Driver No:1 (A 3-D Horror Film)

Rating: PG-13

Details: Some offensive conduct, some 4-letter words and some action.

A month old car got into the 4th minor accident within 15 days, yesterday, and I fired him then and there. Hopefully my experience will give some inputs to those of you planning to employ longer-term drivers, especially in Bengaluru.

Why does one keep a driver? I would think it is to get free time to work on other important stuff while outsourcing the entire car-related activities to another person and to allow for time to adjust to a new place. As mentioned elsewhere, I am quite confident of my future driving skills on Indian roads. The reasons are simple: I had driven thousands of miles on Indian roads (albiet in BC timeperiod), have Indian license and have not seen anything here to have me thinking “No way can I drive in India”.

After checking out a few so-called drivers, who would have been perfect for a role as Bollywood/Kollywood Goondas, I narrowed down this guy, let us call him Ravi, based on a reference. I was warned that this guy is always after more money. I thought, “Who isnt?” and decided to test him out. He came at the appointed time, took me for a test drive and gave me a spiel on how he is so trustworthy and how everyone is 100% happy with his performance. Also he claimed he knew the city well. This was important to me as I have to move around Bengaluru quite a bit and in the past have been stung by “local drivers” who turned around and asked me (!!!) where we were! He also claimed that he always insist on the vehicle being 100% clean and arrives 30 minutes before the start time, to wash the car. (He insisted that I buy him a bucket etc.). Anyway, I agreed to pay him 40% above the market rate for a period of maximum 2 months. The reason I did this was because his asking rate was (originally) 60% above, to begin with, and he was a much more decent looking and presentable guy than the other uncouth goondas (sorry, drivers) I have been pointed to. We struck a deal for Monday to Saturday, 10AM-8PM, with Sundays off.

All set, right? WRONG!

Let me list the positives first, as the list is pretty concise.

(01) The driver who knows Bengaluru the best:

Not even close, when compared to all the drivers I have tried during my Bengaluru trips. Never once was he lost and he knew all the bylanes and shortcuts. This was a huge help as I have piled on a lot of Kilometers over the past few weeks, running helter and skelter for various things, as a part of the settling down process.

(02) Pious guy and seemed to have his heart in the right place (occasionally):

He showed us quite a few local churches and other places of worship and seemed to know the history and details pretty well. On occasion, I also saw him scold a mother who let her child wander unsupervised on to the road.

(03) Arrived mostly on time:

This is a big deal, considering the traffic in Bengaluru and the bus services (he uses to get to our place) are not 100% reliable.

(04) Adept with quite a few languages:

Speaks Kannada (he is a local guy), Hindi and even Malayalam! He was pretty fluent in English as well.

Moving on to the fun part ….

(01) Talks in 3rd person:

Not that it is a big issue. But I found it just wierd. Let us say you and I go out for lunch and you ask me what I will have. How about me answering, “George likes non-vegitarian”. Then you ask me what I will drink. I can say, “George dont mind a soda”. Now Ravi used this kind of talk to lay down his policies, which were quite few. Every once in a while, we will get a run down of his policies and myself and my wife will look at each other struggling to hide laughter.

(02) Four minor accidents in 15 days:

Every day, I remind him that: (a) I am in no hurry. We have lots of time. (b) Safety of the passengers and the car is important to me. Yet, we had 4 incidents in just over 2 weeks. The last one, where this “expert driver” merged on to a road with hardly a glance at the ongoing traffic and a van came and scraped us good, was the final straw on the camel’s back. If I may say so myself, I put on a Oscar-worthy performance, which involved a plethora of abuse (to no one in particular), a few banging on nearby objects etc. I put on that performance to mainly make it abundantly clear that I am not happy. The way he cowered and hardly said a word for a long time tells me that my goal was met.

