Optional extras, Chennai style

Nowadays, if someone claims that going for long drives is a favourite pastime, the Man from Madras Musings takes it with a pinch of salt. After all, given the traffic conditions in our beloved city, all car journeys are long, far too long and much longer than they ought to be. Under the circumstances, and given the ever-increasing price of petrol, they can only be considered painful necessities, rather akin to a visit to the dentist.

But MMM does have to drive around and whilst at it he looks for what could eventually make it to this column, Chief permitting. And he notices that absolute necessities in vehicles abroad are often given the go by on our roads. MMM is not blaming the car manufacturers for they have done their best. But what about our “makkal”, by which term MMM means the son of the soil (SOS)? The SOS considers certain aspects of the car to be unworthy of use and not befitting his/her image. Some of these are listed below:

a. Side-view mirrors – the average car-driver thinks that these have been provided for combing of hair and also for checking that the moustache (always a South Indian macho symbol among males) is trimmed just right. Thus when a car is parked MMM notices that the side mirrors are stretched wide so that the Ben Hur inside can admire himself periodically and give his hair the right wave or brush that (in his view) causes many a heart to flutter as he rests. But the moment he has started the car, he makes sure that the side mirrors are hauled in and flattened against the sides. These in his view are nuisances when the vehicle is in motion and rob him of those few extra microns of space through which he is able to manoeuvre ahead. Several pedestrians too are of the same view evidently, for MMM has noticed that when a car halts for a traffic light or is generally held up, those walking along gently fold the side mirror in, very often with the air of someone brushing flies off a sleeping Venus.

b. Rear-view mirrors – these can’t be folded in and so there they remain, dangling rather uselessly above the driver. The driver thinks that the stem of the mirror is provided for hanging stuffed toys, religious icons, CDs and just about anything else, very often obscuring the rear view. As for the mirror, it is meant to check dental alignments of course. Those who like to move ahead in a traffic jam put the rear view mirror of the car ahead to good use. They keep switching on and switching off their headlights, which if of sufficiently high wattage, can reflect off the rear-view mirror of the car in front, temporarily blind the man at the wheel and thereby make him slow down. The car behind then noses ahead, always provided that every side-view mirror is folded.

c. Seat belts – These accessories are like helmets for two-wheelers. There is a law (like for pretty much everything else in our country) that stipulates that wearing of seat belts is compulsory. But this is observed more in the breach. To overcome this, several cars now have sensor alarms that keep beeping in case the belt is not fastened. Those at the wheel are irritated by this noise, though for some reason they appear impervious to the hooting of horns. And so to overcome the alarm and also the flashing warning on the dashboard, an ingenious ruse has been devised. The belts are kept permanently fastened. But they don’t go around the passenger. They are stretched on the backrest of the seat and fastened into the clasp. As a consequence the warnings and flashings are silenced. The car is fooled. MMM has also noticed some people who don’t even go to this extent. They simply jam a piece of wood into the clasp which creates the same effect apparently, or so he has been informed. And these are the very same people who religiously fasten seat belts while on flights. MMM wonders as to how such an act can save a life at an altitude of several thousand feet above the sea when it is considered useless on the ground.

So much for the safety-critical accessories. But if you ask MMM as to what is considered most essential by those who drive then it would be the music system. This is usually switched on and kept at a high volume right through the journey, no doubt to drown the abuse of everyone else on the road.

The new status symbol

Continuing on the road theme, the Man from Madras Musings notes that a new status symbol has been adopted by those who are entitled to add a ‘G’ to their number plates, thereby making them immune to all traffic rules. The latest indication of officialdom on the move is a circular brass plate just above the number plate on the front and just below one of the taillights at the rear.

Ever since the High Court played spoilsport by refusing to allow every Thiru, Doctor and Manbumigu (the three most common titles and therefore being used in place of Tom, Dick and Harry) to sport a flashing red light on their car, officialdom has been perplexed. Some have managed to retain the lights, though they don’t switch them on. But others have come up with a more ingenious arrangement by way of these shiny discs, on which are featured prominently a suitable logo of official appearance, a legend in small letters as to the department, institution or agency it represents and finally in still smaller type, the designation of the worthy who is travelling in it. And you could have knocked MMM down with a (fairly hefty) feather when he found that some of these travelling panjandrums where Branch Managers of nationalised banks or the heads of Government undertakings. Talking about the last named, MMM often wonders as to why they are called undertakings. Is it because the Government performs the role of an undertaker? And is that why these undertakings are invariably ‘sick’ and waiting for the inevitable?

These brass discs have done what the flashing red lights were doing. They grant absolute immunity from traffic laws and also ensure that policemen keep saluting as they pass. And just to make sure, just in case the disc is missed, the letter G continues to remain emblazoned on the number plate. MMM also notices that the size of the G varies with status. Those higher up have it big and as for those in undertakings, they are rather shamefully forced to have it small and beside it, in smaller type, the legend u/t. Oh the ignominy of it all.