Motor insurance - for the price of a coconut

Click to follow
My car, an Indian Gypsy - so named, I think, for its mercurial temperament and its tendency to dance madly, rocking back and forth, going into the curves - just came back from five days in a New Delhi garage, and I was examining the sizeable bill for an engine overhaul. New pistons, cylinder sleeves, valves, a coconut, a fan belt, gaskets...

"Wait a minute," I asked my driver, "What's this coconut doing here?" My driver, Manoj, looked at the bill. "Oh, yes. The coconut. 150 rupees."

I didn't particularly care about the price, though 150 rupees (three quid) for a coconut is a bit expensive for these parts. "Manoj, is there a coconut inside my engine, or what?" Indian mechanics are noted for their ingenuity. If they cannot lay hands on factory parts, they are likely to make do with things like coconuts or telephone innards. Very patiently, Manoj explained that no, the coconut was not being used as a distributor cap, but that it had been cracked open with impressive ceremony on my car's bumper.

The stiff price not only included the coconut but also tea and sweets all around for all 12 employees of "The Car People", a shop which, despite its grand name, has the same dimensions as a medium-sized wardrobe. It also paid for a quick prayer by one of the mechanics. Although he was as greasy as the other mechanics, he belonged to the Brahmin caste and was therefore allowed to call a god's attention down upon my car. Hinduism has more than 30 million godsand you have to be quite specific about which one you choose for the job.

My car is now running under protection from Vishwakarma, God of Vehicles and Buildings. He's not one of the biggies, a Brahma, the Creator, or a Kali, the Destroyer. He is short of stature, and has only one pair of hands instead of umpteen. But in his hands he holds a 2,000BC hammer and chisel, though it would be acceptable in a visualisation yoga, I'm told, to update this a bit and image Vishwakarma brandishing a Black & Decker power drill and a sparkplug. One day every September, hundreds of millions of Hindus take out their vehicles - it doesn't matter if it's a bicycle or a Mercedes - wash them, anoint them with flowers and a red splotch of turmeric and make an offering to Vishwakarma.

So what was the mechanic's prayer for my car? I asked.

"May your car never stall on the road or give trouble to its driver, something like that," says Manoj. After pieces of the smashed coconut were passed around and munched by the other mechanics and their boy helpers, the Brahmin mechanic hopped into my Gypsy and turned the ignition key. The Gypsy stamped into life. "It started on the first try. That usually never happens," explains Manoj. "All the mechanics were very surprised."

After the Independent's Delhi bureau bought its Gypsy, four years ago, it conked out on the drive home. Seven men couldn't move it. Of course the problem was mechanical, but the driver I hired soon after was horrified that I had not made an offering to the gods. He refused to drive it until he had draped the bonnet with marigolds and chanted a few mantras. I'm sure he contrived to sacrifice some whisky to the gods - and to himself - for although the Gypsy worked reasonably well after this, I was forced to sack the driver after he went off in the Himalayas searching for booze and left me, a photographer and a friend in a dark forest with a leopard on the prowl.

I guess that I lost my initial divine insurance policy with my overhaul, the motor being the heart and soul, so to speak, of my automobile. I was intrigued by the metaphysical implications of this and went down to the garage. I wanted to find out if the removal of a steering wheel or a battery also required a renewal of Vishwakarma's blessing. No, I was told, a puja was carried out only after repairs inside the engine block. Meanwhile, the other mechanics, all Afghans, good Muslims who believe only in Allah, were grumbling. They regarded my question as dangerous heresy. They didn't believe in the puja; for them it was enough to have a short break in the shade, with some tea and coconut.