As the rest of Bangalore is beginning to stir on a sleepy Sunday morning, we chase a national racing champion down into lush forest land. Our Uber tackles traffic woes with aplomb, but he’d be no match for a pro. Luckily, Priyamvada Saradhi is taking a day off from the racetrack, to make time for less experienced drivers participating in a friendly all-women’s rally.
One of only two Bangalorean members of Ahura Racing, India’s first (and only) all-woman national racing team, Priyamvada first got behind the wheel at the age of 12. Weekend outings to Palace Grounds to fly kites turned into driving lessons for her older brother. She had no intention of falling behind. She recalls peering over the steering wheel as she successfully navigated paths around trees (RIP, old-school Palace Grounds); soon, she’d graduated to borrowing her father’s mighty Enfield to tour idyllic Sanjaynagar, her neighbourhood.
“Initially, my family was taken aback, of course,” she says. “But my Dad surprised me. He just pointed out the Enfield was much bigger and heavier than I was - which was true - and told me if I was interested in bikes, I should get my own. Right away, I started calling all my bike friends to figure out which one I wanted.”
The wind picks up and rustles around a thicket of trees that seem to get denser, as we look down the slick of tar cutting through it. We’re not in Bannerghatta National Park proper, but it sure feels like it. Priyamvada is bright eyed and bushy-tailed, thrumming with energy as she flits from our conversation while leaning against a car to share a laugh with her colleagues, who helped “recce” the course for today’s rally. “Can you believe there are still areas like this in Bangalore?” she asks. We’d forgotten, honestly.
But there is no time to linger over vistas of the open road. Today, Priyamvada is decidedly not in the driver’s seat: instead, she springs up ever so often from our conversation, to mark the time as part of her duties manning the first time constant (“ time check,” racing noobs) at the rally. Between all of this, we end up talking about baking (her cats are “crazy for bread, especially these funky buns I make”), how much she disapproves of street racing (“Come prove yourself on the track!”), and rumours of a professional racing track being built in Bangalore.
She’s been in the game for nine years now: she was 18 when she entered her first off-road, hill climb bike race using borrowed gear on a whim and won against an experienced racer. “There’s lots of different types of racing in motor sports,” she goes on, giving us a primer on race culture. “Most people specialise, but I learned as I drove, so I’ve done everything.” It took work. “Driving is an expensive sport, no doubt about it,” she says. “But it also gives you a sense of independence. You feel like you can do anything, tackle any problem, because when you’re driving you only have yourself to rely on.”
We can drive, but wending through Silk Board traffic isn’t quite the same thing. Legacy Bangaloreans might recall their coolest uncles participating in rallies in Nandi Hills, but motor sports have expanded since then. There’s drag racing (a pure adrenaline rush, Priyamvada says, and she’d know: she was, she tells us with a wide grin, the first woman to win a race here), rally racing (better suited to amateurs, and the perfect excuse for a road trip), racing on a track: and then there’s the equipment, mechanic support, and more. It’s heady business - but its complexities make Priyamvada a rare bird, even in this car- and bike-crazed city.
The wind whispers its way through the copse behind us and another car slows down to get their time recorded by the marshal. Priyamvada, herself, has just driven back and forth from two back-to-back races in Mangalore and Coimbatore. She’ll be here all day keeping time and directing rally participants to stick to the charted course. “So is it F1 you want to end up doing?” we ask, finally. She thinks about it. “Yeah, why not? I want to do everything I can. I want to build the sport, mentor other women coming in, do my best for as long as I can. I want to do it all.” The morning’s drawing to a close, and we cap it with just the thing we wanted: a lift home with this pro.
Sushmita Sundaram writes about funny people, odd things, and anything edible. Follow her on Twitter at @sushmitas.
Wake up to daily updates on what to eat/shop/do in your city