Test driving a new car when you don’t drive is itself a test. In my case, this handicap was easily overcome when a friend in the neighbourhood volunteered to accompany me to car dealerships around New Delhi. I had a very short list of candidates: some deficiency in my eyesight makes me regard contemporary cars as hideously ugly. Just about the only ones I would be a proud owner of are the Volkswagen Beetle, the Cooper Mini and a 40-year-old Mercedes – all of which were out of my budget. My friend Niyaz drives a BMW, so why he helped can only be explained by the purest altruism. It must have been trying chasing the Terrano dealership on my behalf, only to have its salesmen cancel appointments repeatedly. Or putting up with my ignorant questions about cars – whether there were any built especially for Delhi with airbags covering every inch of the vehicle, were governors to moderate the car’s speed easily available and were there any James Bond-variants that morphed into helicopters when the semi-suicidal driving all around us became too stressful.
As it happened, I fell in love with the nerdy good looks of the Honda Brio (aesthetically, it is a cousin of the Beetle and the Mini). The salesman, however, thought my obsession with airbags was silly. “Just look at what happened to Jaspal Bhatti,” he exclaimed as we took the zippy Brio for a spin. The comedian died in a car crash, the salesman claimed incorrectly, when the airbag in his car malfunctioned. Despite this astonishing sales technique, I bought a flashy red Brio with dual airbags.
In the weeks leading up to buying my first car ever, I happened to be at the porch of a five-star hotel and asked the doorman to call for a taxi. Serendipity smiled again. A driver more suited to my peculiar requirements could not have been invented. He habitually drives at less than 40 km, never answers his phone while he is driving and always stops for pedestrians. Long before Gopinath Munde died in that terrible accident in Lutyens’ Delhi, Bunti would come to a halt at these dangerous crossroads late at night and put his hazard lights on to indicate the traffic lights were switched off. He is the kind of driver my father, who drove his car with pleasure, till a few months before he died, would have approved of. When I was home, he indulged me by ferrying me around Bangalore to see friends and relatives, gesturing to pedestrians to cross the road in front of him, most of whom looked startled by this old-fashioned courtesy.
When it came to hiring a driver, I interviewed a few in a fitful manner. More than a couple lost their way on the way to my home, and asked about overtime before I had even begun the conversation, and then called back to ask why I had not hired them. There was no choice other than sticking with the taxi driver I knew. He is an independent-minded soul who would not consider a full-time job as someone’s driver. The other problem is that he knows my office is in an area that is hell for drivers – and more generally for cars and office-workers alike. People do not double-park, but quadruple-park. Exiting the car park alone can take 20 minutes in the evenings. Police lurk by the 10-second traffic light for obligatory U-turns, challaaning people incessantly. So, we worked out a bizarre system where I am driven to work in my Brio, which is then parked at home, just a few kilometers away. I am then picked up again for the occasional meeting or dinner with friends. It is a thoroughly impractical arrangement that works superlatively.
On the rare occasions when I have been without a driver, colleagues whose journey home takes them past mine have graciously helped. It makes one realise how easy car-pooling could be – and just how much Delhi needs a hefty congestion charge, like Singapore and London have during rush hour. Instead, we have governments that extend sops to our auto industry rather than making our cities genuinely, erm, smart by reducing pollution and easing the traffic on our roads.
The only catch with my part-time driver is that being from the cooler climes of Himachal, he is prone to month-long holidays – twice – during Delhi’s long summer. No matter. For the past couple of weeks, I have used Uber, the smartphone-aided taxi service that is like having a private concierge sort out your commute every day.
A little past nine every morning, after 20 minutes of interval training or Pilates followed by breakfast, I use the app to request a car. More often than not, it miraculously arrives as I am stepping out of the shower. Uber’s charm is also its drawback: what car will show up is a lottery. Three times this week, I have sheepishly stepped out of a black Audi, looking like a member of Dawood Ibrahim’s extended family, or, worse, a journalist on the take (for the record, I paid between Rs 250 and Rs 300 each time). More often, though, I have had the benefit of the more anonymous Toyota Altis. I should be thrilled by this happy resolution to my driver’s absenteeism problem. Sadly, some defective gene ensures that luxury is wasted on me. The only car I really want driven to my door is a red or blue Honda Brio.
Rahul Jacob: Some vroom for comfort