When we first moved to India, my husband had plans for me, transport-wise. We would buy two cars, he said, while we were still at the airport. I could drive locally, while he would take care of the longer trips.
Jet-lagged, intimidated by a customs officer who had just been thwarted in his attempt to make money out of us, I said, oh, sure, of course. At that point, I would have agreed to the execution, drawing, and quartering of myself. Then we drove out of Bengaluru airport onto the streets, and the nightmare began.
At the very outset, I wish to state that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the local traffic. It was normal and just fine. We were the ones totally out of place. Used to driving an automatic with eyes open and brain turned off as I was in the United States, the scene was too much to take. Two-wheelers were weaving like a Kanchipuram silk sari maker in between lumbering buses belching enough smoke to make the “Smoking is hazardous to your health” slogan superfluous. Auto rickshaws were giving them tough competition, and a bullock cart was trying to turn right from the leftmost lane, aka the pavement. Yeah, sure, I was going to learn to drive a stick shift in this. Rush Limbaugh would turn Democrat first.
In Mysore, where we settled down eventually, it was even more chaotic.
In two months time, we bought a new car, dented it in its first week, and had to change our parking spot because it was simply impossible to maneuver into our allotted one with millimeters to spare. And I waited in silence for the verdict.
“Maybe we can put off your driving for a while,” said my much-shaken spouse.
“Maybe … for the next fifty years or so,” I agreed, mentally crossing my fingers.
Now that I had been handed my reprieve, I had to choose my mode of transport. Being totally new to the place, three-wheeled auto rickshaws (called autos)were about all I could take, and even they were often too rich for my blood. Their habit of acting like they owned the road had me biting my knuckles. Once I actually screamed when the auto I was in made a right turn at the same time as a loaded pickup turned right into our path. The auto driver laughed lightly, while I lost a year of my life. Since then, I have been regarded with everything from pity to downright contempt for pleading with drivers to go slowly, I was in—no—hurry—whatsoever. “Sure, you aren’t, lady,” they all said, “but what about us?”
The other thing that got me about autos was the gouging. It was not that I was new to gouging. How could I be, when I had been flying all these years? It was more the principle of the thing. Auto rickshaws have meters that shows a certain reading, so why should you pay more? A perfectly valid question … if there had been a meter. Some drivers will keep their autos meter-less on purpose and act surprised when you mention it.
“I thought I was missing something. Never mind, just pay Rs. 60,” for a 30 buck-distance. Yeah right.
Others will doctor their meters to run like Usain Bolt on steroids. I can’t quarrel with these guys because I really can’t find a valid reason, since I can’t prove a thing. But the ones that get to me the most are those who have meters but will ask for a fixed amount anyway.
“Just give me 20 rupees.” When the meter says Rs. 16? You might as well show a red flag to a bull. When these occasions arose, so also did the fighting spirit of Rani Lakshmi Bai, Chand Bibi, and Mamta Banerjee in me.
On one such occasion, I had paused to draw breath and find a fitting fighting word, when the husband buzzed at me. Actually, he was speaking out of the corner of his mouth.
“You are fighting for four rupees,” he said. After a couple of “Huh?s” I understood. Yes, I had been arguing for five minutes on a public street corner for a measly four rupees. I whined a little about the “principle of the thing” and ended up capitulating.
Later, I pondered the question: why did I feel so bad to have to pay just a few rupees more? The theory I came up with was that it was a middle-class thing. In India, you know you have precious little control over your life, especially if you belong to the middle-class. You get a gas cylinder when the gas cylinder guy wills it, you get your house repaired when the contractor relents, and you get whatever vegetables your local vegetable-wala decides to bring around. God knows you never argue with your gas cylinder supplier or your vegetable vendor, and certainly not with your building contractor. So you take out your frustrations on the auto guy whom you, hopefully, will never meet again.
Anyway, all these conflicts within and without autos were giving me hypertension, so I began travelling by bus. I quickly found that this mode of transport suited me most. There was no room for quarrelling as rates were fixed and public humiliation would result if I tried any such shenanigans. It also made me feel a part of the community, and taught me the local by-ways. Above all, it gave me the time to take in and understand the local traffic “rules,” something that I had never thought about before.
