1 November 2009. Sunday
It’s just nine in the evening, but the dark roads are already deserted. All the shutters are down and only a few lights blink behind some grilled windows. We are in Aurangabad. Not the Aurangabad of Ajanta and Ellora fame but a small town in Bihar off NH2. We have been on the road since early morning and are hoping to find a decent hotel for the night. So far the two hotels we have checked out have failed our bare minimum standards. We face the prospect of driving through the night to Varanasi. As my co-driver and photographer Ashley and I are debating this, I suddenly find three motorcycles swerving into my headlight beam forcing me to brake. We have nowhere to turn as the bikes have blocked the road, and six men sway menacingly towards us.
Is this robbery or have we unknowingly offended some local sensibility? I roll down the window. I can smell the cheap booze in the man’s face as he thrusts his three-day stubble and red eyes through the window and hollers in my face, “Nano hai?” Yes, it is. He pulls out his face and declares triumphantly to his troops, “Nano hai! This is the first Nano we have seen in this town, sir, and I hope you do not mind if we take a look.” Hey, showing off all the features of the Nano and answering every question of a crowd of drunken men is a lot better than getting robbed or stabbed, and we enthusiastically oblige. Twenty minutes later, we are hot-footing it to the relative safety of Varanasi. The decision is unanimous.
This is the first night of our drive from Singur to Sanand. We had started that morning from Tata’s abandoned Singur plant at a quarter past nine with 1,236 km on the Nano’s odo. We have decided to stick to the GQ (Golden Quadrilateral) for our run to Sanand after much deliberation. You can drive to Sanand from Singur cutting across the country via Raipur and Nagpur, and then reaching Sanand passing through Indore. This was ruled out due to bad roads and fear of political trouble in some parts. The other option is to follow the NH2 till Mughalsarai and then head west via Jabalpur and Indore. Reports about this route too were uncertain, so we decided to take the slightly longer route via Varanasi and Agra, then turn west towards Jaipur reaching Sanand via Udaipur. I have my fingers crossed that this little 624cc car can make this long journey without cooking itself or falling into pieces.
The Tata Nano is not meant for the highway. It’s a car meant strictly for use within the city. The 35bhp engine has a top speed of 105kph that takes forever to reach. The small 15-litre tank restricts the car’s range. Plus there’s no boot space to speak of. Clearly Tata never designed the car for inter-city travel. And here we are doing exactly what the car is not designed to do. And as the figures tick away in the odo, the car reveals itself layer by layer, like an onion.
It’s nearly one in the morning by the time we reach Varanasi. After 16 hours and nearly 700 km behind the wheel all we want is some food and a clean bed. Phone calls to the list of hotels in Lonely Planet reveal that all are full. We have unfortunately landed on the eve of Kartik Purnima and Dev Deepavali festival. Spending the night in the Nano is not an option since the front seats barely recline six degrees. Finally we find a hotel, but by the time we hit the sack it is three in the morning.
2 November, Monday
All hopes of catching some early morning shots at Varanasi are dashed as we check out after 8. More disappointment is to follow as we are told that all the streets to the ghats are closed to vehicular traffic due to the festival. We decide to take some pictures around the city, get lost and get high blood pressure as every vehicle seems to be following some random trajectory, zipping millimeters away from the Nano. It is late afternoon by the time we manage to take some pictures, untangle ourselves from the traffic and point the Nano towards Allahabad. The odo reads 1,974 km.
Thankfully Allahabad is just a short 130 km drive. The sun has retired for the night by the time we enter Allahabad. As we cross the bridge over the sangam, a celestial sight awaits us. Thousands of diyas float on the water as people celebrate Dev Deepavali at this holy confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. We quickly rush to the hotel, drop off our bags and rush off to catch the sight of the floating diyas from closer quarters. Stopping to ask for directions, we meet Amit Mishra, criminal lawyer, who jumps into the car offering to guide us to the place himself and also treat us to the city’s best chaat. All in exchange for the privilege of a ride in the Nano.
