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Why Indian drivers might never take to automatic transmission in a big way

July 30, 2010 2 comments

During our initial months in Bangalore, as we ploughed through the dense urban traffic (being driven around by auto drivers and cab drivers), the biwi and I speculated that automatic transmission cars would be a hit in India. It had to be a case of when, rather than if. I mean, why would anyone reject the convenience that automatic transmission cars offer?

The Indian automobile trends in 2008 hardly supported our bold prediction. The only mass-market automobile models with automatic transmission were the Hyundai i10 and the Maruti Suzuki Astar. The trend improved slightly in 2009 when at least two more car models came with automatic transmission option – Hyundai Verna and Honda City. According to this Carazoo article published in 2009, luxury cars like Mercedes and BMW and semi-luxury cares like Honda Accord and Skoda seem to be reporting better statistics around automatic transmission adoption.

Every driver I encountered and every colleague I accosted, on the topic of automatics, would reply “premium in car price along with drop in petrol mileage by 2-3km (minimum) for every liter is simply not worth it”. Lesson #101 on the cost conscious Indian customer – cost trumps convenience any day.

As a non-driver in Indian driving conditions, the preceding narrative should be sufficient to establish why Indian car buyers weren’t voting heavily for automatic transmission cars. It’s only after I set my inner-driver loose on the Bangalore roads last year (following The Janus Man saga) that I was to learn another reason — a metaphysical one — why the automatic transmission might never be a hit on Indian roads.

I was driving to work one morning and had just gotten onto Bannerghatta Road. The 30 second stretch under the Dairy Circle underpass (at 8:10am I should add) is the only time I’m able to shift to the 5th gear and enjoy that easy coasting feeling before it’s time to take the left to my office building. It suddenly struck me why the manual transmission had become such an integral part of my driving experience in India. The steering wheel, brakes, horn, and the manual stick shifter are the only four things under my control when I get behind the wheel of my car [thanks to my friend Prateep for reminding me of the invaluable horn]. Practically nothing else is within my control — the quality of road can deteriorate swiftly after a torrential downpour, the pedestrian can decide to cross the road forcing me to downshift or brake suddenly, the auto driver can cut in front of me if I paused to scratch my cheek. So of the three things within my control as a driver on Indian roads, you want me to give up one of them? No – never!

….

….

Did I say never? Oops! We recently added an automatic transmission car into our stable — say hello to Hum do humare do – bina exhaust ke.

Hum do humare do…bina exhaust ke

June 27, 2010 3 comments

2-day old Blue Reva fresh after car-puja - in kissing distance of older sibling (SX4)

Title translation (for non-Hindi readers): Hum do humare do is an old 1970’s era government initiated family planning slogan to promote  family of four (hum do = we two, humare do = our two). Bina exhaust ke = without exhaust.

So… two months shy of our 2nd year anniversary of returning to India, we purchased our 2nd car – a blue REVAi. If you’ve not been tracking electric car trends, RECC (REVA Electric Car Company) has been selling REVAi electrics in India since 2001 and in UK since 2003. For possibly a few more years, RECC remains the only company in India selling electric cars. The wikipedia entry for RECC accurately describes REVAi as an urban electric micro-car seating two adults and two kids. Did I say accurate? I meant ‘nearly accurate’ because it should read two adults and two kids (under the age of 10).

Now that we’ve established how small the REVAi is, let’s move to other specs. For this, I shall borrow liberally from this 2006 review of the REVAi in The Hindu…

The first thing that hits you when you look at the car is its size which makes you think of yourself as Gulliver, the giant when you sit inside. The steering is a wee bit too close to your chest and the A pillars close in on you.

Ok – so I wasn’t done talking about the REVA’s size. If you don’t step in gingerly to the driver’s seat, you could easily brush the lever to make it high beam. If you turn your head around suddenly (to see what your 4-year old’s doing in the back seat), the rear-view mirror would need readjusting.