I am a very reasonable guy, as my friends know, and I also fully understand that in a bustling city like Bengaluru, scratches and bumps are a way of life. I get that. But for a so-called expert driver, who gets paid way over the normal rate, who “takes 100% care of the car and likes it spotlessy clean” (The irony is that all the scrapes and bumps does not seem to bother him. But by god, if there is a speck of dust …) and who is reminded regularly of what I am looking for (safety!), it was just unacceptable.

I realized one thing during this: It sure feels good to fire incompetent fools.

(03) Curiosity killed Ravi:

Again, I am well aware of how people are in general quite more inquisitive in India. No problem there. A driver, whom I have met a few days before, overhearing sensitive information and observing the family’s habits and likes is unavoidable. But asking questions about stuff that has nothing to do with him? For e.g. “Sir, why do you need Stamp Paper?”. What the heck???

(04) Hints galore on how he deserves more money:

Even after agreeing (verbally) to the terms, instead of focussing on the job at hand, he kept throwing out hints every 13.3 minutes on how he deserves more money. Keep in mind, I was paying him 40% above the freaking market rate! “I was called for a lucrative trip to Tamil Nadu, but couldnt go”, “XYZ sir reguarly gives me bonuses” etc. Bonus? After a week? Even corrupt cops show better grace while panting for money.

He was just too “Hinty” for my taste 🙂

(05) As predictable as a Nadal victory on Clay:

One day, he was all smiles throughout the day, showing my Son HAL helicopters (my Son loves helicopters), stopping the car and making sure my Son got a good look, pointing out all major buildings and landmarks on the way etc. I wonder what happened to him that day? Answer: I had given him an unexpected 5% tip the previous night.

The fool is me in this case. I think I spoilt him. My intention was to make up for the fact that I do not give him specific time slots for evening tea etc. (since we have lots of stuff to do and perfect time management on Indian roads is not easy). But bad choice on my part … Because after that, while handing over the keys to me at night, he kept panting for more moolah.

(06) Should be treated like a Prima Donna:

Now, I totally believe in treating everyone as equals. Be it the numerous janitors, cooks, security personnel, hotel staff etc., I give them respect and whenever possible tip them and speak softly and never address people by “Hey …” etc. Always it is “Bhai Saab”, “Boss” etc. His final words when he got the severance payment and handed over the keys were that, “You eat in 5star places, while you were least bothered about me”. I thanked him for letting me know, though a bit too late, that on top of paying 40% above market rate and a 5% tip and while my car was getting raped (all in 15 days), I was also meant to babysit his eating and make sure he got 5star food.

(07) Very average driver:

I have driven enough to know that we should always aim for some defensive driving. For e.g. it is not a good idea to tailgate a vehicle on Indian roads, which was exactly the reason for the 1st accident. We were so close to the car in front and when it braked, Ravi was forced to sudden brake with such violence that the bike behind us had no choice but to bang on to our back. Amazingly, while driving on the wrong side, while cutting in front of others etc., Ravi used to wave his hands in disgust at the other driver, along with honks galore and headlight switching! What a driver! (All this was not evident during the 1st day test drive I had him give me. That day, he was the Dalai Lama of Bengaluru).

Just knowing how to start a car and get it moving, does not make one a driver. Noticing how most of the people drive in Bengaluru, I wonder what kind of driving tests do these jokers take?

(08) Rabbit ears:

As mentioned above, because of his inquisitive nature, we were very careful about what we discussed in the car. Other than telling the destination, I pretty much used to keep quiet. I have heard enough horror stories about shady drivers and what they do with critical information. Where we stay, what gadgets we have, what assets we have, kids and their habits, banks etc. are all out in the open. How can one be comfortable with all this? Atleast, I am not. Of all my friends, just one person has been using a long-term driver. Good for him. Seems like he got a decent and trustworthy guy. 99% of the drivers are not like that.

We do not know Kannada. Two kids. We do not know Bengaluru well enough. All this is courting disaster with drivers like this.

(09) His car or my car?

