Friday, August 05, 2016

The Great Indian Road Trick

I have never driven in India. Yes, you heard me right. Hence, the first time I took to the streets was obviously going to be an adventure in the making.

Read on as I take my years of driving on American roads to a new potholed laced spread.
Spark magazine was kind enough to test drive this essay

The Great Indian Road Trick

Let me get something out of the way at the very beginning. I have never driven in India. I have an Indian license that the fine state of Maharashtra issued to me and it has been valid for a long time, but I have never really driven in India. I grew up in Mumbai where owning a vehicle was never a must. The BEST buses and auto-rickshaws and local trains would carry you wherever you needed to go and more importantly, one could still walk on the road if your legs were keen on traveling.

I spent a decade and a half in the United States. For all practical purposes, I learnt to drive there. On those wide empty roads in a college town in Texas, where traffic was never really an issue and where the biggest challenge was getting used to driving at a high speed, being comfortable changing lanes and doing parallel parking. Since then I have driven over a lakh miles or possibly more. The way of life in most American cities requires you to drive. Incessantly. And while the monotony of it gets to you, I wouldn’t call it stressful. No wonder taking a long drive is considered as natural a thing to do as barbecuing food in summer and buying things on Thanksgiving.

However, now I am in India. Not as a visitor, but as a resident. I work here, live here and watch Indian television serials with a great degree of amusement. Specifically, I live in what was once the city of retirees but is now a city that might just force people to retire sooner. Bangalore. Bengaluru. I wonder if the city fell off the precipice when its name was changed. Most likely, it happened when someone looked at the weather and decided that this is paradise waiting to be inhabited and ruined. IT companies decided to land in droves and city planners put up IT parks like a 2-year-old would spread LEGO blocks on the floor by tossing them. No order, no arrangement, no roads to get around, no public transport to take you there. Folks familiar with the city tell me that the city used to be navigable in twenty minutes not more than a decade ago. Twenty minutes is the time you would need to cover a car’s length in a traffic signal in Marathahalli.

Back to my driving though. A month after landing, we bought a car. My wife turned out to be a bigger braveheart than me. She drove it back home from the showroom, ferried the whole family for a first ride out and two days later, started driving it to work in it. I on the other hand stared at it for a few days – a pristine beast that I was afraid to take out in an unruly jungle. You see, driving in India is not merely an exercise in sitting behind a wheel and pressing the accelerator. It is like playing a video game. Vehicles can come from your left, from your right, cut across you, come at you from the opposite direction and it is only a matter of great relief that no car drops on you from the top. Why just vehicles – pedestrians pose challenges too. You maybe driving at 60 kmph but that is no deterrent for the chap who jumps across the median of a highway and puts his hand out like Neo expecting all vehicular traffic to stop and drop dead like the bullets that were aimed at the hero. Perhaps India is the Matrix, where people are sent to acquire new skills as drivers before they return to the real world. Why else would you see on a perfectly busy highway of a crowded metropolitan city a herd of cows who couldn’t care less about turning a “green” looking Google Maps traffic status to “red”? What better test of skill there is than two cows exactly six feet apart, moving slowly at different speeds and you are expected to drive your car through it?

Nay, driving in India is not a boring affair like it is industrialized nations like the US where the roads don’t have potholes. In USA, the failures are never minor – your car may never fall into a pothole, but an entire bridge might collapse with you on it. Driving in India teaches you that you may have a 40 lakh car but you need to respect the ground realities. The potholes, that is. If you cover a distance of 30 feet without encountering a pothole, check your engine. You may not have started the car at all! I don’t think the municipal people are apathetic. They see the potholes for what they are. Beautiful examples of abstract art. You need the eyes of your soul to admire it. But nonetheless, there are some who don’t. Recently in Bangalore, people resorted to doing a ‘pothole puja’ or recreate the ‘Princess and the frog’ fairytale to highlight the pothole menace as they see it. But potholes are nothing but a silent cry to the masses to slow down. Take a deep breath. Take stock of your life. In fact, the whole of Bangalore city exudes that message. After all, it was meant to be a city for retirees who were never known to take things fast. Sitting in traffic at the Silk Board junction or the Marathahalli bridge give you enough and more time to introspect.

In the short time I have driven in India, I have learnt some tricks that help me. For example, never drive on the extremes. If you drive on the left of the road, you might encounter cars parked right below a ‘No parking’ sign. If you drive on the right of the road, you might be blocked behind an array of vehicles trying to execute one of Bangalore’s true specialties; the U-turn. Stay in the middle and hope that you don’t encounter the devil. Over my first few days of nervous driving, I realized that the ones I was scared of the most were the two-wheelers. Like bees buzzing around in Brownian motion, there is no rhyme or reason to the manner they drive. They change lanes with impunity, they squeeze themselves into the tightest of spots, they scratch your car if the spot doesn’t turn out to be as big as they imagined it and mostly drive like they are on a death wish. Auto-rickshaws are the worst offenders in Mumbai. Two-wheelers win that prize in Bangalore. Naturally, my attempts at principled driving didn’t get me anywhere. I tried sticking to my lane and almost got hit. I let other people through when it made sense and got honked at like catastrophe had struck. I used indicators to give people fair warning of turns that I am making but people drove on around me like my two-ton car didn’t exist.

There is much to fret about driving in traffic in India. The country’s motorists drive with no rules of conduct beyond “I’m going to drive as fast as I can in the direction I want to go until there is an immediate physical barrier at which point I will brake abruptly. I will then honk mercilessly until I am able to force my way through traffic.” What they don’t seem to realize is this only serves to cause congestion, making it such that no one can get anywhere. That civic sense does not exist in Indian drivers. You can fix the infrastructure all you want but that will only solve half the problem.
I realise now that I can’t drive like I did in the USA and I’ll need to build a lot of mental muscle to drive like everyone else here. I’ll work through this and find my middle ground, my little compromise between the Indian model of driving and the American one. As they say in India, “You don’t drive on the left of the road, you drive on what is left of the road.”