The Reva’s a full metre shorter than the Maruti Suzuki Wagon R but around 100kg heavier than Maruti Suzuki 800. The body is built of hard ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) plastic and a tubular space frame holds everything together. Eight deep discharge batteries sourced from leading American golf cart battery maker, Trojan, sits in the middle of the chassis, with the controller and energy management system parked under the rear section of the car. The motor itself, a Bulgarian 13KW DC unit from Kostov, sits beneath the chassis and powers the rear wheels. The job of the energy controller is to make sure current is drawn equally from the batteries, especially during high load requirements and there are no surges and spikes.

The golf cart lineage certainly shows with the quiet humming of the motor. Our li’l one’s take on that humming sound – “it feels like we are in an airplane on the runway”. By the way, the rest of the comments in The Hindu review are slightly dated since the new batteries are supposed to extend the driving distance to the 70-90k range depending on your use of air-conditioning).

The REVA buying decision was somewhat analogous to our returning to India decision. There are a lot of reasons why one would NOT want to buy this car and only a few reasons why one should. Turned out those few reasons were crucial.

Reason #1: (Zero emissions) This is a dead-obvious reason but needed to be stated. Until public transportation becomes a viable option in Bangalore (will it ever?), we needed a 2nd car and it just couldn’t be a traditional petrol/diesel one.

Reason #2: (Automatic transmission car) Ever since our adventures with The Janus Man came to an end, we haven’t employed a full-time driver. I’ve  become scarily comfortable driving the SX4 in various types of Bangalore traffic conditions but the kids’ dropoffs and pickups from school, ferrying them to after-school activities has required a combination of part-time drivers from EZiDrive and auto-rickshaw rides. P has been on the threshold of to-hell-with-these-drivers-but-I-cant-drive-a-stick-shift-car. Getting the REVA is expected to be a watershed moment for her. First the learner’s license, then driving in Sunday traffic, then driving in Saturday traffic, then driving solo on weekends, and…voila! one day she goes solo on weekdays as well. We are not sure if she or the kids are more excited with this prospect.

Reason#3: (Minimalism) What’s the smallest car that can get us around and keep the kids protected from the air pollution? Turns out the only answer in 2010 is REVAi. Small is indeed beautiful.

And I thought I knew Koramangala Roads…

April 17, 2010 Leave a comment

What are those serpentine patterns?

On closer inspection... studded belts perhaps?

For someone who’s done a lot of running (and walking) on Koramangala roads in the past 2 years, I was surprised to discover these patterns on the stretch of road right opposite Raheja Residency. The ‘what is it’ mystery was solved quickly enough — Koramangala’s tall majestic trees shed seed shells that are similar in appearance to the imli (tamarind) – see middle picture. I hope one day a botanist will stumble upon this post and educate us all on what kind of tree this is.

For some strange reason, the most inane things pique my interest. I started to wonder how so many seed shells were impregnated on this road. I recalled that sometime last year, 7th Cross Road (first two pictures are of that road) was relaid. What may have happened is that these seed shells dropped on the road between the road-laying phase and the road-rolling phase. I felt satisfied with this theory for a few days until… I realized that this seed-shell-impregnated-onto-roads phenomenon was not localized to 7th Cross Road. Almost every Koramangala Road I walked in the next few days sported the studded belt pattern — it seemed almost that they were spiting me for my lack of observation during the past few years. The original theory was still credible but I wondered if this seed-shell-impregnation process was also happening well beyond the road laying stage – especially on hot summer days when the tar starts to turn semi-solid.

And then a week later I found several seed-shells impregnated on concrete pavements off 80-Feet Road – whoa! How to explain this??? Time to call Guy Noir I say…

Don’t Be Alarmed!

March 5, 2010 Leave a comment

This is your first month back in India after half a lifetime in America or Europe or… you are an expat who’s landed in India on a 2-year assignment. You have done the wise thing by hiring a driver but you still have to watch the movements of the heterogeneous traffic – with morbid fascination! Don’t be alarmed…

If you see a motorcyclist riding the wrong way on a one-way road,

He knows that the odds of him getting caught by a cop are very slim.

