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The Great Pink Scooty Mystery

There’s a strange trend I’ve observed on our roads for some time now. I don’t know you if you’ve noticed it too. But everywhere I look, I see balding middle-aged men on Barbie-pink Scootys or their equally girly violet counterparts. The roads are filled with them. They seem to be all around me. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I’ve seen more greying, pot-bellied gentlemen riding these scooters than the young women the two-wheelers are apparently targeted at. (This is not me gender stereotyping. I know for a fact that young girls are supposed to want these scooters from those ads of Priyanka Chopra/Preity Zinta driving around on them, hoodwinking silly men and basically going ‘Woot woot! Girl power means pink bikes!” or words to that effect).

So how do we explain this phenomenon? One answer could be that these are old dads and uncles and grandpas borrowing their daughter/niece /granddaughter’s scooter at a pinch. Maybe they live in a middle-income, two-scooter household and some other member of the family (a virulently anti-pink brother, for instance) has made off with the staid grey Activa, leaving said old man with no choice. Could be. Maybe that explains some of the sightings. But I’ve seen too many cases for this to be the sole explanation. I mean, could there really be that many stranded old men in our city going pink against their wishes purely out of desperation? I think not.

Then there’s the look on their faces. I’ve seen men forced into embarrassing situations deemed too ‘feminine’ for them. I know how they react. Like the man forced to be at a sari blouse fitting with his sister. Or the newly-wed husband forced to buy feminine hygiene products for his wife at the local convenience store. Or the man who has to to put on his girlfriend’s fluffy pink bathrobe after a shower. Whatever. The bottom line is, they squirm. They shrink within themselves. They mumble. They fidget. They sweat. And they always, always avoid eye contact. But these old gentlemen, they’re different. They sail past confidently, back ramrod straight, head held high and if you stare, they look you straight in the eye as if to say, “That’s right biatch, I’m ridin’ pink. You got a problem with that?”

I don’t think these fine upstanding gentlemen are on these scooters as a last resort (or as part of some sort of mass expression of latent homosexuality — even Freud would agree that’s somewhat unlikely). No. I think they’re just riding the family scooter, bought by them to be shared with wife and kids and extended family, and that the old guys are proud to be on their shiny pink/purple purchase. And I’ll tell you why.

These grey-haired gents are a product of old India, India in the time of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana and the License Raj, India pre-Westernisation and globalisation and all those other big words. They grew up in a time when wearing pink or purple or any other colour of the rainbow didn’t make a man any less of a man (evidence: any of our good old Sambar Westerns or any desi film post the black and white era and pre 1990, for that matter). This was a time when two guys holding hands on the streets didn’t mean they were gay, just best friends forever (and ‘gay’ just meant happy). Gender-specific colour coding was unheard here of back then; it’s really mostly a Western concept — pink for girls and blue for boys and cursed are those who cross the divide! — that’s seeped into Indian society slowly since the economic liberalisation of 1991, along with McDonalds, cable TV, Loreal and Levis jeans.

Not buying the theory? Look out the window and tell me how many guys of age 30 or below you can see riding one of these bubblegum-coloured scooters.

I rest my case.

And I’ll tell you something else. I applaud the old guard for it. I think this colour coding business is silly. I don’t see why, for instance, the toy section for little girls  has to be painted over in a sea of blinding pink (and this coming from a girl who made her room so pink in her teens that her dad felt nauseated stepping in). What I mean is, it’s a choice. If you like bright pink, good for you. Even if you’re a 45 years old and a father of two. That was the M.G.R. way. If you don’t, ditto. I say, good for these guys, sticking with the old way that’s rapidly being lost to us. Like the men who don’t let the safari suit die, the middle-aged male lover of pink lives to fight another day in modern India, through the Scooty Pep. You go guys!

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To all the Divya K(umar)s out there (Part III): The Downfall

Well, it was bound to happen eventually. It was, as I said on my Facebook wall — rather theatrically, I admit, but dammit, I’m allowed! — only a matter of time. Yes, gentle readers of my blog, the sheer infuriating common-ness of my name has finally collided with my career. No, it isn’t another reporter at the MetroPlus or the Hindu writing with the same byline — that would be bad enough. No, there’s now a young lady who’s joined NDTV-Hindu, the new Chennai TV channel (a joint venture between the Hindu and NDTV), and her name is — naturally — Divya Kumar. Why is this such a big deal, you might be asking yourself. There are many people out there with the same name, working in the same field. What’s all the drama about?

