Word from the top indicated we should join a group already at the village of Lasalgaon in Maharashtra India for consultations, and these orders were of immediate effect.
So we had some consultations of our own to determine which of our ancient vehicles would be able to make that trip in a day. Going by bus was certainly not under consideration as we’d have to fight our way to get onto a bus at each terminus and who could guarantee we’d get to our destination on time. We also ruled out rail travel for the same reason. Time was of the essence!
Each of us in turn shook our head as inquiries were made about current road worthiness of our own vehicles. They were just fine for creeping around the streets of Pune where a street mechanic could materialize on every corner if you had mechanical trouble, but taking a long trip over bruising roads to reach the village of Lasalgaon was more than any of our vehicles would be able to handle. We stared glumly at each other as we thought of that urgent direction from headquarters and the practicality of reaching our destination that same day.
Then my friend Al had a bright idea. He’d seen Wal tinkering with his ancient Studebaker car of late and perhaps Wal could be the solution to our problem? Wal was incensed at the indignities his car had suffered before it was delivered to him for use and was always tinkering with it to try and resurrect its former glory. He called it his ‘Stupidbaker.’ We headed to the Publishing House where Wal the foreign advisor reigned supreme.
Now Walter was a taciturn Englishman who’d been enticed to the Publishing House to commission their newly delivered presses from abroad. His job was to get these gigantic machines installed and running, and train locals in their long term operation and maintenance. Walter knew his stuff and was viewed as a great asset by those anxious to upgrade their technical knowledge. His barked commands were taken with good spirit as Indian workers discovered under that English reserve was a sensitive and generous heart.
It was just not proper to shorten his name to Wal; however when this became known to the American and Australian expatriates they with one accord christened him Wal. Walter’s eyes would narrow when these irreverent expatriates called him by this name, but after a while he must have decided we were a lost cause and grudgingly responded when addressed
So when we arrived at the Press and addressed him as Walter his eyes raised toward the ceiling in surprise and suspicion. Then a glint in those eyes correctly acknowledged he now had these ignorant tormenters under his firm control. He wandered around for some time with us hopefuls in tow while slowly examining each piece of equipment meticulously. Then he nonchalantly informed us he’d be glad to take us. We headed gratefully for our respective houses to pack a few clothes and in quick time were at Wal’s house standing beside the sleek Stupidbaker waiting for our benefactor to appear.
Soon we were out on the highway heading north and consulting maps to try and determine where it would be appropriate to exit the main trunk road and follow country roads to cut across to Lasalgaon village. And at that time we made an important discovery about Wal. He’d obviously been inspired by the aerodynamic design of the Stupidbaker and considered that its ownership gave him a licence to fly. The wheels of that car would launch from each raised section of the road and sail majestically through the air to the next raised section. Wal sat in the driver’s seat like one demon possessed oblivious to our presence and staring forward eagerly surveying the next landing strip for his Stupidbaker car to launch from.
My friend Al had been raised a Canadian logger and had the build and personality no one would have the courage to argue with. It was always a hoot to travel around with Al and I enjoyed his company immensely. There was never a lack of humour travelling with Al even in most depressing circumstances and his voice could be heard above all noise as the final voice of authority. He always occupied the front seat either as driver or passenger.
But Al was strangely silent on this journey. Now and then he’d glance at Wal’s face with a look of inquiry, and then glance back at me in the back seat with an imploring look that said, “Are we going to make it to Lasalgaon alive?” We wondered if Wal’s courage was somehow bolstered by the presence of an ejector seat such as that found in fighter planes to blast him out of the car should danger eventuate. We looked around nervously to see if we had one to rely on too. Not a word was spoken, and breath was coming in short urgent gasps.
After several hours of travel we found ourselves on back roads our map said would take us across to Lasalgaon village. It was here the next instalment of terror was to unfold. Wal surprisingly decided to become conversational. Turning to Al as we neared one of the major villages to transit he mentioned casually that it appeared the Stupidbaker brakes were no longer working. He tentatively tested the hand brake and our speed dropped by one kilometre per hour. Wal then instructed Al to turn off the ignition and apply the hand brake when instructed, and continued progress toward the village at breakneck speed.
Sweat poured from Al’s forehead as he manipulated the ignition and hand brake at each command as we sped through the village. Buses pulled over in alarm as they saw us coming through the streets, hand cart pullers pushed their carts under the nearest awning, people fled into shops and houses and sacred cows galloped for safety. We were just breathing a sigh of relief that no one had been killed in this village transit when to our horror the road ahead came to an abrupt halt.
Now at this point I need to explain something. The Government had decreed bridges should be upgraded where necessary throughout India and allocated funds for this purpose. This was to give employment a boost as much as it was for the improvement of highway services. It was for this reason many bridges in India except for those not that easy to pull down ceased to exist simultaneously to be replaced for long periods of time by road diversions. We were now at one of those diversions.
Wal’s reaction time was superb! With a lurch to the left we were travelling fast down a temporary embankment diversion which was to take us across a semi dry river bed and up another embankment to rejoin the road. Al’s urgent attention to the handbrake and ignition key made little difference as we sped toward the river.
The bridge building crowd paused just long enough to calculate our speed and fled in all directions. The women carrying soil in gamalas on their heads dropped their loads and sped for safety. There was a loud hooting accompanied by shaking of fists as we leaped stone over stone across the river bed and hit the dirt track on the other side followed by a mushroom cloud of dust. The Stupidbaker groaned up the embankment and Wal resumed his quiet possession as he aimed the vehicle in the vicinity of Lasalgaon.
We arrived as the sun was setting praising all the guardian angels who’d worked overtime to get us to our destination. Emerging shell shocked from the car we retrieved our bags and headed shakily for our consultations hoping for a comfortable bed to sleep on when our work was done and we had recovered our senses. Unfortunately bedrolls on a hard stone porch were to be our resting places for the night. The end of a perfect day!
We prevailed on Wal to work on the Stupidbaker’s brakes before returning to Pune, and insisted on going a longer way around on the return journey so as not to face the villagers we’d frightened on the way across.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering. We never requested Wal to take us anywhere again and from that time on treated him with all the respect an Englishman should be granted.
NB: In case you’re wondering this story is based on true events with names changed to protect the privacy of individuals concerned.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2012 all rights reserved”