Now, now … before you assert that there are no traffic rules in India, I have to respectfully but firmly state, “Yes, there are.” They may not be written up or published, but everybody understands them tacitly, and obeys them. They may be classified as follows:
• Buses and lorries and other big vehicles with air horns have right-of-way, no matter what. The only vehicles that can supersede them are police jeeps with police bigwigs in them, or motorcades with political bigwigs in them. They can cut off …
• Four-wheelers like cars with somewhat moneyed people inside them. Note: Four-wheelers such as bullock carts are not included in this list unless they have the local fave actor in a rustic role driving them, in which case they may claim the privilege of being included in this category. These vehicles may cut off …
• Three-wheelers like auto rickshaws and souped-up Piaggio vans which may then attempt to worm their way between two buses of unknown vintage and indifferent braking capacity, while their passengers send up fervent appeals for their own safety to gods from Palaniappa to Krishna to Jesus. These vehicles may succeed in cutting off …
• Two-wheelers like motor-cycles and mopeds, unless their drivers are seeking to impress bystanders of the opposite sex, in which case said rules will not apply. These two-wheelers will cut off …
• Bicycles. These are ridden mostly by school students and other nonentities, who delight in cutting off …
• Pedestrians. Well, if you are stupid enough to walk on the edge of the road, you’ve got it coming!
However, there is a single entity that can claim road rights over even the biggest bus, lorry, police jeep or neta motorcade, and that is the buffalo. Not sheep, or goats, or even cows, only the big black buffalo has this right. It may be that its huge horns make it intimidating, but the main reason is its supreme indifference and the fact that it is just too big for anyone to drive over and call it an oversight. I have been privileged to watch cows try to cross the road like buffalos and give up the idea halfway through.
Another four-legged animal treats the road as its own, and that is the stray dog. Strays are as ubiquitous as two-wheelers, and just as unpredictable. Just like people on motorbikes, dogs look very purposeful, but will suddenly swerve when they spot a friend, or foe, hanging out. Dogs also have some very peculiar habits.
Sometimes while crossing roads, they will stop at the median, reconsider, and go back. The motorist thus has the job of not only avoiding other vehicles on the road, but also of learning a dog’s body language.
As everyone knows, in India, you drive on the left side of the road. So why are people driving on the right?
They are driving on the “other left,” of course! Plus, they are being proactive: instead of waiting passively for a break in which to enter traffic going the other way, they travel on the right side of the road until an opportunity to cut in occurs. Or their destination could be on the right side of the road. All these drivers follow the One-Man rule: if one man does it, then it is okay for the whole populace to follow suit. By the way, cutting a red light also follows this rule. See? More rules.
A quick note about one-way streets. Local police reserve the right to transform a busy two-way street into a one-way, and they frequently do this without warning. But often, when a big vehicle like a bus or truck is trying to overtake another big vehicle, narrow roads with two lanes end up becoming one-way streets until the maneuver is complete. What does one do if one looks up from the wheel and sees the two vehicles barreling down? Simple:
If you ask what keeps the traffic on Indian roads moving, I would say it is faith. The bus driver has faith that not one of the umpteen two- and three-wheelers riding his butt will crash into him or go under. A man cutting in front of a bus has faith that the bus driver will see him in time and steer out of the way. The auto driver has faith that though his rear-view mirrors are turned to reflect only his passengers, somehow he will be able to spot vehicles coming up behind him. The pedestrian has faith that the vehicles passing him on the road won’t swerve suddenly and hit him. No wonder Indians are deeply religious; they have to be, just to be able to walk out of their homes.
Finally, I have to mention the roads. Since simple prose cannot describe the roads, it is with deep regret that I pen this poem paraphrasing the immortal “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth.
I back’d out of my parking spot,
Reversed, straightened, ready for my goals,
When all at once I saw a lot,
A slew, of myriad pits and potholes;
In all the lanes, on all the roads,
Of all sizes, shapes, and modes.
Continuous as politicians’ lies
That are spouted from early dawn to night,
They stretch’d like a cake that is pocked with flies
As far as I could see, even out of sight;
A million saw I at a glance,
Ready to test my performance.
I was a driver; that was true,
But where was the tarmac, I wondered;
Then there it was, a thread of blue
As it, between the potholes, meandered.
I gazed—and gazed—and shuddered and thought
What pain that horrid road had brought:
For oft, when on my hospital bed I lie
With slipped discs, strained muscles and broken bone,
And over big medical bills I sigh
And wonder where my health has gone;
And then my mind with bitterness recalls
The myriad potholes and my unfortunate falls.
Lakshmi Palecanda recently moved from Montana to Mysore, India. She can be reached at email@example.com