knows what passed off as roads earlier then. 

Near the Jharkhand-Orissa border, we came across the mother of all traffic jams near the border post. Sushant was at the wheel, and we really got stuck in a bad spot – one edging container truck got uncomfortably close to the car, and we thought it would scratch the sides of the Scorpio. The gap was in millimetres. But Sushant held his ground, and with a lot of yelling, we got through. In a couple of places we had to actually stop the trucks to make space for the Scorpios, as if we were a team of cops. The paint scheme also helped! The rest of the drive was uneventful, and we were in Bhubaneshwar before sundown. We took time off to see the famous Lingraj temple and then headed for Konark for the night.

February 23
Konark’s magnificent Sun Temple took more time than we thought. We finally left Bhubaneshwar at 10.30 am. The ride up to Berhampur was quite nice and then the drudgery started. We were on the road but not gobbling up distances. Hours would pass but the kilometres were slow. We just kept on the road, no lunch, no stop. Most of the road was under construction and virtually every railway crossing was trying to snarl us – an extra two hours were consumed by five railway crossings on the stretch after Ichchapuram. And the roads were deplorable as we entered Andhra Pradesh. 

Eventually we reached Visakhapatnam at around 8.30 at night, where the Mahindra dealer had planned a grand reception. We were obviously not dressed for the occasion, but that did not affect the warm hospitality we received. We decided to move on and to get to Rajahmundry. Again the roads slowed us down.

February 24
We reached Rajahmundry only at 2.30 in the morning. We had already booked a hotel but got lost in what seemed to be a deserted city. Finally, after a short nap of three hours, we were on the road again. The morning drive to Vijayawada was cool and most of it was on a dual carriageway toll road. We did about
80 km in an hour – the highlight of the drive really! But we were already behind schedule and those of us who had driven at night had to get their share of sleep in the Scorpio itself. Talk about rear seat comfort!
Around 25 km ahead of Nellore, some expressway construction was underway, and there were no signboards to guide us. We asked a cop to reconfirm the route to Chennai, he knew Madras, but he didn’t know where Chennai was! The roads were great there on, with only the traffic on the outskirts of Chennai slowing us down. It took us almost an hour to reach the Mahindra dealership in the city, where the next team was waiting to receive us. We made it successfully, on schedule.

LEG 6: Chennai to Mumbai
States covered: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra 1,700 km
Team: Srinivas Krishnan
Bhushan Mhapralkar (Auto India)
N Radhakrishnan (Man’s World)

Leg 6 highlights
Most picturesque stretch: The whole NH 17, actually. Right from the curvy, narrow stretches of Kerala to the sea-lined section to Mangalore and Goa and onwards to the mountainous parts beyond Chiplun to Panvel

Best driving stretch: Chiplun to Panvel, on the outskirts of Mumbai. The roads are great, full of lovely twists and turns over hilly terrain

Worst road: From Palakkad to Kasargod on the NH 17. Unlike most other highways, there is no let-up
of humans, buildings, shops, houses, etc. There’s no free stretch, the roads are extremely twisted and narrow, and populated by the most arrogant bus drivers in the world

Scariest moment: Listening to the Kaante soundtrack

Most wonderful/moving moment: Obviously, getting up the ramp at Mahindra Towers to thunderous applause at the end of the event

Favourite music cassette: Desert Groove, full of great catchy and passionate Arabic numbers

PS: Got stopped 21 times on the toll road from Coimbatore to Palakkad for a Rs 21 ticket. The money spent on manning those innumerable toll booths was about 1,000 times more than the cost of the ticket.

Coast to coast
From the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea on the final leg
Srinivas Krishnan

The pressure was tremendous. The three of us – Bhushan Mhapralkar of Auto India, N Radhakrishnan, editor – Man’s World and I – were to take the Scorpio back to Mumbai from Chennai on the final leg of the One Lap Of India One Lap For Safety. Though the toughest sections of the One Lap were done with thanks to the Scorpio’s enduring nature, there were still 2,000-odd km of highways to be covered. That
responsibility was ours. We had to nurse the cars through Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra and get them back home without a hitch. 