Well, it’s like this. See, this young lady (a perfectly nice and harmless person, I’m sure) does interviews with Chennai-based artistes on this channel. With musicians, etc. The sort of thing I might do myself. In fact, given the nature of the relationship between our paper and the channel, I’ve actually done an interview on NDTV Hindu once myself. A lot of my stories are featured as part of the MetroPlus Show that plays on Saturdays. So you couldn’t really blame anyone who doesn’t know what I look like and has only ever seen my byline for MISTAKING HER FOR ME.

After years and years of the nuisance of getting the wrong emails, those meant for all those thousands of other Divya Kumars or Divya Ks — their bank statements, avowals of love from their significant others, etc. — I will now have people putting the wrong face to my name. And the wrong voice. And the wrong body… you get the drift. I feel like I’m in some bizarre remake of The Body Snatchers.

Now those of you who’ve read my earlier pieces on the subject know the commonness of my name has long been a sore spot for me. So naturally I ranted and raved to my family and friends (the poor sods) when I first came across this young lady’s interview. But I told myself to put it in perspective. Be rational, I said. It’s not such a big deal. I was finally reaching the point when I could giggle about it (and I only flinched slightly when a colleague pointed out that it could be worse — the Divya Kumar on TV could have been a guy). Then it happened. I got an email from a well-intentioned professional contact saying she’d seen ‘my interview’ with a prominent music personality on the channel and liked it. And all that was left to say was –aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrgggghhh!

Because it finally hit me. I knew why this was happening. And it was all the worse because I’d brought it upon myself. It was all that gloating I did after I created this blog earlier this year. I thought I’d won, you see, because I got the domain name, divyakumar.com, snatched from the grasp of all those other Divya Kumars, and suddenly all those searches for the wrong ‘Divya Kumars’ and “Divya Ks’ were landing up on my blog! I thought I’d thumbed my nose at the universe when finally, after years of hanging around at the bottom of the search results list on my name (yes, yes, it’s pathetic, but you do it too) I was suddenly on the first page with my blog. I believe my precise words were ‘Bwahahaha’.

Well, Universe, you win. You get the last laugh. I eat humble pie. Now, just below my blog’s link at the top of the search results for “Divya Kumar” on Google, we have the link to the TV channel’s interview. And that ain’t my face you see. So yes, I give up. I realise now that I can’t fight it. I will always be one of many. But at least my blog still comes first on the results page. I am resigned. To all the Divya Kumars out there — learn from my mistakes. From now on, we follow the path of Zen.

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Men & Cars: The Beemer Safari

Disclaimer: Writing up this blog post was delayed by the fact that Google informed me that BMW enthusiasts frown upon BMW cars being called Beemers. Apparently only BMW bikes can be called that. The cars, I discovered, are called Bimmers (hee hee. Sorry. But doesn’t BIM-mers have a slightly funny sound to it? No? Just me? Right. Moving along then.) Now, being the good little get-the-facts-right journalist that I am, I promptly changed my title to ‘The Bimmer Safari’, but it just didn’t feel right. So I sat and pondered, browsed Google for more gyan and consulted UrbanDictionary for a bit (now you see why I so rarely get any  writing except for the submit-or-else-your-head-will-roll type done) and came to the conclusion that using ‘Bimmer’ here didn’t make sense. No one I know, and certainly none of the people in the little story chronicled below calls it that. They all call it a Beemer (with a nicely satisfying, long eeee sound), just like most other Indians I know. So ‘Beemer safari’ it became again. But to all BMW enthusiasts who read this blog entry (and I’m certain there’ll be legions of you), let it be duly noted that the mis-naming is deliberate and not just a result of general cluelessness (which you’ll probably find plenty of other evidence of below anyway).

