P J. O’Rourke makes fun of almost everything and most often gets it right. America’s best satirist is irreverent, whimsically offensive, politically incorrect and unrepentantly Conservative—a rarity in today’s sterile, politically correct world of untalented, boring poseurs. Nothing escapes O’Rourke’s acerbic wit and gallows humour, and that alone makes him one of the most delightful writers of his generation.
For those unfamiliar with O’Rourke, here’s a sample of his savage quotidian wit: “The earth’s travel destinations,” he once wrote, “are jam-full of littering Venezuelans, peevish Swiss, smelly Norwegian backpackers yodelling in restaurant booths, Saudi Arabian businessmen getting their dresses caught in revolving doors and Bengali remittance men in their twenty-fifth year of graduate school pestering fat blonde Belgian au-pair girls.” Another time, travelling in Poland, he discovered that “Communism doesn’t really starve or execute that many people. Mostly it just bores them to death.” And then, “life behind the Iron Curtain is like living with your parents for ever—literally, in many cases.”
O’Rourke is a writer of protean talent—he has lampooned society and politics mercilessly, and even written a revisionist treatise on economics. He is also an inveterate traveller and lover of automobiles. Driving Like Crazy, his new book, is a racy collection of his automobile travels across the world. It is classic O’Rourke, combining first-rate journalism with unusual insights and droll humour. It is also an ode to the lost world of big, bad, gas-guzzling automobiles and motorcycles and the lifestyle they brought with them.
Danger sign: In his chapter on India, O’Rourke describes the Indian truck as the ‘lurching, hurtling Tata’. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
O’Rourke moans the death of the American car. The American car, he says, was a source of intellectual and priapic stimulation—he marvels at the invention, innovation and genius that went into the making of the cars; and insists that “there was no premarital sex in America before the invention of the internal combustion engine”. He remembers the chrome and tailfin excesses, the Lincoln Continentals, the Avantis, the Studebaker Silver Hawks, the Buick Electras, Oldsmobile, Pontiacs and Mustangs, which were as much a part of the American landscape as of its culture— remember Chuck Berry songs?
So when O’Rourke, at his gonzo best, arrives in the sub-continent with a gaggle of automobile-crazy friends, the fun begins. In Pakistan, he gets stuck in a downtown Lahore rail station parking lot for “crippled beggars, bullock wagons, goatherds and local buses”. It is so hot and humid that breathing is like “drinking coffee through your nose”. On the Indian border, he finds the same callousness and sloth—they “had not just an unused baggage inspection counter but an unused metal detector, an unused X-ray machine, and an unused pit with an unused ramp over it to inspect the chassis and frames of the vehicles that don’t use this border crossing”. The road in India, O’Rourke says, is a “store, a warehouse, a workshop.”
Life—both human and animal—thrives on the macadam. In a particularly wicked moment, he says it is easy to see how after visits to India and Mahesh Yogi the Beatles came up with “Why don’t we do it in…”
Driving Like Crazy: Atlantic Books, 258 pages, Rs499.
There are more delights. “The first time you look out the windshield at this melee you think, India really is magical. How, except by magic, can they drive like this without killing people?” O’Rourke wonders. It’s a valid question. The problem is they can’t stop killing people. “Jeeps bust scooters, scooters plow into bicycles, bicycles cover the hoods of jeeps. Cars run into trees. Buses run into ditches, rolling over on to the 1940s style-breadloaf tops unto they’re unmashed into unleavened chapatis of carnage. And everyone runs into pedestrians.”
O’Rourke participates in a truck wreck pool with friends watching the overturned trucks on highways. Nobody— Indian writers included—has described it better: “It is the lurching, hurtling Tata trucks that put the pepper in the masala and make the curry of Indian driving scare you coming and going the way dinner does... The Tatas blunder down the middle of the road, brakeless, lampless, on treadles tyres, moving dog fashion with the rear wheels headed in a direction the front wheels aren’t. Tatas fall off bridges, fall into culverts, fall over embankments, and sometimes Tatas just fall—flopping on their sides without warning.” Not much has changed since O’Rourke saw these highway wrecks, only some of the roads have become better and wider.
By the way, this is just the beginning of a short Indian journey. If you are a lover of cars, open roads and speed, you cannot miss this. Even if you hate all that, miss this at your own peril because O’Rourke writes with a rare felicity of wit.
Soutik Biswas is the India editor of BBC News online.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org