If you approach an intersection without a traffic light,

India has crowd-sourced the traffic light and the results are stunning.

If you see a motorcyclist standing on the stirrups,

He probably has an hour-long commute and his orthopaedician has advised him to rest his back.

If you see helmets slung on motorcyclists’ forearm instead of their heads,

The helmet law is really about preventing fines, not saving heads.

If you see a slow-moving moped piled high with bales of vegetables and no driver,

Look again – he’s draped on top of the bales miraculously still clutching the handlebars.

If you see three women holding hands and crossing an uncrossable stretch of road,

If Moses could separate the waters, millions of Indians can separate traffic.

If you see a motorcyclist riding with his head at a 45 degrees angle,

No – he doesn’t have spondylosis. He has tucked his cell-phone between his helmet & ear and is on a conference call.

If you see a woman walking in the middle of the road and she’s NOT crossing the road,

She’s a great poker player. Has computed that it’s safer to walk in the middle of the road than on the side.

If you see an auto-driver using his turn-signal indicator,

His electrical system is shot – otherwise why would a self-respecting auto-driver use turn signals?

If you see hand gestures from the back seat of an auto rickshaw.

No – the passenger is not related to the auto driver. He’s simply pulling his weight as a navigator.

If the stray dog sleeping in your car’s shade doesn’t budge even after your driver starts the car,

The dog knows precisely when the gear shift happens and will only move at that time.

The Garage Gang

February 4, 2010 2 comments

(First guest post from my wife. It’s actually an email she wrote on the Raheja Residency “residents only” forum but I found it so funny that I had to post it here. Maybe she’ll follow-up with a few more posts that she’s actually on the hook for — refer to A Year in Bangalore – The Unwritten Posts). Garage Gang refers to a good majority of the drivers employed by Raheja Residency residents and, who, spend most of their dead time in (you guessed it) the Raheja garage.

—-Begin email—–

There are folks who say don’t sweat the small stuff…well good for them. The rest of us need to vent i.e. give public utterance to our shared grievances. This post is devoted to those who deal with the garage gang on a daily basis.
Before we go further, please understand we expect absolutely no action by the management to resolve this ongoing problem.
So feel free to share with your fellow sufferers how the garage gang added to your day today? Analyze reasons behind such behaviors and offer simple solutions which will never be implemented. Lament the fact that an educated working class community is held ransom by the uneducated working class people. Hopefully in this process you will find some empathy and humor which will ease the pain of dealing with the garage gang. After a few days, you can go about your daily life knowing someone cares about your concerns (at least one of them) without any disappointment that the problem persists – the power of no expectations!
For those who have no complaints about the garage gang – and hence no clue what this post is all about – here are some examples of the garage gang-induced maladies…

  1. Encroachment – parking their employers vehicles and their own 2-wheelers in another residents empty-even-for- 30-minutes car park
  2. Insolence – continue to shamelessly occupy the wrong car park, with not a hint of apology tendered to the rightfully offended resident, who owns or pays rent for the car park
  3. Creepy looks – some women are uncomfortable with the looks received when they go to the dimly lit garage
  4. Arrogance – the attitude of we-know-the- security- guard-doesn’t-care-manager- is-incompetent-president- is-scared- of-us and if-you-personally- take-us-on- we-will-at-a-minimum- damage-your- property
  5. Theft – vehicle parts and petrol
  6. Blocking – refusing to move aside and making it as difficult as possible for the other (usually owner) car drivers to drive past them
  7. Property damage – punctured tyres, scratches, damaged windows
  8. Unregulated freedom – free to go anywhere in the complex without notification, unlike maids who usually enter through the main doors of a building and are potentially questioned by the security guard regarding their visits

Individuals may share their stories and other stresses induced by the garage gang.
We have personally suffered from 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 (I do feel bad about leaving 3 out in the cold but while friends have complained about the creepy looks, I personally have not noticed them).

