Sunday, 13 November 2011

Major Intensity and the Sardines

Three hours ahead on a difficult journey to the Sunderbans. Even a Jeep becomes an intimate enclosure. Sitting beside the driver, there's plenty to talk about; plenty to give out about; plenty, simply, to share.

Not a word. Not a single word. Even when invited. Just a solemn expression - almost unseeing which, for a driver, is an unsettling concept.

It wasn't as if he didn't speak English (that slipped out late on the return trip).

It's something I had noticed about other taxi drivers - a certain intensity of expression. Difficult to characterise: detached indifference? sullen resentment? indignant xenophobia? So different to the average Dublin Taxi driver who, even in the space of a short journey, typically gave you his life history, found out your's or managed to express a view on every major world problem and political dilemma. My man's Intensity wasn't ordinary - his was Major.

So I took to observing Major Intensity. Quietly, of course - the last thing I wanted was to promote the Major.

You might think that such intensity might quickly escalate to aggression, given the nudge of aggravating road rage? But despite the most outrageous behaviour of other road users (typically pulling out directly in front of the Major), there wasn't a word of objection from him - let alone an expletive (I have been known to resort to AngloSaxon monosyllables at such times. . .)

The return to Kolkata proved the point. The trip to the Sunderbans had been absorbing but tiring: 30-plus degrees, often little shelter from the direct rays of the sun, I was weary by the time I climbed into the front seat of the Jeep.

You would have been forgiven for thinking the Major had a hot date in Kolkata. The horses were not spared. And on Kollata roads, that means hair-raising encounters at every turn - oh, and on the straight sections too.

Some might expect that the infrastructure between a megacity of 15m and a discrete region of over 4m might boast some impressive tar? Nothing of the sort. Often little more than a single lane each way, the road was brutal: poor surface, crowded, unmarked. And full of bends. The prospect of negotiating this Highway from Hell back to Kolkata, in the dark, filled me alternatively with a urgent need to sleep (blotting out the trip to Hades) and to sit bolt upright, my hand a claw on my seatbelt, feet desperately pressing an imaginary brake. My confidence in the Major shaken, I settled down for an uncomfortably conscious bird's eye view of the whole return journey.

As dusk approached, I had managed to convince myself that the driving was pretty much the same as the journey down. It was the overtaking on blind corners that shocked me back to reality.

On a quick reckoning, I estimated that about half of all vehicles sported a light of some sort. When overtaking, we were absolutely dependent on our lights to illuminate any unlit oncoming vehicle. It might be a cyclist or a 5 ton truck. Fair enough? Good lights, good acceleration, good braking? Good God!

The first adrenalin shot through my system when we were overtaking a car that itself was overtaking an Auto - with all three of us approaching a blind corner. The oncoming unlit vehicle appeared (in our headlights) only at the last moment. Major Intensity braked briefly, jinked left and then gunned the Jeep out of harm's way without drawing breath. And never looked in my direction afterwards. Or said a thing. Anglo-Saxon or otherwise.

He's either semi-catatonic or else juiced up so high that he doesn't know he's here, I thought.

But the Major wasn't finished surprising me. After two tortuous hours' driving, we slowed to a halt in a traffic jam and settled behind some Sardines, cunningly disguised as 50 or so men crammed into the back of a TATA truck. Across the back of the truck they writhed in each other's sweat, in rude good humour. I couldn't bring myself to imagine what it felt like to be stuck in the middle of this heaving mound of humanity.

Having nudged forward only a few metres some of the Sardines, spotting the Major, started some boisterous shouting and taunting, the sort grown men are prone to when consorting in large groups. The Intensity meter didn't budge. Equanimity personified.

At least a dozen times, the Major restarted the engine, moved a metre or two back behind the Sardines and then turned the engine off, to the renewed taunts of the Sardines. Not a flicker from him. I began to wonder if the Major was related to Mr Spock.

Eventually, traffic started to move (the delay had been a rail crossing) and the Major overtook the Sardines, testing their boisterous good humour with a cloud of dust the size of a small nuclear explosion.

Back in Kolkata, exhausted, I step into a much needed shower thinking the Major's expression probably remained changed.

Penny for your thoughts Major?

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