But first we had to tackle the long wait. We were twiddling our thumbs at Chennai, waiting for the cars to arrive from Vijayawada, driven by Sachin Chavan of Auto Motor & Sport and Raju Kane and Sushant Balsekar of Times Motoring. Running between Mahindra’s Chennai office and the dealership, India Garage, alleviated the anxiety somewhat. India Garage was being done up – flowers, chairs, podium, ramp, all being put up for the press conference the next day. 

Finally, the cars arrived at 7:30 in the evening – it was a great feeling to see them covered with marker graffiti, and carrying good wishes from various people from different parts of the country. At that moment, I knew everything was going to be just fine.

February 25
For one used to attending press conferences, it was a weird feeling sitting in front of the media and addressing them. We wanted to get it over and done with ASAP, and hit the road. And we did just that at around 11.30 am, after being flagged off by the inspector general of police. The idea was to get to Coimbatore for the night, after passing through Villupuram, Ulundurpet, Athur, Salem and Avanashi – a
distance of about 520 km. To me these were all familiar places, having passed through them many times before. 

Bhushan was at the wheel, and Radha had made himself comfortable in the rear seat, studying the maps and guidebooks. Amma’s state has decent roads, I must admit. Even the traffic was unexpectedly light and we made good progress. We saved up on time by taking packed lunches from Chennai. Munching along, listening to assorted tapes contributed by the previous teams, and taking turns at the wheel, we covered kilometres rapidly. Evening and Salem came and went, and by the time it was dark, we were on the outskirts of Coimbatore. And by 8.30, we had reached the hotel, and the cars were taken over by the dealership for a clean-up and service. A clean, hassle-free day, and we now had only three more days to go.

February 26
It’s amazing how the landscape changes. All the while, I used to think that borders are man-made, but more than once I would be proved wrong over the next few days. An excellent toll road bypass section from Coimbatore led to Palakkad, and it had more toll ticket checkers than the ones in the rest of the country put together. Once we crossed over to Kerala at the Vayalar check post, the environment changed rapidly. Everything was dense, the foliage, the number of people, the houses. From the relatively free stretches of Tamil Nadu, we were in the state with the highest density of people, and it showed.
We were thick in the middle of urban settlements – and till we exited Kerala, there would be no let-up. There was no part of the road that was not free from people or houses or buses. And there was no part of the road that was straight for more than um, one metre. While it did make progress slow, it was entertaining nevertheless, watching humanity and nature unfold their charms together. We passed numerous bridges, but they were so narrow that we couldn’t park the Scorpio and take some pictures, without some choice Malayali abuse being thrown at us. For entertainment, we always had the buses around, which were mostly driven by escapees from the finest psychiatric hospitals the Kerala government had built. 

Late afternoon we exited Calicut, and touched the highway that would lead us all the way home, the awesome NH 17. At Mahe, we were forced to take some photographs by Radha for the Limca Book of Records – according to him, Pondicherry (which includes Mahe, Karaikal and Yanam) is a state, and not a union territory. If that’s true, we would be covering 30 states in 29 days instead (plus one more country, considering the cars went to Bhutan as well!). As we go to press, the issue on the statehood of Pondicherry has not been resolved as yet. 

We pressed on, not being tempted by the booze shops in Mahe – it has reportedly the maximum number of
alcohol shops in the world per square inch! Thalassery and Kannur came and went, and so did Kasargod. The destination was Mangalore for the night, and by 8.30 we delivered the cars to the dealership to get them checked-up and left for the hotel. Radha was in a hurry – India was playing England in the World Cup, and a TV set in the room was waiting for him...

February 27
India won the match, and we celebrated it by taking our Scorpio to the old Mangalore port for pictures. The place was a hive of activity, swarming with lively fisherfolk and dead fish. By the time we finished shooting, it was almost ten o’clock, and Goa beckoned. It was going to be just a 300-km drive, so we could take it easy. Easier said than done. And it was nothing to do with traffic, which was virtually zilch.