If we are on some other floor of a mall and I ask him to take the car and come there, he shows his displeasure by pouting like a Hindi heroine. If we ask him where we can find him (and the car) once we are done with a place, more drama. If I change my mind and ask him to come (or go) to another place rather than the original place, again, more drama. I started wondering: Is it my car? Is it my petrol? Do I get to decide what to do with the car and the petrol (Or should I be submitting a Notarized Application Form each time)?

There was just too much drama and unwanted emotional distractions, especially at a time when the whole family has myriad other things to worry about. Weighing the convenience of a driver against the pains of having one, I definitely feel the latter is just too much. I have observed enough and received enough tips that I feel quite confident that I can manage on my own. Hey, it should be quite easy to beat the current bench-mark of 4 minor accidents in 15 days, right?

Watch out Bengaluru roads, like it or not, here I come …

Adios.

Two weeks in Bengaluru …

Another week zoomed by and following are some thoughts from this last week. Internet connections are quite good and if the speed is as advertised, then getting on the Web would be seemless. Airtel installations are happening at our place and hope the technician knows what he is talking about.

(A) The badass driver:

For example, he goes on the wrong side of the road and abuse others who question him. It is fun (for me) to watch the dynamics here. I wonder what happens when I am on the other side and dealing with this menace on the roads. The mentality is “It is always the other guy’s fault”. There are countless instances when he is in the wrong but doesnt act it. I plan to request him to “Just Chill!”.

(B) You are not supposed to do anything on your own:

DIY is not exactly the mode here. “You will definitely have a driver”. “You will definitely have a maid”. “You will definitely have a cook”. “You will definitely have a car wash guy”. Etc. Seems like this is the best place to sit on your a** and do nothing. Well, let us see how things pan out …

(C) The cleaning boy at the mall:

The other day, we went to the Forum Mall near Whitefield for some snacks. We love Indian icecreams and got some exotic flavors like “Rum and Nuts” etc. The food court was relatively empty at that time and there were a few boys, maybe 10-12 years old, who were meant to clean up after customers left. While my kids were eating their icecream, I couldnt help but notice one of the boys looking longingly at them. It was quite depressing to see and rammed home the sad state of affairs where lakhs of such kids are struggling to get by.

When we drive out from our apartment complex, we get to see a huge contrast. Inside the complex, there are kids swimming, riding bikes, playing soccer etc. Just outside, in an open space filled with shrubs and building materials (and snakes?), a few boys will be playing with broken pieces of wood etc.

One night while driving back to the flat, I suddenly saw a 1-2 year old child cross the road on his/her own! It was dark and it was quite dangerous for the child to be on his/her own. But looked like the parent(s) were working at the nearby construction site and were not diligent about the child. Sad indeed.

(D) Fruits:

Contrary to what we feared (that fruits are a luxury in India), there is an abundance of Mangoes, Chickoos, Jackfruit etc. Atleast during Summer. Mangoes are by far our absolute favorite. Even the mango icecreams are awesome. You can either visit local markets, which is a fun experience, or you can visit the various supermarkets like Food World, Reliance Fresh, Heritage Fresh etc. Since bargaining is the norm in markets, very soon, we would have perfected the skill of haggling for a few rupees savings.

(E) The peak-time drive for dinner:

The other night, I boldly decided to take the family out for dinner to a restaurant suggested by colleagues. It was just 4-5 Km away from where we were and I thought “Why not?”. Man, it was a harrowing experience. There were motorcycles without headlights, people with dark clothes crossing the roads at dark areas and a swarm of buses, cars, motorcycles, people etc. coming at you. Before I went to US, if I may say so myself, I was the king of Indian roads. I used to get lot of complements for my driving and used to hog the car whenever I was at home. Alas, my time in US has softened me up. In US, the perfect lanes, the traffic cops, the signals, wide roads etc. will make any below average driver feel great about himself/herself. Though the speeds on Indian roads are much lower, the unruliness and lack of adherence to the rules, amount of vehicles/people on the roads, the smaller and more fragile vehicles and the lack of gaps between vehicles and people all make for a very challenging environment. No wonder that people who come from Bengaluru to San Jose for visits can drive with their eyes closed. And on the flip side, people like me, who have logged 40K+ kilometers of stick/manual-shift driving in India and over 200K miles of automatic-shift driving in US has his work cut out for me. I remember someone telling me that once you learn stick/manual-shift driving in India, you will never forget it. I sincerely hope it is true and it will all come back to me. Maybe in a few months time, I will be a Bengaluru King-Of-The-Roads 🙂

