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Amitava Kumar attempts to capture the essence of Patna in a short biography, quite unattractively titled 'A Matter of Rats'.
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Dressed in jeans? Feasting on chowmein? A Twitter parody of a disapproving khap panchayat is ready with a rap on the knuckle that makes you chuckle.
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The men who drive these motorised mastodons, are they the toughies they pretend to be? Why else would they want to hide behind those big wheels? And would they really survive a wet mountain slope? It’s time someone questioned the SUV power myth.
In the 'civilised' world they are reviled and loathed and bashing them has become a favourite pastime (like dissing smokers). Those heavy, expensive, gas-guzzling behemoths, spewing evil fumes, hogging precious road and parking space, looming large in your rear view mirror baring their dinosaur teeth, threatening to shove you off the road... Indeed the case against them seems pretty strong: you do not need a go-anywhere, bully-all monster if you're driving on marble-smooth highways and roads all day in town. All that belligerent braggadocio being flaunted in public is totally Neanderthal. Environmentalists and their ilk just roll up their eyes and shake their fists when they see one. And now in India, politicians (who use them the most and pay least for their maintenance and drinking habits) are also raising their eyebrows, because SUVs drink (relatively) cheap diesel.
In India, they're enormously popular : the last time I counted there were some 46 models of SUVs and MUVs available - and you see them everywhere. We have perhaps a stronger case for needing them: our roads are rocky and flood all too easily, families big, traffic manners atrocious - and SUVs are relatively safe, because they're big and muscular and heavy. Of course, this argument shatters to smithereens if you crash into another one, equally big and strong. Also that high centre of gravity makes for easy toppling over. Besides which, sitting up there, high above tin-pot hatchbacks, apart from giving you ego kicks, also warps your sense of speed: you feel you are going slower than you actually are (and therefore drive faster and crash harder); it's the same thing you notice during take-off in a jet.
Also in India they are bought more for status and power-flaunting reasons than any practical ones - and to piss everyone else off. Nothing raises blood pressure (or improves your &*^ %$# @ vocabulary) more than a sirenscreaming, red-light flashing VIP SUV barrelling towards you with gun snouts sticking out of the windows. Frankly, if you feel the need to drive one of these in town (and don't have a family of 12 to shuttle around), it does tend to imply that you're trying to cover up for some dreadful physical or mental shortcoming. Perhaps you lack self-confidence or feel you have been short-changed in certain vital departments, so need to hide behind the wheel of this big, brutish mastodon? You like taking on those smaller and tinnier than you - ah, psychiatrists would make a meal of you!
Actually, a lot of these 'SUV's are really pansy wannabes - and worse, have made their drivers that too. Take them up a wet, grassy slope and they'll have hysterics and slither backwards. The real tough go-anywhere guys (except for our locally made jeeps, which seem descended from tractors) cost so much you hardly dare to drive them out of your garage lest they get scratched. (Truly, you should not be able to tell the difference between a dented and undented SUV. ) Besides, if you do somehow get stuck somewhere, and say bust a radiator or the sump, it'll have to be transported home in the back of a truck - a fate worse than death!
Worse than that, modern SUVs turn their drivers into wusses and wimps. Everything's automatic and computerized and done for you. They'll have eight automatic gears, will decide exactly how much power and torque goes to which wheel, depending on the terrain and slope and quality of soil, will slow right down and hold your hand while going downhill, will tell you exactly where you are and in which direction to go so you can never enjoy driving into the blue and finding your way back again, and even maybe decide whether you should listen to opera or bhajans or need to take a toilet break...
Having thus cursed them and their drivers roundly, it has to be said that maybe (genuine) SUVs have been more sinned against than sinning. Per se there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. If used for the purpose they were designed and built for, they're unbeatable. They're the first vehicles to reach the site of a natural or man-made disaster;they're the vehicles that wild-lifers, environmentalists, journalists, explorers, medical and emergency crew and social workers in rural areas use in their noble calling (otherwise they simply wouldn't reach), and the UN uses them for peacekeeping!
Besides, sometimes it's fun to terrorise some zigzagging, tyre-smoking hooligan who thinks he's driving Vettel's car instead of the cheapie little tin-pot he's in!
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