Like most forms of true love, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when it happened — whether it was a slow gathering storm or a passionate lightning flash is irrelevant, the only thing that matters is how to grab that spark and ride it into the sunset. Three days of scooter riding recently on an island paradise has both Phil and I both convinced that what we need is motorcycles. Royal Enfield motorcycles. Imagine, the two of us on bikes…yeah, just imagine.
The basic design of the Enfield Bullet hasn’t been altered in some fifty years. The Enfield is what other motorcycles wish they were – all soft curves and swooping chrome, a pure reflection of design simplicity and so sexy you want to strip your clothes off, leap on and ride to the beach.
We leave Bangalore at 4 a.m. with Andrew and Nina, and our trusty Bhaskar at the wheel, who has adopted our pilgrimage to the Enfield factory in Chennai as his own. Villages whiz past; the sun rises; roadside chai is ambrosia. When we reach Chennai at 9 a.m., we start making plans for grabbing a leisurely breakfast before the tour is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m., sharp; but wending our way through the final ten kilometers of choking traffic adds three full hours to the trip. During the final hour, we prepare for our impending late arrival by making up stories and practicing lies. When we burst into the Enfield office at noon we are fully armed.
“We are so sorry for being late,” Phil says. “We’ve been driving all night from Mumbai.”
“I am soddy, it is now 12:30. You were informed that the tour would be commencing at 10:30,” the pretty receptionist says, in a version of English that is surprisingly easy to understand.
“We know,” Nina says apologetically, “We were right on schedule, but as soon as we hit Chennai, the traffic just stopped.”
Actually, what really happened was that the GPS on my iPhone was out of its element, or range, or set on retard, and by the time it updated our location, we were twenty minutes down the wrong crowded alley, or stuck behind a herd of goats. As we moved through Chennai in semi-circles, like the petals of a flower, Nina got more and more frustrated with the navigational confusion. Phil passed the iPhone to her, relinquishing all responsibility for our whereabouts, and letting female intuition drive for a while, as Bhaskar repeatedly stopped and asked other drivers for directions:
“Bullet. Bullet factory?”
“Bullet, yes, yes, Air Force, go left.”
“Nononono,” Nina shouted, “Enfield. Enfield factory.”
The other driver shrugged and drove off. By this time we were all pretty ready to stock up on ammo.
So Andrew pretended he was asleep while I stared out the window at the insane Chennai architecture: remnants of Portuguese colonial structures overtaken by Indian movie posters, layers of shoddy wiring, and a riot of misspelled signage. Thatched houses tucked in next to tall turquoise mosques, camels and bullock carts neck and neck with tuk-tuks and Ambassadors.
I sidle up to the receptionist’s desk and speak in my radio voice: dulcet tones designed to soothe, speaking lies to get us what we want. “The thing is, Miss Karnamaa… “ I attempt to read her eighteen syllable name from the placard on her desk. Miss Karnamadakalashe corrects me. I try again and mangle it again. “Okay, the thing is, we’re making a movie, a movie for which I wrote the script.” I hand her my business card, where it explains in impossibly small six-point type that I am in fact a writer. She takes the card and seems momentarily impressed.
I point to Andrew, who is pacing importantly, “This is my director, and Nina, Nina’s the producer; one of the best in LA, where we usually work. And the other tall guy,” I say pointing to Phil, who with his long hair, sleeveless black tee-shirt and tattooed arms looks like a good old fashioned Hells Angel, “He’s the camera man, but everyone in India seems to think that he’s a wrestler who goes by the name of Undertaker.”
The receptionist cranes her neck to look at Phil, and smiles. “Undertaker. My brothers love the Undertaker.” She looks back at me, and does the head wobble. “Still, it is not possible, you are one hour and a half late, and tour is near in its completion.”
Andrew looms over the reception desk, taking full advantage of his imposing height. “Surely you understand that we are on a tight timeline here – we start shooting in two weeks. It is imperative that we see the factory, so my set people can be as accurate as possible.” Miss Karnamamekahlekahymekahynieho just stares at him with her coal-rimmed eyes, unfazed.
“The story is about a woman,” I begin, “A woman who rides an Enfield across America after her mother dies. It’s based on my own experience.” She looks at me apologetically, and I feel like George Costanza.
“Do you ride?” I ask.
She giggles, “I do, but beddy shaky.”
She holds out trembling hands to illustrate. “How long it take you to learn, ma’am ?”
“Oh, you know, a couple weeks, it was scary at first but it got easier. Just keep trying,” I say reassuringly, “You’ll get it.”
The lies flow easily. The closest I’ve come to riding a real live motorcycle was the aforementioned scooter we rented one recent afternoon on the Andaman Islands, during which time I rode straight into a bamboo fence and somehow slid into a ditch with the scooter on top of me. Still, for our purposes right now, that makes me an expert.
Nina pretends to dial her cell phone and has an imaginary conversation with “our people in Mumbai,” loud enough for us all to hear. “Yeah, we’re here. Uh huh, we drove all night; we’re exhausted, anyway, they’re saying we’re too late for the tour. Just a sec. “
Nina hands the phone to Andrew. “This is bullshit, really, what do you people do anyway? Didn’t anyone call ahead? Seriously, someone is going to get really sacked for this. Do you have any idea how hot it is in Chennai right now? And to think we did this trip for nothing. Jesus…”
The web of lies gets thicker and thicker. None of us break character. We take names and numbers and threaten to speak to superiors. After thirty minutes, when it becomes clear that the charade isn’t working, Phil bursts out with, “Fine. We’ll just have to cancel the whole project.” We file out of the office, dejected. By the time we leave we are so invested in our story that we actually want to make a movie.
“Thanks anyway,” I say sweetly to Miss Karnamadaleneamarmaduke, because while the others were throwing their weight around, she and I were bonding. By the time we’d all skulked out of there, I’d been invited to her wedding in three months; long enough, I figure, to learn how to actually ride an Enfield.
We stand outside the factory gate in the sweltering heat, bemoaning the fact that we weren’t able to salvage the tour, but congratulating each other on our stellar theatrical performances.