Sunday, September 16, 2007

Driving in the UK

Five minutes after I rented a car to drive to Ipswich, I was left thinking "This is such a bad idea".

Driving for the first time in the UK, I deliberately chose a circuitous route home, so that I could be accustomed to the controls of the car. As soon as I eased the car out of the rental agency, I put it into gear and watched in glee as the car shot ahead like a bullet each time I depressed the gas pedal. Now, Milton Keynes is not your run-of-the-mill city which you know like the back of your hand – a lot of roundabouts, and too many roads with the same kinds of trees lining them. Lost, I had to depend on the satellite navigation in my phone to guide me home.

“Take second exit on the roundabout”, it said, and I swung my car into the roundabout. Once in the roundabout, there was another car approaching the roundabout from the left. Not recalling that he would stop (as I had priority in the roundabout), the Indian driver in me thought it was best to apply brakes, much to the displeasure of the vehicles behind me in the roundabout.

Later, by the time I returned to MK, having driven over innumerable roundabouts and having horns sounded behind me (a vehicle honking at another here means it is saying "F%#$ you") I knew by trial and error that (i) You don't enter a roundabout if there is already one in it or there are vehicles entering it from your right, (ii) You stick to the outer edge of the circle if you have to go straight ahead, and (iii) You stick to the inner edge of the circle if you have to turn right.

There are a lot of other things to be kept in mind other than these three, depending on whether it is a two lane roundabout (shown) or a single lane, but these three rules of the thumb helped me to return back safely. I then learnt that there are things called "double roundabouts" where the exit of one roundabout will lead you right into the mouth of another!!! All said, roundabouts are a lot of fun when they are empty, but when there is heavy traffic all around, it becomes a bit too much to handle. I also learnt that as compared to traffic lights, roundabouts cause less traffic accumulation and they are the fastest way of clearing intersection traffic - unless of course a maverick like me does not take any exit and just keeps moving around the circle. But I digress.

The Sat-Nav decided to have some more fun, and just at the point where I’m passing a T junction, it says “Just ahead…Take right”. Unable to turn right without indicating, I proceeded ahead, and stopped the car at the kerb, put on the hazard lights and waited for the software to determine a new route. Just then, a car pulls up behind me and a guy comes out and asks if I’m all right. That was when I thought – renting a car was such a bad idea.

I was about to tell him I stopped to answer a phone call, thankfully I didn't because (i) you can't stop at the kerb to answer a phone call and more importantly (ii) you don't put on the hazard lights unless there is a hazard ahead. Had the words come out of my mouth, I could as well have been writing this from jail. The man probably thought I was sick or there was something seriously wrong with the car.

Cut to two hours later – Renting a car was the best thing I did in a long long time. Watching myself cruise over the motorway connecting Milton Keynes to Ipswich, I could not help wonder. To drive in a foreign country was a dream come true. Two years back if you would have told me I would do it, I probably would have laughed in your face. Yet, here I am, savouring a sweet feeling of "being there, and doing it". It is almost utopian. People stop where there is a Give Way line, so you know that even if there is a car coming on the side road, he will wait for you and you don't have to reduce speed. People stop if there is a red traffic light, even if it is 1 a.m. in the morning. Lane discipline is strictly followed.

Drivers here are made to fall into place with the system - the licensing process is stringent. There is a theory test, for which you are ACTUALLY supposed to read up, to answer questions such as the distance to stop while travelling at a certain speed in good conditions, wet conditions and snowy conditions, such as the length and duration for a car to back up, such as the name of the document which is issued as a cover till the time your actual documents are sent.

Additionally, there is a visual perception test, where there are 14 video clips, recorded through a camera atop the vehicle. The point is to identify potential hazards as soon as they begin to develop - a hazard may be a cyclist, who may swerve in any direction, or a person getting into a parked car (he could open the door wide) etc. The practical test will allow a limited number of minor errors, and NOT EVEN ONE major error. So much so, that if you change two consecutive gears without lifting your hand off the gear lever (like we so often do while picking up speed), you will be asked to pull over and marked failed.

Little wonder then, that driving in UK is such a charm!!

Longing and Belonging...

Two very powerful words, which almost sum up the general feeling of two hard-hitting movies I recently saw. Both movies are based on their namesake books - while Atonement is a novel by Ian McEwan, A Mighty Heart is a memoir by Mariane Pearl.

Atonement is the story of two people in love, but having to part ways due to the exaggerated imaginations of a little girl. It is the story of how the young girl realises her folly and attempts to re-unite them and relieve them of their longing, their pain and their angst. The story is set in a rustic English background, where having studied together, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), the daughter of an uppish class family, and Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of the household servant, fall in love with each other. However, Cecilia's younger sister Briony, has a queer imagination, and misinterprets situations where Cecilia and Robbie are together to such an extent that she begins to believe that Robbie is a sex maniac. And when her cousin is molested in the house gardens, she testifies that Robbie was responsible. Robbie is hauled away by the police.

Years pass, and Briony becomes a nurse, but having realised her folly, she is constantly tormented by the guilt of accusing Robbie, and hence depriving her sister the love of her life. The story is about how she redeems herself and puts an end to the lovers' longing for each other.

James McAvoy brings to life the English worker - the mannerisms, the ruggedness and the feel. Keira surprisingly, does not stand out as much as she did in her Pirates series.

A Mighty Heart is the story of angst, anxiety, uncertainty and grit of a woman, a pregnant woman, whose husband is kidnapped by terrorists. Mariane (Angelina Jolie) and Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) are in Karachi investigating the shoe-bomber case while Daniel is lured by the terrorists by arranging an interview with Sheikh Gilani. The story closely follows the plans of action taken by the CIA, the American government, the Pakistani government and the involvement of an alleged double agent from the British Secret Services Agency MI6. It showcases the strong network of the terrorists at the grassroot level and how the entire intelligence was caught unawares, leading to the capture and subsequent murder of Pearl. Though taut and fast paced, somewhere there is a feeling of something not being told to the viewer - there is very less of Danny, and more of the confusing trail of people investigated in the time leading to and after his kidnapping. While it is true to some extent, considering that this is Mariane's account of things that happened, an account of things to whose memory she will attach her belongingness; still it leaves you somewhat hungry for details.

Angelina gives a good performance - but somehow there are too many characters coming in, and none has enough screen presence to make a lasting impression. Not Dan Futterman, not Jolie, not Archie Panjabi, not Irrfan Khan, not Will Preston. None. The interiors and immediate locations of the house the Pearls lived in at Karachi were actually shot in Pune, while I was there. However, the sets have been made up to look like it resembles Karachi. There are a couple of cityscape shots, but they are too fleeting to recognise.

Note - I got to watch A Mighty Heart at The National Theater, London. A friend of mine is a member of The British Film Institute, and had arranged the tickets to the preview.