—-End email—–

On a related note, my July 2009 post The Janus Man describes our first serious encounter with members of the Garage Gang.

The Janus Man

July 17, 2009 7 comments

This is a sequel to  The Proud Man and is based on a series of events that occurred in March 2009.

Act 1, Scene 1: Raheja apartment living room (Time: 2:00pm)

“Madam! Aap garage mein jaldi aayiye. Aapke gaadi ko kuch ho raha hai.” (Translation for non-Hindi readers: please come to the garage quickly. Something’s happening to your car). This was an anonymous tipster call which came through the intercom one afternoon in early March. Not wanting to take any chances, P went to the lobby and had one of the security guards accompany her to the garage. As she neared our parking spot, her worst fears seemed to come true – the car was gone! A minute later (lo and behold!) she sights Sunil backing our car from one end of the garage (several car lengths away from our parking spot). At the same time, Sunil’s friend (a fellow Raheja driver) rides Sunil’s new Bajaj motorcyle and parks it behind the SX4. Cursing the anonymous tipster, P tapped on the driver’s window to enquire why he moved the car. The shocked look on Sunil’s face would later become the proverbial Exhibit A. He recovered his composure quickly enough to mumble that there wasn’t sufficient room to maneuver his motorcycle and hence he had to move the car. “Odd,” thought P but the explanation satisfied her and she went back upstairs mentally cursing the tipster again for wasting her time.

Act 1, Scene 2: Raheja apartment living room (Time: 2:15pm)

Phone rings again – same anonymous caller. He asks in a smug tone “Madam! aapne dekha?” “Kya dekha” replied an irate P. The disappointed tipster begins his story “Sunil aapke gaadi se petrol chori kara raha tha. Woh to shuru se chori kar raha tha.” P went into fact checking mode and grilled the tipster (what was Sunil doing with the stolen petrol and why was he spilling the beans?) Apparently, in the initial days and months of pilfering, Sunil would sell the petrol to other Raheja drivers. Ever since Sunil got his new motorcycle, he simply took to topping that gas tank at convenient intervals. The tipster was so confident , he urged P to examine Sunil’s motorcycle’s gas tank (predicting that it would be full to the brim). As to the tipster’s motives, he simply could not bear to see us being cheated month after month.

Act 1, Scene 3: Block X lobby

There are eight blocks in Raheja Residency – the anonymous call had come from block X. Just for precaution, I’ve decided to keep the identity of Block X a secret. Determined toe get to the bottom of the evolving events, P proceeded to block X. Even though Sunil was implicated thus, such was the trust level he had established with us that P still considered him “innocent until proven guilty”. She asked Sunil to accompany her to block X without stating the reason. The call was traced to the block X manager’s office (which is on the garage level).  The block X manager deliberately took P aside and repeated what the tipster had already told her – that Sunil was stealing petrol from our car. The manager had allowed the tipster to use his office phone because: a) tipster was one of the drivers in block X, and b) he knew the story to be true and wanted the car owners (us) to be made aware of the happenings. So why did the manager have no reason to doubt the tipster? For the simple reason that petrol pilfering is not uncommon at all in Raheja. (The next day when I went to meet the block X manager to obtain more facts, I learned how rampant the pilfering racket was at Raheja and even other apartment communities in Bangalore but I digress…) P walked back to the apartment – troubled and contemplative. She didn’t share anything with Sunil but he clearly knew that something was amiss.