3 November, Tuesday
Allahabad. The odometer tells us that we have already driven 891km since leaving Singur. Today our plan is to reach Agra, about 700 km north of us on NH2. But before we can head out, Ashley wants to take some pictures. So it’s nearly nine-thirty before we head out of town and hit the highway to Agra.
After two days behind the wheel, Ashley and I have developed a soft corner for the little car. Before the trip began, we had visions of aching lumbars and monotonous puttering down the road watching autorickshaws blitz us. Things turned out a little bit different. No complaints from the spine. And the Nano, in a manner, can be fun to drive. Slot into first, stay alert, and shift up just before you hit the limiter. Do the same in second. Third is a taller gear, so get some momentum going and shift to fourth for the home run. It’s half a minute of work to get the speedo needle to the 100kph mark. Try and keep a steady foot to maintain that speed. Let the needle creep up and the irritating warning beep comes on and the panel lights up in warning. I try and maintain a steady speed since I have to go through the gears all over again if I lose momentum.
Since I can see a fair distance ahead on these roads, it’s pretty easy to plan my overtaking maneuvers, and we often shoot past much faster cars. We even blitz a C-Class! While most drivers are happy to watch the Nano go by, a few drivers with more fragile egos have a point to prove. This is no race, and we humbly acknowledge their superior machines and wave them past.
Work the gears correctly and the Nano can keep up with the general flow of the traffic on the highway. But unlike the drivers of the larger cars who are cruising comfortably, you have to constantly drive the Nano, keeping the car in the correct gear and adjusting your throttle. You can’t just sit back, relax and watch the landscape roll by; you have to always drive the car.
It’s evening when we reach Agra. We get a quick check-up of the car done at Tata dealer Siyaram Motors. All it needs is a coolant top-off and a wash. We are at our hotel by seven for an early night. Tomorrow we visit the Taj.
4 November, Wednesday
It’s 7.30 in the morning as we head towards the Taj. It’s 1,421 km since we left Singur. An employee of Siyaram Motors knows a spot across the river from where we can take a picture of the Taj with the Nano in the foreground. We follow his motorcycle through the labyrinth of Agra. The traffic is as bad as in Varanasi, and Chetan has to patiently wait ahead as we take forever to extricate the Nano from the traffic snarls in the narrow lanes. The drive though is worth it when the magnificent structure comes into view. It’s already noon and sadly we don’t have time to go and visit it since we have to leave for Jaipur.
From Agra we turn west off NH2 and take NH11 to Jaipur. It’s around 250 km down the road. The roads continue to be magnificent. The sad part is that though we have world-class roads, we have no traffic discipline, or even common sense. Vehicles driving down the wrong side of the road are so common that you begin to accept it as a part of life. Motorcyclists jumping out of bushes on the divider are scary. Unlit trucks carrying steel girders extending out from their deck at night are scarier. The scariest though are the crippled beggars sitting in the middle of the fast lane, expecting you to swerve around and throw them a coin as you do so! Little wonder that India has earned the dubious record of having the most number of fatalities on the road.
Since I don’t believe that a God on the dashboard is a safety feature, and the Nano on the highway at high speeds is a skittish animal with the tall side profile acting as a sail in a crosswind, I keep one hand near the horn. Back home, I find horns irritating but here I am discovering that they are a huge safety feature. The moment I see the slightest movement on the road from the corner of my eyes I go twwweeeeeet. That’s not exactly the right sound though. It’s nearer to those whistles you get at kids’ birthday parties. There is no getting away from its strangled, strident screech. The speed at which jaywalking pedestrians, cyclists, tractors and jugaars move away from you is dependent on the decibel power of your toot-toot. And the Nano horn lies at the bottom of the highway heap.