It was a beautiful day for a roadtrip. Or even a mini-roadtrip. Oh alright, it was more like just a nice, long drive. Whatever it was, we had the perfect weather for it, cool and windy, with plump white clouds shrouding the Chennai winter sun just enough for it to be pleasant rather than dismal or gloomy.  It was the sort of weather that made you feel like a heroine in a Yash Chopra movie, what with the soft-focus lighting and the gentle wind teasing your hair and making your dupatta stream behind you just so (later there was rain, but not to worry, dear readers, there were no sultry dances in see-through saris. We stayed indoors and ate hot kebabs and drank hot coffee. So much more comfortable, don’t you think?).

The final destination of the trip doesn’t matter for the purposes of this story (if you’re dying of curiosity, I’ll just have to feed you the clichéd ol’ it’s not the destination but the journey that counts blah blah quote). What is of significance is the fact that we — two yuppie couples — found ourselves at the massive Mahindra World City development at Chengalpet in the suburbs of Chennai on this gorgeous morning. And there, in the middle of that quiet 1550 acre property with large corporate and residential buildings laid out across wide-open grassy spaces, the two men in the car had something close to a religious experience.

Now, I’m not generally one for gender stereotyping. God knows I’m not your typical girly-girl (I own precisely four pairs of shoes and hate shopping. Yes, really), and I know enough people of both sexes who defy gender norms not to put much store in it at all. However, even I had to admit that our reactions to what happened next on that particular day were quite ridiculously stereotypical. A crappy TV show like According to Jim couldn’t have done it better.

Girl 1 (Me): [Typically clueless] “Why are we stopping here?”

Girl 2 : [Exaggerated eye roll] “Oh god.”

Guy 1 (the husband, henceforth known as TH) and Guy 2 (the other husband, henceforth known as TOH): [In a state of breathless excitement] “Oh. My. God.”

Me : “What??”

Girl 2: [Sighs] “It’s the BMW office. We’re going to be here a while.”

Me: [Still confused] “But there’s nothing there. No showroom or anything.”

A gasp from the front seat. “It’s only the mothership,” said TH in a pained, trying-to-be-patient voice.

“But…” I started.

And then it happened. TOH, who’d been inching the car forward till its little grey nose was virtually touching the wire-mesh fence surrounding the office (sorry, Mothership) building and its grassy grounds, gasped again. “Look!

“Oh man, a car!”

“A test drive car!”

“They must be doing a test drive!”

“With that car!”

“Oh man!”

I turned to the only other person in the car who had not apparently lost their mind and said, tentatively, “Do you see anything? I don’t see anything. What’re they talking about?”

She sighed again with the been-there done-that air of one who’s been married a lot longer than I, and pointed.  And then I saw. Sort of. In the distance, past the mesh-wire fence, mostly hidden by long, uncut grasses, I got a glimpse of pale-grey metal glinting in the sunlight. I squinted and I could just about make the shape of a car sitting there, apparently sunning itself.

“But it’s not moving,” I said, starting to sound a bit plaintive by now.

“Shhhhh,” TH said, apparently afraid I’d spook the Beemer. “What series is it, can you tell?” (Obviously he’s not talking to me, but I ventured “250?” which earned me a dirty look).

“It doesn’t even have the BMW logo in front,” pointed out Girl 2.

“It doesn’t need to,” said TOH in his pained, trying-to-be-patient voice. “You can tell from the front grill.”

For a few seconds after that, all that could be heard is the odd gusty sigh, as they peered reverently into the distance, not moving or speaking, drinking in the sight of the car sitting still amidst the waving grasses.

“Oh for god’s sake,” snapped Girl 2 suddenly, breaking the silence and making them jump. “It’s like you’re on a bloody Beemer safari.”

The sarcasm, inspired though it was, unfortunately missed its mark completely.

Wide grins spread across the guys’ faces as they turned to each other. “Yeaaaah,” said one. “We’re seeing it in its natural habitat.”

“Yeaaaah,” said the other, grin getting even goofier. “A Beemer in the wild!”

By this point, I was pretty much useless since I was busy fighting off a giggle fit brought on by mental images of the two guys in full safari gear ala Shikari Shambu, training their binoculars intently on the wild Beemer.

But the G2 hadn’t given up. “It’s all dented and stuff. It’s not even new,” said that lone she-ranger of sanity, persevering, trying something, anything that’d get the show back on the road . “Can’t we go now?”

“Oh man. It’s like… like a tiger wounded in battle,” said Shikari Shambu 1, eyes shining. “Yeaaaah, that only makes it even better,” said Shikari Shambu 2.