Act 1, Scene 4: crowded stretch of Koramangala 80-feet road (Time: 3:30pm)

On the way to the Oasis mall, P tells Sunil to pull over on the side of the street. With the engine switched off and both outside the car, she confronted Sunil with the accusations. Sunil had the same guilty look but he kept repeating that he was innocent and uttered the rhetorical “how could he commit this ghastly  deed when we’d been so nice to him?” He made the seemingly absurd statement that he doesn’t even know how to steal petrol from any car (especially the SX4). The other damning thing was that he never offered any character witness to corroborate his innocence. You’d think one among the group of drivers (perhaps his good friend Manju – who was parking his motorcycle) he hobnobbed with would be propped forward to defend him. I guess not if the entire lot was rotten – if the tipster was right, the other drivers were buying stolen petrol from him. P told Sunil that she wasn’t sure whether he was guilty or innocent. If he was guilty, we would find out in due course. If he was innocent, she told him to watch his back since someone was out to get him fired. Later in the evening, Sunil mentioned to P that he had talked to the other drivers and the consensus was that the pall of suspicion would be upon him whether or not he was guilty.

Act 1, Scene 5: “Smoking gun” found inside our apartment (Time: 9pm)

After P briefed me on the day’s events and we played & replayed all the events, it occurred to us that we were monumentally stupid in at least 2 areas:

  • In the 6 months since we bought our car, we never calculated how much mileage each tank of petrol was giving us. Sure we had a lot of things on our minds in the initial months of adjusting to Bangalore life… (that was our lame excuse)
  • During the day, as Sunil waited in the garage for the next driving assignment (picking up the kids, shopping trip, etc.), we let him keep the keys. On most days, this meant that he was undisturbed in the garage for 2-3 hours at a stretch (with the car keys). We learned later that this was simply not a standard practice and was rife with risks.

Anyway, I was VERY organized about my petrol receipts. I kept every single one of them in a safe place, so I pulled them all out for the last 3 months and observed that we were filling up 40 liters of petrol every week (give or take a day). Assuming 9 km per liter for the SX4 (low-end for city driving), this suggested that we were traveling 360 km per week! Gosh! Were we suckers or what? This was way higher than our driving patterns in the past 3 months. Just in the event that our recollection of the past 3 months was sketchy, we focused our attention on the last 6 days of driving (i.e. from the last refueling). The precise driven mileage came to 130km which meant that the fuel guage should display a reading greater than 1/2 tank. Alas! the gauge displayed close to  empty.

Act 2, Scene 1: Confrontation (take #2)

Next morning after Sunil dropped me at the office, without giving him any prior notice, I told him I needed to speak to him. I sat him down at a Coffee Day table and launched into “People versus Sunil”. He predictably professed his innocence. I had him do the math on how much distance he was driving us every day over the 6-day period and he arrived at the figure of 140 (close to my calculation of 130). I then walked him over to the car dashboard and showed him the near empty fuel gauge. I also told him about the last 3 months of petrol bills with weekly refueling of 40 liters, yet driving 130-160km. Sensing the trap closing around him, Sunil comes up with two lines of defence.

Defence #1: Apparently he had ‘heard’ that petrol was being stolen in the garage. He related that petrol from one of the driver’s scooter had been stolen once so it was ‘possible’ that someone was stealing from the SX4. I asked him who it could be since he was the only one with the keys. He insisted that it wasn’t him and also repeated the earlier ridiculous defence that he didn’t know how to remove petrol from cars. This doubly stank because the two times we had to get the car serviced (at the dealer), he keenly drew our attention to the fuel gauge and advised us to refuel the car following the servicing because the service technicians would otherwise steal the petrol. Nice!

Defence #2 (a conspiracy theory with communal overtones): Apparently there are rival factions of Kannada and Tamilian drivers in Rahejs (with the latter being the majority group for our block). The building manager (a Tamilian) was allegedly “in” on a conspiracy to oust Sunil so that one of his henchmen (a fellow Tamilian of course) could be hired in his place. He promised to provide more evidence in due course.

The rest of the days’s interactions with Sunil were conducted in a stony silence and a stiff upper lip.

