Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Night Owls on Mount Road

Nineteen Eighty-Four. It straddled our second and third years and lots of events picked that year to occur. Prime Minister Gandhi ordered the raid on the Golden Temple and paid the ultimate price. The Soviet Union and its stooges boycotted the LA Olympics. Michael Jackson’s Beat It reverberated from hostel common rooms, most evenings. McEnroe slaughtered Connors at Wimbledon. Union Carbide became a reviled household name. One thing that didn't happen that year was Orwell's dystopian prophecy of a Big Brother world.

It was dinner time one April evening and the mess was abuzz with the din of conversation and the clatter of plates being cleared. I am stopped by Kutty as I finish up and prepare to head upstairs. Kutty was in his final year; 6 by 5 if I recall right, which meant he was marking his sixth year in the five-year program, that had since been replaced by a four-year one. An n-by-fiver was typically a veteran who had taken a sabbatical from all work, usually in pursuit of higher aspirations. And yes, you may read that line again. Well, it was the home stretch now and Kutty was pulling together his final-year project and looking for help.

The project is traffic engineering, he tells me. I could learn quite a bit and see how such things get done. All I needed to do was accompany him that night and help set up his measurement equipment on Mount Road, right outside the LIC building. The job involved setting up some stuff on the road in preparation for traffic measurements to be made the next day, during rush hour. He had a car waiting, so we wouldn’t have to bike or bus it. He’d bring cigarettes and, yes, a bottle of Old Monk. We would also celebrate over dinner at the Coronet the next day in Adyar. It’ll be fun, his sales pitch concludes.

The learning opportunity part must have swung it for me, for I didn’t press upon him to improve the offer. Kutty then casually asks if any of my friends might want to join and perhaps I should check and see if there was any interest. The guy was a consummate operator.

I took the deal back to my wing, but found no takers. So around nine or ten that night, we head out in his old Fiat to Mount Road. There was another volunteer in the back seat, a first-year student I think, who said little the whole night. We reach the LIC building, park on the side of the road, and wait for the traffic to abate. Around midnight we swing into action. The first thing we do is glue together strips of white paper, three inches wide, to make extra-long strips that could span the entire road. We paste dozens of these on the road, parallel to each other and exactly one foot apart, on prior markings. Mount Road was undivided those days. So if you waited for a break in the occasional late-hour traffic and darted across like a langur monkey with a tiger on its tail, you could lay it across in one straight shot. Needless to day, we didn't really worry about getting run over.

The glue came out of a frothy bucket that looked and smelled like food gone terribly bad. Which was perilously close to what it actually was. I would later learn that it had been concocted by a mess worker specially commissioned by Kutty for the project. But it looked like the compounder had started with upma, rather than overcooked rice because it was hard to spread. Applying it effectively could well have been turned into a separate B Tech project, on its own merit. Too little, and the strips would come right off the road; too much, and the glue would dissolve the paper outright.

We work for a few hours before we realize that the first-year student’s gone missing. We find him in the car, fast asleep. He’s clearly had a big bunch of beans, or their equivalent, for dinner and the car is now out of bounds. So we leave him in the car, take the rum out, and sip it by the side of the road.

A cop shows up from nowhere and draws close. Kutty slips him a few notes and a couple of cigarettes and sends him on his way with a friendly pat on the shoulder. He melts into the hazy night. The rum comes out of hiding and we sip again. It's past three and we are too weary to continue. We’ve done over a hundred yards of road by now, so we call it quits and drive back to campus.

The next day, during rush hour, Kutty brings with him a new set of volunteers. I told you he was an operator. Their task is to count vehicles passing over the zebra pattern we’d set up the previous night. Kutty hands out mechanical counters: one for cars, one for autos, and another for buses. I handle the stopwatch and bark out start and stop times. Kutty has set up a camera on a tripod and puts himself behind it to take random shots of passing cars. He’s a known photography freak, one who gladly would have pursued graduate studies in camera work in the US, if there indeed was such an item.

I have no idea what Kutty did with all the data we accumulated, how he processed them, what he wrote up, or what he concluded. But some things I do know: Since that fateful day, traffic congestion has increased ten-fold on Mount Road. Accidents are up 923 percent. Murders and homicides have quintupled. Jayalalitha got elected and reelected and reelected. No Nobel Prize was ever awarded in a related field.

Kutty meanwhile made it to Vanderbilt University to study things completely unrelated.


  1. actually he did do something with photography in grad schl.

  2. Atmospheric piece, Curly. Nice.