The Agra road enters Jaipur with Man Singh’s spectacular palace walls running alongside it. But soon the magnificent welcome gives way to a maze of streets and traffic. Trying to dodge the two-wheelers and camel carts I find a traffic constable in front of me whom I can’t dodge. I stop. I have inadvertently jumped a red light. I show him the car, tell him about our journey, about our unfamiliarity with the roads and why it was a genuine mistake. He offers to send along a colleague who will guide us to the centre of town where we can find a hotel. As his colleague gets in and I am about to gush about police hospitality, the constable suddenly remembers that hospitality is a business and waves us down again. The tea-water, I justify, is payment for the guide.
5th November Thursday
At 7.30am the only visitors at Amber Fort apart from us are the langurs. The fort opens its gate only at ten but there’s enough to explore around the fort. Ashley spends as much time photographing the monkeys as the Nano. Monkey smile, monkey love, monkey jump and even monkey inspects Nano, are all captured on the Nikon.
I have to remind our snapper that we have about 500 km to Udaipur today. From Jaipur we take NH8 and then turn left on NH79 to Udaipur at Kishangarh. It seems to me that the more barren the land, the brighter the clothes of the people. The colorful ghagra-cholis and turbans make up for the barren land. While the landscape changes, the broad swath of GQ continues unchanged and gets us to the tourist hub of Udaipur in time to take a stroll around the city.
Walking up to Lake Pichola we find the shimmering Lake Palace Hotel awash in lights, glittering like a jewel in the darkness. It’s like a magical fairyland place as the night hides the grime and filth the sun will reveal.
6 November, Friday
We are going to reach Sanand this evening. But before we leave the city Ashley wants to take some pictures at the Udaipur City Palace. Since the Palace opens only at ten we spend the morning exploring the city. As usual, the Nano too joins the list of tourist attractions. Thump, thump, thump… people knocking at the car to check if it’s ‘fibre’ or steel. Everybody seems to know that the engine is in the back, but what’s in the front? The usual ‘average kya hai?’ Two lakhs on road?!!! Then we explain this is the top model. Space is good, everyone agrees. And everyone knows exactly how many Nanos there are in their towns.
It’s half past eleven by the time we are ready to leave Udaipur. Ahmedabad is 248 km away. Sanand is 30 km from Ahmedabad. The Udaipur-Ahmedabad stretch is one of the best driving roads in India. Though we are driving India’s least powerful car, I can see Ashley enjoying himself behind the wheel, setting up the car in the corners to follow the ideal race lines. In a Nano!
We want to reach Sanand before sundown since we need some pictures of the Nano outside the Tata Motor gates. But Ashley, as usual, keeps getting distracted by photo opportunities, so it’s late afternoon by the time we reach the outskirts of Ahmedabad. We are now anxious to make it to Sanand before sunset. We are so intent on this that we forget the one vital thing we had been monitoring through the journey – the fuel gauge. The small 15-litre tank doesn’t give it a great range. Throughout the drive, the moment the Nano fuel gauge dropped down to three bars we would start looking out for a pump. Two bars meant urgent. And one bar was an emergency. Right now there were no bars, just a big ‘E’. Aircon off. Hold the speed at fifty and quickly find a pump. There’s a pump 13 km ahead, and one six km behind. We turn around and the car makes it to the pump running on fumes and prayers.
November 6, 1715 hrs, we arrive at the Sanand plant. The Nano odo reads 3,748 km. We have arrived after a 2,512 km drive. No body ache, no breakdowns, not even a puncture!
Here’s a footnote. Mr Vishwakarma, head of manufacturing, welcomes us to the plant with some tea and snacks. As we chat we stumble upon an amazing coincidence. Tata had to mobilise 3,800 trucks to transfer all the equipment from Singur to Sanand. Not wanting to damage the expensive equipment, the team at Tata did a lot of research to find the best route from Singur to Sanand. And guess what? That’s exactly the route we had taken. But unlike Tata, we had absolutely no trouble.