Act 2, Scene 2: The resignation & Mafia connection (Time: 7:30pm)

I get a call from Sunil and he informs me that due to the pall of suspicion on him and the intrigue between the Tamilian & Kannada drivers and the alleged conspiracy to oust him, he feared for his personal safety & the safety of his new Bajaj motorcycle. He would thus stop coming to work from the next day. He also gave me the names of three Tamilian drivers (who were currently looking for a driver job). His smoking gun was that our block manager would come forward and recommend one of these 3 drivers. I didn’t bother telling him that even if the conspiracy theory were true, it still wouldn’t vindicate him. Weeks after Sunil’s voluntary resignation, the building manager never recommended a single driver to us – so much for that conspiracy theory. The additional irony was that during the 2 days when P was talking to various folks in the block, the block manager gave the benefit of the doubt to Sunil and just warned us to be more careful. Here’s the last thing that Sunil said that evening “Aap mujhe dikhaiye kisne aapko mere bare mein phone kiya, mein use dekh loonga” (Translation: You show me who the tipster is and I’ll take care of him. The tell-tale “use dekh loonga” – doesn’t get more mafiosi).

Title of post was inspired by a Colin Forbes novel by the same name.

(There’s more to this story… so I guess it was a three-part series after all).

The Proud Man

April 17, 2009 4 comments

This is part 1 of a two part series..

We bought a new Maruti Suzuki SX4 in early Sep 2008. Since I was not in a terrible hurry to drive in Bangalore traffic, we had to get a driver. The initial plan was to hire a temporary driver from one of the agencies (they’d be pricey but allegedly more reliable) – the rationale being that it would take longer to find a reliable driver. The plan fizzled out quickly since all the leads I got were either defunct listings on Asklaila or had gone out of business. I would find out much later (in March 2009) about EziDrive but that’s another story. We started getting driver leads from various quarters. The first lead was quite promising – a 22-year old chap (Sunil Kumar) referred by a driver-in-Adarsh-Vihar who sorta-knew-Sunil’s-brother-in-law. We’ll return to the italicized phrase in Part 2 of this story.

So what was promising about Sunil Kumar? For starters he spoke Hindi (very well). He also understood English. He knew the streets of Bangalore very very well (unlike many of the clueless taxi and auto drivers whom we encountered in the initial weeks). He lived in Balajinagar – pretty close to Koramangala. He looked honest and reliable. He had been driving for 3 years. We asked him for his references and he responded that his previous employer had moved to Hyderabad and he had misplaced his mobile number. We hired on a 2-week probation period with the intention of making him permanent (if he made the ‘cut’) while still keeping the search on for other drivers. As the two weeks drew to an end, we had lined up only one other candidate driver – recommended by a very good friend’s long-standing highly-reliable driver. Unfortunately that lad couldn’t speak Hindi to save his life. Needless to say, that conversation didn’t proceed much further. We also interviewed another driver who spoke passable Hindi but lived very far away so we ruled him out as well. Meanwhile, Sunil’s probation period had gone rather well. He impressed us with his safe driving skills, especially commendable because of his young age. He arrived promptly at 8am every day and his conduct throughout the initial weeks gave us no reason to doubt his attitude or character. This, combined with the fact that we had no credible alternative to compare with, was moving us inexorably towards making him permanent. The ‘deal terms’ discussion, with representation from his brother-in-law, converged quickly enough. 6-day work week, 10-hour working days, off on Sunday and a monthly salary of Rs. 6500. Coincidentally  my starting salary at Tata Steel 18 years ago  was Rs. 6600 – a princely amount for fresh engineering graduates. Inflation thy name!

Sunil is a short thin man of dark complexion with alert eyes. He looks older than his 22-years, not surprising considering he started working when he was 14 or 15. He lives with his parents, two sisters, a brother-in-law and a niece in a pucca house in Balajinagar. His father is a drunkard and a wastrel. His mother works in a semiconductor company as a janitor. One of his sisters also works and his brother-in-law is a driver who owns his own taxi. The commute from his home to ours is a 45 minutes walk. And walk he did every day, since his bicycle was stolen earlier by miscreants.

To be continued…