1. Ground Zero. New Delhi. 0000 km.
Zero Hour. A group of studs outside the Shalom nightclub, drunk, perhaps stoned, clearly elated, leap into a revving Opel Astra. "YESSSSSS!" is the answer to ‘Are you happy?’ "Only if this city rocked all night," screams one leather-jacket dude, as they speed away into the darkness.
2. Jaipur. 0270 km.
Geeta, 13, dances to folk music inside a hip, heritage hotel. She looks happy. Especially when the firangs thrust dollar bills into her little hands. Look closer, there’s only pain. "I hate my life. The hotel takes away all the money." At Bapu Bazaar, a blonde in a tie-and-dye saree tucks in golgappas "India gives me shanty, you know." She means shanti, I later realise.
3. Ajmer. 0400 km.
It is a great relief to meet Salim, 24, having braved the heat, dust and squalor that surround Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti’s dargah. Our free guide inside the holy place. He claims to be a happy man, being "so close to god". But harbours only hatred for the Delhi politicians."Jeene nahin denge yeh log (they won’t let us live)," he sighs.
4. Badarda, Rajasamand. 0612 km.
Gajanan Hotel, on the deserted Nathdwara-Kankroli Road, offers delicious chutney sandwiches. Fellow-patron, Rajesh Rathi, 25, is happy with life, more so when he discovers my Mumbai roots. He wants to meet Aamir Khan, up close. I offer to do my best. Delighted, he slips me his profile. He’ll need more than that in incestuous Bollywood.
5. Udaipur. 0670 km.
Satya Narayan, 50, works as a tourist guide. His knowledge of Udaipur’s rich past is half-baked and hugely suspect. But the backpackers lap up every broken word he utters. The man is very happy, claims he earns more than the manager of Jagat Niwas, the haveli-turned-ritzy restaurant on Lalghat. His only regret: the dried-up lakes. One can walk into the Lake Palace Hotel that was allegedly built within the lake.
6. Ahmedabad. 0930 km.
There is aggro and angst in the air. The people are hassled and very rude. Razia, 30, sells ghagras at the Law Garden market. A very unhappy woman, she wants to split the city, ASAP. Before she can elaborate, a couple of curious, paan-spitting cops walk in our direction. The lady flees. So do I. Across the Amdavad-Vadodara Expressway. Still called the Mahatma Gandhi Expressway. Didn’t know Bapu still mattered in Gujarat.
7. Bharuch. 1,120 km.
Off Bharuch is located a grand temple. And right behind it, a very crowded eatery. The bread pakoras are to die for, despite the overall lack of hygiene. I meet a young pujari, Praful, 29, biting into assorted farsan. A man of few words, he claims to be more than happy, and wants peace and prosperity for all Indians. The temple-cum-restaurant is called Nyay Mandir. Modi bhai must drop in here for some hot jalebi. And inspiration.
8. Vapi. 1,290 km.
This hot little town at the bottom of Gujarat looks pleased with itself.The proximity to picturesque Daman no doubt plays a part. At a petrol pump, I meet Viral, 14, the boy who fills air into my car tyres. He tells me he is not very happy right now, but "mark my words, one day I will own this place!" And in true Bachchan/Deewar style, he refuses the tip. Mark my words, Viral is gonna travel far.
9. Mumbai. 1,450 km.
Satpal, 30, washes cars in a residential colony. A migrant from UP, he is very happy living in Mumbai, he earns enough to feed seven mouths back home in Etawah. When I prod further, he declares, "Look, can we discuss this another time? My duty as watchman starts in five minutes." That’s a Mumbaikar for you. Too busy chasing the extra buck to worry about silly things like happiness.
10. Pune. 1,610 km.
At the quaint fast food outlet, adjoining the popular Dorabjee’s supermarket, are seated two elderly Parsi ladies, carefully munching away on their salad rolls. Twin sisters, Jaroo and Dinoo Sukhia, both 79, tell me they are happy to be Indians. However, fire rages in the ageing bellies, as they express great anguish over Delhi politicians, "who are determined to communally divide this beautiful nation". I agree.
11. Kolhapur. 1,843 km.
The bypass road is frothing with dust and grime, courtesy Atalji’s dream golden quadrilateral project, that looks far from completion. Vilas Mule, 27, a highway channa-watana seller, offers me his goods at a bad bottleneck. A very bitter man, he feels the rich are getting richer, the poor, poorer. Vilas has given up on the nation, and packs, along with crisp watanas, some totally unprintable Marathi gaalis, all directed at our popular netas.
12. Hubli. 2,050 km.
Welcome to the relatively low-angsty Southern India. Inside the swish lobby of top-end Hotel Naveen, I run into a cellphone- jammed Sneha Shetty, 21. She’s a student at a local dental college. Sneha says she’s very happy to be an Indian, and especially for being a Hindu, a religion she regards as most tolerant. And what pisses her off? "There is no place in India that’s corruption-free, including my college," she shakes her head.
13. Ranibennur. 2,170 km
The happiest place in India, if Srikanth, 27, the medical rep’s mood is anything to go by. "I am happy with whatever little I earn, I have a loving wife, a loving kid, and we stay with our loving parents. I love srk, and we all go together to watch his movies. What more can a man want from life?" I think the chap’s cracked it. The happiest man I meet in all India. So happy, he crosses the NH 4 without looking.
14. Bangalore. 2,480 km.
It’s changing, this otherwise chirpy city. For the worse. Crumbling infrastructure and a huge influx of migrants are the star villains. Says Seema Devjani, 33, a travel consultant, "I’m indifferent about being an Indian. And what upsets me the most is lack of respect for public opinion. The governments don’t care what we think." True. The netas will read this issue, scoff at the nation’s unhappiness, and move on.
* OHQ: That's Overall Happiness Quotient. Based purely on the feel of the place. The smile (or the lack of it) on the people's faces. The body lingo. And the way they go about life and business.
(When not driving around aimlessly, Anil Thakraney creates ads and writes columns. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)