As you drive up to toll plazas on our highways, you pass huge boards, invariably in three languages, that list the VIPs who are exempt from paying tolls. They have to be huge. (The boards, not the VIPs). It's a long list. So long, that if you're driving at speed -- any speed, and in any case, it's likely you are doing so since you're on a highway -- you don't have time to run your eye down the list.
But I did my best. I learned that our toll-freed VIPs include the President, the Vice President, Governors, Members of Parliament, the winners of various national awards, and vehicles bearing VIP symbols.
Which, naturally, leaves me with some questions.
One, if I'm a VIP of sorts -- you know, President and the like -- and I'm rushing down the highway, how will I be able to skim this list to find out if I'm exempt?
Two, if I'm a VIP of sorts, clearly unable to read the boards, am I expected to know that I'm exempt? If so, I'm not going to read the boards even if I could, so why have them? Because of what possible use is this information to non-VIPs, always assuming they can read it in the first place?
Three, If I merely put a VIP symbol on my car, will I be waved through? (I saw this happen to at least two cars). If so, why isn't there a booming market in such symbols? Or is there one?
Four, why are VIPs exempt at all? Why should they not pay their few dozen rupees to use the road like the rest of us?
Five, is it VIPs who demand this exempt status? Or some bureaucrat who decides it must be done?
The Gujarat border is marked by two enormous fuel bunkers, one on each side of the highway. These are run by Reliance, new entrants into the fuel-vending business. They are smart and spotless. They are apparently also desirable. A while later, when our driver notices that his fuel gauge is alarmingly low, he leans over and whispers: "Where are the Reliance places?"
A long way behind us, I tell him. He clicks his tongue in exasperation. He had his heart set on one particular kind of fuel from Reliance. With a noticeable and resigned sag to his shoulders, he turns into a HP bunker.
Something about marble in this area. Along the highway are any number of somewhat desolate signs -- just the signs, nothing else -- saying "Flora Italian Marble", or "Marmo Italian Marble", or "Millennium Italian Marble", or "Asia Pacific Italian Marble."
But I see no marble. So why the signs? And how is it Italian marble if it is right here -- or isn't right here -- in India?
And do those signs have anything to do with the one that I see on the divider in the middle of the highway? The one that says: "Hut of Jatt". Still wondering what that's about.
Leaving Dandi, we are in an enormous traffic jam, trying to make our way through the hordes of trucks, buses, vans, jeeps, SUVs, cars and people who are trying to make their way to Dandi for the Congress rally. The heat is fierce, and I don't envy the folks stuck in buses or the back of trucks; though in one, they have broken into song and dance and are having a rip-roaring time.
Just ahead of one place we are stalled interminably, a motorbike tries to move ahead on the edge of the road. As I watch, it slips off the edge and rolls down the slope into a thicket of thorny bushes. Its driver gets up screaming. His arm is broken, the bone visible, the blood already staining his sleeve. The amateur nurse with us takes two plastic water bottles and fashions a splint with them for him.
A little further, a truck that wants to go in the opposite direction has overheated. The driver has the bonnet up and the cap of the radiator off, steam gusting out as he looks in nonchalantly. Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a couple of the small plastic sachets of drinking water that people were handing to us as we walked to Dandi. Bites off the corner of one and squirts its contents into the steaming radiator. Bites off the corner of the other and squirts its contents in too.
Closes the bonnet, waves to the honking trucks behind him to say thanks for waiting for me, climbs back behind the wheel and rolls on. The traffic-choked road brings him to a shuddering halt only a few feet forward. But at least his jalopy is not overheating.
Water and its containers have their uses, whether in bottles or sachets.
Another truck driver decides he's had enough of this snarl. He tries to swing his truck around to go back. Somehow, he manages to get it perpendicular to the road, but then he is stuck. He can't complete the U-turn, he can't go back. The traffic is that snarled. He keeps pleading with the surrounding vehicles to let him get past, but as they can't move either, it's futile.
A motorbike tries to edge past him; at that very moment, he thinks he sees a gap and he tries to move forward to finish his U. In near-slow motion, I see the motorbike toppling sideways, the truck almost running over it, people yelling at the driver to stop. Luckily he does, in time, and nobody is hurt. But several men around are incensed and rush up to his door and start banging on it and on his windscreen, one with a long stick. (What's a man doing with a stick like that in traffic like this?). He has his hands up helplessly, his passengers jump out and run. I'm afraid the men around him are going to lynch him.
But they relent, perhaps because all of us know what a mess we are in and the kinds of things that sometimes happen in such messes. The driver eventually backs his truck down the slope, out of the traffic, into the bushes, and sits there waiting. For all I know, he's still there.
Eventually, we roll down the slope too. It turns out to be the only obvious way to extricate ourselves from this gargantuan snarl. All the vehicles going in our direction creep gingerly down the slope, shoot off across a field and join a smaller road -- Dandi rally traffic-free, luckily -- on the other side.
When it's our turn, I stand at the bottom of the slope and direct our driver. He takes it at a slightly too acute angle, and right there before my eyes, the whole damn car with its four occupants actually starts tipping onto its side ... then rocks back.
Immediately, men from all around leap to the rescue. Some jump onto the far side of the vehicle, hang on to anything to add weight there. On this side, several of us rush to hold it so it won't tip over. It is several seconds before we can persuade the petrified driver to take his foot off the brake pedal that he has slammed to the floor; then the car creeps down like the ones before it and we are on our way.
The driver says to me in wonder: "Yahan ka public bahut madad karte hain!" ("The people here really help out!").