“Oh, I give up,” huffed G2.

We finally got on with the trip,  but only having promised our intrepid explorers of the wild that they could stop by again on the way back. And then we drove on for… well, about 200 metres. Because we simply had to stop at the the pastry shop G2 and I spotted down the road, its sinful confections beckoning seductively  (we may or may not have turned to each other and squealed “Cake!” as we passed it).

Sitting at the shop and having a moment with my rich chocolate truffle cake (with a blueberry muffin packed to go), I realised something. It was a bit of a Eureka moment, so bear with me with I lay it out to you. You see, what had happened was that the guys had just indulged an urban, automobile version of The Hunt (I suppose the ancient equivalent would have been cavemen scoping out the biggest, furriest woolly mammoth around — they were never actually gonna kill the thing and bring it home for supper now, were they?), and we were just indulging in the modern woman’s version of ‘gathering’ (is it any surprise the two of us were the ones that noticed the cake shop? I mean, if we’d lived a couple of thousand years ago, we’d have found all the berry-bearing bushes like that). All four of us were, I realised, just following our anthropological imperatives, giving into to hunter-gatherer urges programmed into our genes by our cave-dwellin’ ancestors thousands of years ago (yes, that’s right — my genes make me go in search of cake). This wasn’t stereotypical behaviour. This was science, see?

No?

Oh well.  That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.

Here’s to plenty more hunting and gathering, I say!

Note: A big thank you to Preeti Seshadri (Girl 2) for the awesome ‘Beemer Safari’ idea and to both her and Anant Sood (TOH) for a wonderful day out 🙂

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Stand up and be counted: The Great Indian Census of 2010

Photo: S.S. Kumar

I’ve finally done it; I am now officially part of the mammoth national undertaking that is the Indian Census of 2010. I’ve been counted. And all it took was a month of missed visits and phone calls to and from my friendly neighbourhood census officer, frayed nerves and mounting stress on both sides and a grand finale worthy of a Hollywood summer blockbuster to get it done by deadline (July 15).

Here’s the thing. Everyone from our Prime Minister down has been sitting around debating what should be covered as part of the census — let’s call it the Caste Counting conundrum — and the deep philosophical implications thereof (“If caste is not covered in the census, does it mean it will no longer exist?”). But no one is talking about how ridiculous the task is logistically; I mean, how the heck does one go about counting one billion plus people?

Well, I got a bit of a glimpse into the process and let me tell you, it ain’t pretty. This is an undertaking of the Indian government, so naturally there is absolutely no system of any sort in place. The grand plan? Get together a bunch of hapless men and women, give them each a big, black carrybag with the big, broad census sheets attached to big, broad boards  and then send them forth on foot on our crazy streets… at the same time everyday. (Just to make things more fun, they decide to get started at the height of our hideously hot and humid Chennai summer. )

Now what this means is that Mrs. A, my census lady, came to my apartment at the same time every afternoon for nearly a week and I was blissfully unaware of it. A parcel delivery guy comes once and if you’re not home, he leaves you a note, a number and an address you can contact him at. But I only come to know that my country’s trying to take my attendance when the sweet 70-something year old mami next door finally catches hold of me as I come home late one evening and anxiously passes on the message that Mrs. A’s been to my flat four times and wants me to call her on her cell. She gives me the number written in her neat, slightly shaky handwriting on a torn-off piece of paper, which, of course, I promptly lose.

About a week later, I meet Census Lady in person when she rings the doorbell just as I’m dashing out in the afternoon for a work assignment (I’d just happened to stop by to pick something up on the way). I am, as always, cutting it perilously fine. As in, I literally have every second of the next thirty minutes accounted for, and there’s no leeway for census officers who pop up out of nowhere. Unsurprisingly, our first meeting is not a success. She blocks my path and threatens to null and void my existence on the national census if I don’t give her the info she needs; I lose my cool and tell her I’ll lose my job if she doesn’t move out of my way right now. She points out she has a job to do too, and I calm down a bit and promise I will give her the details, will come to her office if need be,  and give her my cell number as a peace offering. She drops the attitude and apologises for getting snippy; it’s just that she’d already come by five or six times on foot, and not found us there: “Please don’t take it the wrong way, meddam.”  I tell her it’s just me and the husband here and we both work, so there’ll never be anyone home at this time, can’t she come in the morning? (This breathlessly as I run down the stairs – no electricity). She just looks at me stoically as we pause near my car, and says what is to become a familiar litany in the weeks that follow: “I am in office till 2 p.m., after that I’m coming for taking census.” I give up and jump into the vehicle; if I don’t hurry, I won’t have a job to be at the following afternoon.