Adios.

One week in Bengaluru …

Overall, I would say that it went according to expectations, though there were a few surprises thrown in. Week1 is in the books!

(A) Car accident(s) within one week:

Both happened in one day. The driver is a local guy who speaks Malayalam! How about that? He is pretty decent except when he starts mouthing off about local landmarks etc., flaunting his knowledge of the city. The first one was when the entire traffic swarm sudden-braked for no apparent reason and we missed (by millimeters) altering the shape of the vehicle in front. But alas! The scooter behind us came crashing onto our car. It took me around 30 minutes to get over the “Scratch on brand new car” frustrations. A few more like this and I will be in a perfect place mentally for future accidents 🙂

The second incident was when a young man was trying to cross a 2-way street at Marathahalli during super-heavy traffic. He got on to the divider and for some reason, immediately jumped back. Our car gave the guy a good whack and for a second we feared the worst. The amazing thing is that he just got up and walked across the road as if nothing had happened!

If this is how all accidents are resolved, I think I will get to love Bengaluru traffic!

(B) Malls:

Boy, every week, a new mall is popping up. I have already seen Ads for 2 new Malls. The Malls all look nice, but they are way way over-priced. But it is fun to walk around and enjoy the ambience and food courts. Yesterday, we had some fantastic Amul icecream. We are searching for the major purchases and are in the process of giving a darshan to every single major mall in the city. Some of the so-called malls are pure junk, selling junk, but at Rolls Royce price.

The security in such places is fun to observe. There are 3-4 guards at the entrance and there are some body scanners and hand-held scanners. When I pass through, there are beeps all over the place, but the guards just wave me through! I wonder why I dont feel that “secure” inside these malls …

(C) Cuisine/Food:

This is one area in which I am confident Bengaluru wont disappoint me. I have been making a list of “must visit” restaurants, based on suggestions from friends, newspaper articles/reviews etc. We will start exploring the options once we settle in.

So far, based on my friends suggestion, we have tried Hyderabad Biryani chain. Though it looks tacky (reminds me of the good old days in Hyderabad) and service is a bit gruff, the food is Yum! Biryani is one of my favorite dishes.

(D) Weather:

We are all getting used to it. Considering that this is supposed to be peak Summer, we are doing okay. We are a bit apprehensive about the rainy season though. All the dust, construction and general mayhem on the roads does not auger well for a smooth monsoon.

Mosquitos. Well, this takes some getting used to. The kids have all bulked up, due to the bite marks. Since we are currently staying on a higher floor, it is not too bad. Still, all it takes is one or two mosquitos to spoil the party. Once we settle in, we have some ideas/plans to deal with this menace.

Now, on to Week2 …

Adios

This is it!

[I wanted to post this on April 21st, the day we flew out of US. As I was typing the Blog, Comcast disconnected my Internet service! Well, better late than never …]

All good things come to an end. Well, that is the case with me today. It is time to move on and explore other challenges. All preparations and packing have been completed and I had set aside the last couple of days for some self-reflection.

Note: As you probably know, Salmon fish always manage to come back to the same tributary from which they made their way to the sea to spend their adult life. Now why am I thinking about Salmon now???

Am I excited? Yes!

Am I nervous? Oh yeah!

Am I hopeful of the future? Yes!