The NH 17 between Mangalore and Goa is one of the best stretches of the highway. The Arabian Sea meets you very often and we just had to stop to take pictures all along the way. After passing Udupi, we were onto Bhatkal, where the sun-kissed Trasi beach lay spread in front of us. We had to stop again just after that, because on one side of the road was the sea, and on the other, the creek. Cameras out again! Moving on, we passed over innumerable bridges straddling rivers, offering stunning views. Especially the one on the outskirts of Honavar, over the Sharavati river. This part of the country is so gorgeous that we had to capture it all on film. Here we go again.

The Goa dealer was already on the cellphone, waiting for us. All this was slowing our progress, and we decided that there would be no more photography. Then Karwar happened. After a few hilly switchbacks, a magnificent vista awaited us – a commanding view of the sea spread out all the way to the horizon and naval ships peppered here and there. Out with the cameras, decisions be damned. If the Indian Navy’s ambitious Project Seabird is completed, this area might perhaps be verboten for us. So enjoy it while possible. 

A few checkposts later, we were in Goa. The landscape changed again, it was more green, the roads were twisty... and they were not that smooth either. We headed to Panaji, slowed down by traffic and the sheer lack of width of the NH. We eventually reached the Mahindra dealership at Porvorim at 5.30 in the evening – a simple 300 km drive took us over seven hours, just because it was so gorgeous.

February 28
The last day of the One Lap Of India One Lap For Safety. The most critical 600 km lay in front of us. It was not lost on us or Mahindra’s service/R&D team. We started at six in the morning as planned. The roads were empty and the views were stunning in the morning light. We were rapidly out of Goa and into Maharashtra. Thanks to a packed breakfast, we could keep driving. Small villages came and went, the highway was twisting and turning,little towns just whizzed by and we kept moving, the burden of the success of the entire event hanging over our heads. 

There was no hurry, we were doing good time, and had 100-odd km to get to Chiplun, the halfway point, when Radha complained that the vehicle was pulling to the left. A puncture, which set us back by half-an-hour. Got into Chiplun, where an anxious Behram Dhabar, the co-ordinator of the service team, was waiting for us.Restless Behram probably wouldn’t have slept the previous night as he just had to escort us back home. The drive from Chiplun to Panvel was again unbeatable, a true driver’s paradise. The Scorpio moved beautifully, the tyres held on tight, the engine sang on the high notes, and the gears fell properly in place.
We were in Panvel at 3.30 pm (which, for me, was as good as being in Mumbai), without a hitch. The Mahindra dealer was waiting for us for a photo-session. Bless him, for we were starving. With our faces happily stuffed,we gave our best smiles, and were on the road by four.

February 28 5:15 pm
Entering Mumbai was horrible after the mind-blowing stretches we’d been through. I couldn’t believe I move through this mess every day of my life. There was thick traffic all the way, and getting to Worli was more
nerve-wracking than the entire leg. Mahindra’s Vijay Nakra and Anuu Anand had orchestrated the entire welcoming ceremony at Mahindra Towers, and we were co-ordinating our entry on the cellphone – how did people manage all these years without them?

The whole of Mahindra had turned out, and we drove up the ramp, with all lights blazing, to thunderous applause. Alan Durante, Mahindra’s executive director and president, who had flagged off the One Lap on January 31st flagged us in, exactly after 29 days. We had done it!

Postscript: While we were up there celebrating, the support crew parked their Scorpio, discreetly away from the action. Throughout the entire event, while we journos were visible and high profile, behind the scenes were the highly motivated and hard-working bunch of Mahindra’s service and R&D guys who made the One Lap happen. Not only did they drive along with us, they worked late into the nights to ensure the cars were in perfect condition the next day. This record belongs as much to them as to us. 

The One Lap Of India One Lap For Safety was momentous, considering all rival publications came together for a cause. We may fight in the marketplace, but at the end of it, all we want to do is drive and enjoy – that’s what makes us brothers. Congratulations also goes to Mahindra for their confidence in their winner of a product, the Scorpio, which looked as if it could lap India several times over right away.