That heralds the beginning of a strange new phone friendship between me and Mrs. A. She calls every now and again in the afternoon to say she’s at my door. Her faith is touching, really; clearly she believes if she rings a bell often enough, the door will magically open one of these afternoons. Either that or she’s not particularly impressed with my professionalism and doeesn’t think I’ll be holding on to this job for long. Each time I re-iterate with growing desperation and guilt that no, no, I’m not home, I’ll come to your office one of these days, I promise. But that day never seems to come; something seems to crop up every morning and I can’t make it. It reaches a point when I’m haunted by Mrs. A’s sad face in my dreams at night. “I’m coming to your house on foot, meddam… 10 times I’ve come.”

I do manage to make the time to go in search of her office one morning, only to end up getting lost. Forget finding Venkataratnam Nagar Ext, Ist street; no one seems to have even heard of the darn place. After driving around in circles for half an hour, I call her, only to hear her sniffly voice on the other end tell me that she’s sick and on leave that day. Sometimes you just have to admit defeat; I turn around meekly and head to work.

As per government regulation, she normally doesn’t work Saturdays, but that weekend, presumably because she’s now feeling a similar sense of desperation, she turns up at my flat. Needless to say, both the husband and I are working that particular Saturday and no one’s home. By now,  I’m starting to feel quite miserable every time ‘Census Lady’ flashes on my cellphone.

Determined to put an end to this continuing torture, I finally track down the phantom government office on the phantom street (turns out it’s nestled somewhere in the heart of Kasturba Nagar… who knew?) on the morning of July 14 (one day to deadline. It’s now or never.) In a quiet, shady cul-de-sac in the middle of the residential neighbourhood stands the nondescript building with an Ambassador out front bearing a ‘Govt of India’ license plate (some things never change, I think fondly). I’m feeling rather cheerful as I bound up the stairs; it’s almost over now. I enter expecting a scene of utter chaos… they are, after all, counting a million or so households, but all I find are four elderly men and women silently sitting behind their computer screens, and nothing much else. One of them, Kindly Old Man No. 1, tells me, to my disbelief, that Mrs. A is ‘on leave’ and my bubbly mood fizzles out completely. A sense of being in some sort of neverending nightmare comes over me; was I not meant to be part of the 2010 census? Was it all some sort of elaborate joke? Kindly Old Man No. 2 seems to sense my desperation and asks me which street I live on, clearly wanting to help. But he sadly shakes his head when I tell him. “I’m doing only fusst main road, ma.” A couple of calls later, and we uncover the final cruel twist to the story; today was the one day Mrs. A decided to break the rules and go to take census before coming to office.

Close to tears now, I call Mrs. A, and tell her in a wavering voice that I’m in her office while she, apparently, is one street away from my home. Desparate times call for desparate measures, and Mrs. A takes the situation firmly in hand. “Come to the corner of the main road by the hospital. I will wait there… maroon sari,” she tells me somewhat cryptically. Grasping at straws now, I follow the instructions obediently and make my way there in record time. I park and look around furtively, feeling for all the world like I’m trapped in some B-grade Tamil spy movie… but no maroon sari. And then, suddenly, the trees across the street seem to part and the sari appears in my field of vision, as autos and cyclists whiz by. I feel like dramatic music ought to be swelling in the background. I lean forward to open the car door and signal to her, but Mrs. A seems to recall my car and comes straight towards me with a smile. I’ve never been this happy to see  a maroon nylon sari, sensibly oiled plait and big, black census bag before in my life; we’re virtually like long-lost friends being reunited after decades apart. “Sorry meddam, I’ve really taken up your time and troubled you,” she says as she gets into the car. “No, no, I’m sorry,” I say, beaming like an idiot.

