Friday, June 10, 2005

Horn*OK*Please

I have been staying away from India for the past five years. Distance provides a rare opportunity: objectivity. The opportunity to view your old surroundings with new eyes, an opportunity to feel shock & awe, amusement & enlightenment, epiphany & redemption. It would even make Heisenberg uncertain about his Uncertainty Principle. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and came away richer.

There’s road travel in India and then there’s the rest of the world. My entire stay in India before going abroad was punctuated with padayatras, BEST (bus service in Bombay), trains, auto-rickshaws and the rare taxi ride. My parents didn’t have a car, I never felt the need to drive one, and consequently, I never quite understood and absorbed the mechanics of driving in India. Now, I am a convert, a compulsive driver who finds great comfort inside his Volkswagen Passat. In fact, this trip I was almost inclined to sit behind the steering wheel of any brave owner’s car in India to exercise the license that I got by learning the Maruti 800 at the Chauhan Motor Driving School. Three years of driving have given me a sixth sense I didn’t know existed.

Suddenly, I felt myself being aware of the way people drove in India. The maneuvers, the skills, the blasé attitude, the space utilization, the common sense, the lack of it. Expressways notwithstanding, the real roads in India crawl at a maximum speed of 20 km/hr, it is difficult to decide whether the brake is abused more than the clutch and lanes are a figment of someone alien’s imagination. Don’t get me wrong. I think this is what makes us unique. Our non-adherence to conformity, with a trace of respect. After all, people do still follow green/red lights (this is of course Mumbai, I can write a book on how people drive in Surat). Why fit one car in a lane, when two rickshaws, a bike, a bicycle and a beggar can fit in? Why restrict our imagination and ability when we can overtake from both left and right?

The greatest epiphany I had in this India trip was the Great Indian Horn. It is a phenomenon that hasn’t been given due attention. All these years I felt that people were just honking away in frustration at all times. How wrong was I? Of course, motorists honk away at signals anyway to fill up the time till the green light comes. Oh, the insecurity of it all. Sound fills up the time and space around the four corners. However, I am digressing. The horn serves a grander purpose. Let me explain.

People don’t follow lanes in India. You can enter on the left and exit on the right. You can glide gracefully from one corner to another like a 60’s Hindi film heroine. Of course, there is no such thing as looking into side and rear view mirrors. The entire side view is a blind spot, so that is not a concern either. The future holds surprises and so does the guy in front of you who may suddenly decide that he has rightist leanings and prefers the right edge of the road. How in that event can you let him know that you are going faster than him and will go past him in the next three seconds. Do you rely on him to check on you before he turns his steering wheel? Would you trust your life on a person who may be watching London, talking Tokyo? Of course not. This is India. It is obvious that you won’t survive by your wits alone. That is why you have the all-powerful weapon: the horn. Honk it hard and continuous and you will catch the driver’s attention. You have announced war. You have announced intent to overtake and he must bow before you. You are in the right lane, and it shall remain unoccupied for you to pass through like a victorious soldier. The horn, my friends is the shankha of Arjun, it is what Gimli blew in Helm’s deep, it is the trumpet with the sweetest of voices.

There’s more to the horn than meets the ear. Over the years, the horn has evolved so much. From the plain old monotone to the sounds of backing up (‘Jai Jagadeesh Hare’, ‘This car is backing up’) to the latest remixes that I came across, there is a while spectrum of melodies(?) one gets to hear on the road.

On a side note, I was paying attention to the labels people on the back of their rickshaws and taxis. Messages, kids’ names, source location of the vehicle are there for you to read. Horn*OK*Please, Amit and Naina, Jay Mata Di, Andheri, Ghatkopar etc. The corniest that I came across though was “Agar aap hamare aur kareeb aaenge to hum aapki puppy le lenge”. Eeeesh!!

One last point. The best drivers are the ones who honk the least. Try and observe that and let me know what you feel. Ok? Please?

10 comments:

Sachin said...

:)))
Jai Jagadeesh Hare’, does actually honks in india also come with righ tones that we get in cell phones !!

Tejal said...

Absolutely - the better drivers use the horn sparingly. I've driven enough in good old B'bay. What I found amusing was the use of the horn to alert pedestrians to the fact that the car is also on the road!!!

Archana said...

If you can come out alive driving anywhere in India it means you can drive anywhere around the world [safely that is]. Its quite amazing to see how rickshaws and two wheelers make use of every inch of the road. Know what? I actually miss grumbling at these people now :D

phucker said...

Ah driving in India - most likely the #1 cause of hypertension - couple that with 47 degrees weather, and majority of cars/bikes without access to air-conditioners, and you have...well you know what you have....
Your observations are spot on - but note that Bombay traffic a 1000 times better behaved than the rest of India. I think this is because mumbaikers generally have better civic sense, than short-tempered Punjus, for example.. In Delhi, most laws are obeyed, occasionally. But the one thing I have noticed is that it is the two-wheelers that do the WORST driving. They will try and squeeze in anywhere, and when they take a turn, they always do it in ocoming traffic, leaving their lives in the hands of God, and reaction times of car-drivers...
To be fair - let's keep in mind that 90% of out cities are over 400 years old. If somebody gave me an empty continent inhabited very sparsely by humans, I'd go out and create grid-systemed cities too...I mean America doesn't have to lay its roads around 800 year old villages, 400 year old tombs of mughal tyrants, and forts, and 1000 year old towers of victory. Plus, as you say, the roads filled with imaginative things. From zero-legged to 16-wheeled contraptions, and everything in between (one-legged, three-wheeled, 2-legged, one-wheeled, e.t.c.). Wouldn't it be nice if we were a mostly-car nation like the western world. Ah well.

phucker said...

BTW:
http://www.stickricket.com

This is sure to get you addicted...If you know how to handle the spin-bowling, pleas,e do let me know.

phucker said...

bugger, I meant http://www.stickcricket.com

sushil said...

hey parth,
This was a good honking story about india. But still driving is fun. That caption about puppy was one of its kind. But drive on highways and u will see more of such kind.

just a note..Bus drivers are the ones who dont honk but then there is a reason. They feel, being a govt employee, they can take the right lane whenever they want and people are aware of it and so avoid to come in the way of buses.

Sukanya M said...

I was in mumbai recently and i thought the mumbai drivers very patient. They hardly ever honked! Compared to delhi / gurgaon...was a real pleasure. Some cars even had the courtesy to stop to let me cross! Unheard of here, where most people drive as if they had the loosies!

aparna said...

Yes, some of the labels are very ingenious...and hilarious! and yeah this one was damn 'eeeshhh' and 'eeeewwww'! :D

and i am repeating myself, again...its a pleasure reading your posts...:-)

sd said...

I think the real big difference is that vehicles tend to get too close to each other in India. I always felt my brother will hit into the next car/truck ahead of us...