I feel like a student who has prepared well for an exam, but still get the butterflies on the day of the exam. Hopefully, things will go as planned.

I have completed exactly 13 years in USA. Not a very long time, but long enough. We have reached that point in life where we have to pick a lane, either permanently settle down here or move somewhere else. We have picked the latter option. Time will tell if we made the right call or not.

Though I have travelled extensively with my parents when I was younger (My Dad is an avid traveller as well), to Germany, Italy, England, Belgium, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan etc., there is nothing to beat travelling based on your own efforts. Once I found myself able to afford it, I have set “Seeing the World” as my long-term goal. And considering my travelling ambitions, I figured that I better start early. You can hopefully see the fruits of that plan in the coming years, through various Social Media.

Some highlight memories from my 13 years in the “Land of the free and Home of the brave”:

(A) Travelling through the great expanses of United States

We have travelled through and visited 36 states during our time in USA. As a friend famously asked me once, “Do people go to Tennessee for Vacation?”! Yes, some people do 🙂 Outstanding memories from those trips were:

– The lovely drive from Grand Canyon to Albuquerque (and the speeding ticket in Arizona when my excuse that “I sped because my daughter (who was smiling happily at the cop!) was cranky and I wanted to get to the Hotel as fast as possible” did not fly). Even deserts are a kind of scenery.

– Multiple visits to Grand Canyon, including locking ourselves out of the car deep in the Canyon National Park!

– The truly spectacular Yellowstone National Park and zooming at 110Mph through Wyoming.

– The “Maid of the Mist” experience at the majestic Niagara Falls.

– The flight/car/train cross-country trip from California to Florida, with my Dad and Daughter.

– Scenic Amtrak (“California Zephyr”) train travel from San Francisco to Salt Lake City (through Sierra Nevada) and Denver. Also, the view from Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs.

– Hawaii! The beaches, the languid pace, the expense! etc. Kauai is the most serene of the 4 bigger islands, but Big Island has the most variety, I felt.

– The fantastic fall colors of the North-East.

– The “height” of Manhattan. I remember being totally awed by the tall buildings and the view from the top of the ill-fated World Trade Center.

– The great drive from Memphis to Knoxville. Very scenic and quality time with Country Music (Hey, how else are we supposed to go through Nashville?).

– Miami! Everglades, the mind-blowing drive to Key West and the beaches.

– The Big Easy and the Cuisine there. But man, was it hot in New Orleans (95F+).

(B) Ease of life:

– Roads: Though California (especially the Bay Area) has some of the worst roads in US, on an average, the roads and as a resutt, the driving is pretty easy.

– Customer Service: Though I have had my share of tiffs with the Customer Service folks, overall, I would rate it quite high. Also, there is ease of getting things done over the phone or Internet.

– Libraries: Good ones, where one can relax and spend some quality time with the books. I love the Fremont Main and used to spend time there whenever I could.

– Wine: Over the years, my taste in Alcohol had become distinctly “girly” 🙂 Cant stand Whiskey, Brandy and Rum. Can manage Vodka and Gin. But prefer Beer and Wine. Not sure if I will get such a wide range of Wine in Asia. Let us see …

– Work Culture: Very professional and timely. With my work timings, getting to office was a breeze, as I avoided the traffic.

– Cuisine: Afghan, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian etc. were our favorites. The Indian restaurants in Bay Area are really below par. It is insulting that they peddle such food as “Indian”.

– Cops: Though it is no fun to get a ticket, I appreciate the presence of Cops and the order they bring to the proceedings.

(C) Politics:

– The surreal 2000 Presidential Elections.

– The historic Obama victory.

– Sarah Palin!

– George Bush’s various “speeches” and gaffes. (Thanks Will Ferrell!).

– And of course, I landed in US smack in the middle of the “Blue Dress” controversy! Republicans went to town with that one.

I am sure there are aspects of life in US that we will miss. But, hey, life goes on ….

Adios.