The actual census-taking process is over ridiculously fast — we cover the number of rooms in my house, whether we have a radio or internet connection, our birthdays  etc. at record speed. She apologises again, saying she’d have just gotten the details over the phone except that I have to sign the form. You don’t have to apologise, I tell her.

She says with a sigh as she puts the forms away, “If everyone who missed the census visit took the trouble to come and give me the information like you, my job would be a lot easier.”

And just like that it’s all worth it. As I watch, she hefts the bag on her shoulder and walks over to some hawkers nearby, obviously asking for directions, the noon-day sun beating down on her maroon sari and her sensible plait. The sheer enormity of the task she and all those men and women in the office I’d visited had dawns on me. It’s a thankless job, and I’m just glad that I did my bit to help out.

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Highway to Heaven: The Gang of Biker Vadhyars

It’s a sleepy Sunday afternoon in Chennai and we’re in our car, making our way back home after lunch through the sparse traffic. I’m twiddling with the radio dial, he’s making desultory conversation, and both of us are already halfway into our Sunday afternoon nap mode when we suddenly hear a throaty vroom vroom from somewhere behind us. Not good. It’s a sound familiar to any Chennai-ite and usually signals the arrival of one of those greasy-haired, too-tight-jeans-wearing bikers who gets his kicks by flouting road rules to such an extent that auto drivers seem positively staid by comparison. And if there’s one, there’ll be more; they invariably travel in packs.

“Uh-oh,” I begin, “it’s one of those crazy biker gan–”

Before the words have left my mouth, he’s streaked past us in a blur, a flash of pristine white. It takes my somnolent brain a minute to process that there’s something rather different about this biker. It isn’t his attitude; no, he’s loudly signalling his fellow bikers across the three lanes, zipping in and out between vehicles, and being quite as obnoxious as the worst of them. But this one’s hair is pulled back in a tightly-coiled kudmi, not a tendril out of place (I spend a moment admiring the sheer staying power of that knot). And no jeans, tight or otherwise or t-shirt with lewd slogan in sight. No, this guy flies by with his panchakacham flapping briskly in the wind, his poonal streaming devil-may-care somewhere past his left ear and his angavastram bellowing behind him like some sort of weird Tam-Bram version of Batman’s cape.

“Do you see what I see?” I ask the husband falteringly.

Before he can answer, the scene takes on an even more surreal feel. Vadhyar Biker No. 1 has now been joined by two others in equally complete priestly garb (though their kudmi-tying skills aren’t quite on par — definitely some frizz happening with one) and they all three zoom into our field of vision, gesturing, hooting, and generally behaving as if Lalitha Sahasranamam is the last thing on their minds . Dear God, I think. It’s a whole gang of them.

“If you mean the Hell’s Angels of Mylapore, then yes,” he says, sounding as shaken as I feel.

By this point, the Gang of Biker Vadhyars, led by he of the perfect kudmi, have congregated at one point for a U-turn, and when we last see them, are high-fiving each other and laughing fit to fall off their bikes. No religious ceremony will never be the same to me again, I think dazedly, as we continue our journey in stunned silence. The next time I see three vadhyars sitting together at some solemn occasion like a shraddham, I’m not going to be able to get the image of them doing wheelies out of my head. 

Okay, so our society is changing fast. In the US, I once saw a vadhyar arrive at my aunt’s house in jeans and a t-shirt, change into veshti etc. to conduct the poojai in her fireplace and then zoom off again in his Toyota Camry. We got to change with the times, I get it. Take the vadhyar at my friend’s recent engagement, who stayed plugged in to his MP3 player (ear phones dangling stylishly off one ear) the whole time. That I can understand — he’s only human, he needs to listen to music during work, yada yada. We all do it.

But this? Even typing ‘Hell’s Angels’ in the same sentence as ‘vadhyar’ feels faintly blasphemous. And yet, those three were the veritable embodiment of biker ‘tude.  Then a small voice in my head says, why not? Just because a guy’s day job involves piety and prayer doesn’t mean he can’t be a bad-ass biker by night (or in this case, by afternoon). We all need a way to unwind. Yoga or meditation seem a little more apt, perhaps, but hey, who am I to judge? Maybe guys with a direct line to God are the only ones who should to be zipping around at those speeds on our roads anyway.

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