Sunday, May 30, 2004

the first crore's the hardest

Perhaps it was delirium, but soon after I landed in Delhi ideas for inventions began to spring to mind: the Refrigerator Snorkel®, the Beggar and Tout Repulsion Kit®, the Phone Megaphone®. All perfectly good ideas, bogged down by research and development costs. The corporation’s bar tab alone was astronomical. Only one of my inventions ever made it to the product-testing phase: the Pedestrian Horn®.

Although the concept has potential for the global market, the Pedestrian Horn® is ideal for India. Here the horn is more than an attention-getter, a safety precaution. It is a surrogate voice, a one-man radio broadcast, a catcall, a curse (of course), and, above all, an expression of manhood. No motorist would operate without one. Residents of other countries can no doubt imagine many of the things the horn is capable of saying. But one has to visit Delhi to witness its true versatility. In this city of ten million souls and three million motor vehicles, there is not a single stop sign. Overtaking is general, even on single-lane, residential streets. The red light is interpreted as an overcautious warning and the blinking red light as completely meaningless. Nowhere else can the horn be employed to say: Be advised, I am now going to drive on the wrong side of the road until reaching the intersection and executing a right turn. Indeed, however optimistic it might have been to say of the Indian government, John Kenneth Galbraith would have been spot on had he declared Delhi traffic to be a “functioning anarchy.” In the midst of this chaos, I saw that the pedestrian was helpless, impotent, mute—though by no means deaf. A hundred flyovers, parking lots and highways were under construction, but not a single footbridge, subway or sidewalk. I even had the perfect slogan: Honk Back! Marketeers, you can see the pedestrian horn’s potential functional advantages and benefits (FAB): first dibs at the cigarette wallah, immediate attention from waiters, victory in the Haldiram’s “queue.”

Now, when you move to India to become a writer you more or less give up on the idea of being a billionaire. But I’d looked at my assets and done the currency conversion, and I thought I had a reasonable chance at a crore—or 10 million—rupees. With the Pedestrian Horn®, I had a real shot at being a crorepati (in dollar terms, a twohundredthousandaire). I was already thinking spinoffs: the Backseat Driver’s Horn®, the Pedestrian Horn with Optional Bright/Dimmer Headlamp®. I grabbed the telephone.

“Hello,” said a surly voice.
“Hello, is this the Patent Office?”
“HELLO! Is this the”—
“HELLO! Is this the Patent Office?”
“Aap kaun hain?”
I switched to my trusty Hindi.
“Mine name Jason are”—
“HELLO! I is journalist. HELLO! I journalist are! You Patent Office? I JOURNALIST ARE!”
The phone went dead. I’d never made any progress with the Phone Megaphone® or I’d have called back. Instead, I decided to go ahead with the product test.

I’d already settled on Central Market in Lajpat Nagar as the perfect spot for my research. Not only was it a locus of interaction between pedestrian and motor traffic, but it was also a great bazaar of amateur theatricals, where a businessman might flourish a coconut, hold it up to his ear and declare, “Let me testify it!” and rap it soundly with a knuckle. Lajpat Nagar was also one of the few places I could be certain to find a few sample horns. It is the one market that has everything.

If there’s one invention I wish I could take credit for, it’s the auto-rickshaw. This flimsy, three-wheeled scooter-taxi combines the convenience of economical transportation with the pleasures of a roller coaster and the catharsis of a fistfight. When, on the way to Lajpat Nagar, my driver was compelled by the intransigence of his fellows to stop at a red light outside the Sai Baba Temple, I was reminded of one of the auto-rickshaw’s other advantages: the feeling of togetherness with your surroundings that comes from riding in an open vehicle. Half a dozen barefoot teachers approached to educate me in general anatomy and economic determinism. One of them gestured with great eloquence, standing, as she was, on one leg, and lacking the lower part of her left arm. Having abandoned the Beggar and Tout Repulsion Kit® -- which consisted of an evangelist’s sermon, a large quantity of brimstone pamphlets and a skinny black tie – when the Anti-Conversion laws began passing, I was left no choice but to violate another local ordinance and give my educators a small donation.

Central Market offered a wide variety of horns. For practical reasons—economy and personal security foremost among them—I selected a standard rubber bulb model that upon “testifying” issued a report that was neither too impudent nor too conciliatory. (Not long before I had read with some trepidation of an incident in which a woman was followed and murdered because she sided with a scooter-wallah in a Delhi dispute over a fender bender). Fearlessly, I hit the road.

Naturally, my first victim was an auto-rickshaw. He beeped. I honked. He performed a kind of silent-film double take, grinned madly, narrowly avoided smashing into a line of bicycle-rickshaws, and sped away laughing. Triumph! But this was no test of the Pedestrian Horn’s® true usefulness, of the reason the idea had come to fruition. For that I needed a different kind of Dilliwallah: the kind most easily found behind the wheel of a Tata Sumo, the world’s most appropriately named SUV.

It wasn’t long before my nemesis shouldered through the crowd of people, bicycles, rickshaws and lesser vehicles, like a stout man wading through a waist-deep pool. The driver had his thumb firmly planted on the horn. Defiant, I honked back. He didn’t even blink. Had he heard? Did I need more volume? Or was I simply beneath notice?

The experiment was a complete failure. But I still held out hope, until I saw that I had already encouraged a number of intellectual property pirates, who were brandishing all kinds of ordinary noisemakers and implementing them in the manner expressly covered by the (intended) patent of the Pedestrian Horn®. I would never be a crorepati. But I was a revolutionary. That has a good sound to it. And, what the hell, if I want to be a billionaire I can always shift my writing gig to Italy and convert my assets to Lire.

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