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  • Niteen Hatle

The Third Gear

Pune to Navi Mumbai and Back

The Mumbai-Pune Expressway laid wide open before me as I pulled away from the Talegaon Toll Plaza. The weather was pleasant. Light drizzle washed across the highway. I had the driver-side window open to let in some cool fresh air. Rivers of sweat rolled down my temples.

A silent fear had gripped me the previous night in anticipation of my first long drive. That Friday I had adhered to the office timings and come back home at around 8pm. I had had my dinner and was pacing from living room to bedroom. There was no peace. I was restless. My mind was racing, thinking about the worst things that could happen on this journey. I had received my learner’s permit. I had undergone training. I believed I was a good driver. My trainer thought I would have no difficulty passing the final test. But the fear of messing up big time was more troubling than the condition of the 10-year-old Tata Indica Xeta GLS I had bought a month back.

I believed I would never buy a car. But there was no way I was taking my wife and newborn together on my bike. I believe nobody should. Despite popular opinion, I have always loved the Tata Indica. The versatile bullet shape of the car had turned me into a fan. And I absolutely love the unique tail light setup. So, I got the Xeta. A gasket change and head overhaul had solved the overheating issue, which had left us stranded in the middle of the road almost a month back. There was more embarrassment than anger as the car broke down and had to be towed to the service center.


Yup, this is a 10-year-old Xeta.

A once broken-down car and the fear of getting involved in an accident while bringing my wife and son back home were enough to give me a sleepless night. So, I watched a movie, then listened to some music to cool my nerves, and slept quite late.

The only assurance I had, as I put the car into 1st gear and left my house, was that of a friend. Neelesh had owned a Tata Indica for over eight years. So, I had asked him to test drive the Xeta. He did that like a pro. He told me it was a car in good condition. I had fired countless questions about cars at him and he had all the answers and replied calmly and confidently. A day before the first long journey, I requested him to drive the car once again after it was back from the service center and he obliged. He drove the car as if he owned it and said he would not hesitate to take it to Navi Mumbai and back.

However, the apprehension did not end there. The idea of driving on the ghats of Lonavala/Khandala gave me the creeps. I had never driven on a ghat before. Hence, I researched on the Internet. I wanted to know which gear was perfect to drive on a ghat. Neelesh told me it depended on the speed at which you want to travel on the gradient. He suggested 2nd gear on a steep hill. I did find info on the Internet about gears to be in while ascending a ghat. I came across forum posts where people swore by the 3rd gear in a Tata Indica. Whether it is flat road, uphill, or downhill, people recommended the 3rd gear as the switch-to gear. It was hailed as the gear to be in for fuel efficiency, power, and control.

Control was what I lost for a couple of seconds while driving down the Lonavala ghat. From Talegaon Toll plaza to the beginning of the ghat I had been in either 4th or 5th gear. Most of the time it was the 4th as I was determined not to drive too fast even on the expressway. I owned the left-most lane meant for trucks for about 30 minutes. I stuck to 60 kmph in the 4th gear and was beginning to feel confident. I would switch to the 5th when the highway was devoid of vehicles.

All hell broke loose as I reached the Lonavala exit. Cars appeared out of nowhere and zoomed past me left, right, and center. I kept to the right-most lane for a change. There was no way anyone could change lanes on the curves downhill. That anyone meant me. Others were happily honking and passed me in apparent anger as I stuck to 4th gear. Soon I came up to a stretch of the road that had too many twists and turns. I quickly realized I was going a bit too fast and would lose control in that crowd which I did for a couple of seconds while doing a right curve. I braked and slowed down despite being in the right-most lane. That led to more honking and overtaking. I regained control as I downshifted to the 3rd gear. The car seemed more grounded through the rest of the stretch and yet it rolled smoothly downhill. I moved to the left-most lane the moment I lost altitude. After that it was standard training school driving till I reached Nerul.

We set out early the next day at about 7:30am. That’s because I thought the expressway on a Sunday afternoon or evening would be teeming with fast cars as people left homes in Mumbai for offices in Pune. My wife and three-month-old son were seated at the back. I would have liked them to be next to me, but I must say my wife made a sound decision. The baby could sleep at the back and she could listen to music and relax. And, more importantly, I could focus on taking them back home safely. I must have traveled countless times from Mumbai to Pune and every time I would wonder why some vehicles moved at snail’s pace up the ghat that starts after Khalapur Toll Plaza. I had quickly shifted to the 4th gear and focused on all the cars around me. I decided to stick to the right-most lane. And then I heard cars honking and overtaking me. That’s when I knew I wasn’t going fast enough. I stepped on the accelerator, but the car refused to gain speed. I realized that the ghat was steeper than what I had come to believe. Tips provided on auto forums and the experience of the previous day made me downshift to the 3rd gear and the car sped up the gradient like it was in 5th. I could feel the power as I overtook a couple of cars. I could control the car at a steady speed through the twists and turns of the ghat. The journey got more challenging and satisfying as the traffic swelled and I had to maneuver the car through it. The car responded well and I drove non-stop in that bumper-to-bumper traffic on the expressway! The drive from the end of the ghat to my home seemed quite boring. All I had to do was steer the car, overtake some trucks, and let fast cars pass by.

We reached home in under three hours, which included a 30-minute halt at a food plaza in Khalapur for refreshments. I was glad I was safe home with my family. My wife was particularly happy that I was able to drive well without an untoward incident. She says you would better drive a bit slower and safer than go fast and risk your life and those of your family members. I completely agree with her. My wife does not stop praising the seating comfort that the car offers. Neelesh too reiterates time and again that it is actually quite spacious compared to other cars in this segment. As far as driving experience is concerned, I am quite happy with the Xeta. However, I am expecting some issues, some niggles, and some parts replacement in the months to come. But hey, this is a 10-year-old car!

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