Despite it’s British origins (the design is based on the old Morris Oxford), the Ambassador is considered to be the definitive Indian car, the car of diplomats and tourists, and is called “The King of the Indian Roads”. In production since 1958, it’s graceful curves recall the elegance of bygone days. Roomy, comfortable, good suspension – essential for the potholed, almost crater-ridden Indian roads – this seemed to be the only option when choosing a car to tour India.
In India car and driver form a package, and with our Ambassador we got Raj. I’d heard stories from other travellers about their driver woes. Drivers who insist on taking you where they want to go, who have no experience, who get lost, cannot read maps, and cannot speak reasonable English. I had doubts, but we were meeting up with friends who had never been in Asia before, and who in their month in India wanted to see as much as possible. This seemed to be the way to go. Many independent travellers frown at this mode of travel; the image of detached, well-off tourists travelling at break-neck speed, not connecting with people or the place they are in, looms large but in my experience this proved to be far from true. Raj was a forthright man, never afraid of giving his opinion, and was open and honest. Great company, I learned a lot about India just by spending time with him.
Raj became a driver almost by accident. He skipped school often to play cricket, and so options were limited when it came to getting work. He began driving at night for a friend, and eventually it became full time employment – much to his family’s horror. Driving is a dangerous business in India. The only rule of the road seems to be blow the horn and keep moving. Traffic often switches to the opposite side of the road – sometimes because the road is closed, sometimes because the road surface is better on the other side, sometimes for no reason at all! Trucks are almost always overloaded, their burdens hang precariously, and many topple. We were often confronted with the wreckage of serious accidents. Raj was always grumbling about fellow road users: ‘stupid man, for them the highway is fun’ – he muttered when we passed a man on a motorbike – his passenger carrying a stack of plastic chairs on his head. ‘He maharaja- no side mirror’ and ‘no respect’ were other frequent comments. My favourite moment was when he leaned out of the window and told a guy on a motorbike struggling on a steep downhill stretch that he should be in first gear – to us he mumbled ‘stupid man, he doesn’t know how to drive’.
Life on the road is hard for a number of other reasons. Raj spends long periods away from home, away from his family. In his nineteen years as a driver Raj has missed many family moments – he was in the south of India when his mother died; and in Udaipur when his son was born. Our tour was due to finish on March 21st and for the first time in four years he would be able to share his wedding anniversary with his wife and son at home. A driver does not have fixed hours, – while Raj took care never to drive at night, there were early starts (Raj was always washing and polishing the car when we got up) and lots of waiting around. Raj had tremendous energy and was not good at having nothing to do. While we were looking for tigers, or soaking up the sights, he would talk to anyone and everyone, networking, helping people out. Some drivers go the movies, Raj often plays badminton.
Accommodation for drivers is provided in five/six bed dorm rooms – while clean, there are disturbances from late comers/smokers/drinkers. Raj prefers to have his own room. His motto was ‘I need to take care of myself and then I can take care of my client’. He was always neatly dressed and we were amazed to find he had enough shirts in his bag for the month long tour – all pressed by his wife – ‘because she does it with feeling’. I began to understand why Raj wanted us to stay at places of his choosing – it was not simply about his earning commission, it was about being in a place where he felt comfortable, where he knew people, and where he would be looked after. The arrangement was mutually beneficial – Raj always suggested a hotel within our budget and all of his tips were very good – twice we stayed at a hotel with a swimming pool for Rs. 800 and I began to learn that sometimes a little bit of luxury is a great thing.
In spite of the difficulties Raj loves his job. He is now the proud owner of his own Ambassador, he’s seen nearly all of India, and meets lots of people. There is also a great camaraderie amongst the drivers. Once when our trusty Ambassador broke down, another driver from Delhi stopped almost immediately to offer help. Parking the car at the roadside, Raj explained that any driver would recognise the number plate and stop. It’s a code of honour.
His work also enables him to take good care of his family. ‘We (Indians) are very emotional people’ Raj was fond of saying. ‘Always buy your wife expensive clothes’ he said one day. I asked what he meant. He told me that his wife and son were the most important people in his life and he wanted to keep his wife happy. She had the responsibility of looking after the home while he was away – if she was happy, he would have a happy home and a happy life – a good life. ‘Our luck is bound together’. Raj seemed to feel the same kind of responsibility for us while we were in his charge. On long journey’s the car was stocked with fresh fruit – oranges, bananas, grapes, and papaya. We came to think of Raj as the papaya king! Selecting the freshest, juiciest specimen at the beginning of a journey, we would break by the roadside, to stretch our legs – Raj cutting up the fruit on a sheet of newspaper on the bonnet of the car. ‘No hurry, no worry, no chicken curry’ was his saying when we got out of the car to look at monuments. Once other drivers urged him to go and look for us, because we’d been so long. He said there was no need, he knew his clients. There was even a DVD player and lots of Indian music for boring stretches of highway. Bollywood tunes blaring as we crawled through rickshaws, motorbikes, wooden carts, cars and cows into Varanasi, I remembered that it’s this frenetic energy and fun loving spirit that I love about India. Raj somehow personified this energy.
Travelling in a car was comfortable, easy, a luxury, a welcome break from the rigours of train and bus travel. Travelling with Raj was good fun, a chance to connect with someone and learn something about their life. A great experience.
It’s ten years since we did our trip with Raj but I’m still in contact with him and he’s still driving people around India. I’d be happy to provide his details if anyone’s interested.