It’s hot, intimate, loud and dirty. Oooh and it goes on daily and nightly. Yeah…you know what I’m talkin’ about (wink).
I’m talking about the traffic in India. The non-stop, lawless and simply constant flow of traffic here has become a hallmark of the nation. I have been tasked with commenting on the traffic situation over here. It’s a little bit crazy. As soon as I step out onto the streets, the game is afoot. That game, my friends, is called ‘Get from Point A to Point B by Any Means Possible and Feel Free to Use this Paved Road to Do So.’ The chaos that is driving in this country is almost a form of art. The driver must carefully weave his way through an ever-changing environment with the finesse of a ballroom dancer and slip through gaps between vehicles like a wide receiver blowing past two defenders. It requires a constant awareness of one’s surroundings, quick reflexes to respond to changes in traffic and zero hesitation when it comes to honking.
In the last several years, there has been a real push to institute effective traffic control methods in India. Traffic lights have been introduced, lanes are designated, roadways have been repaved and widened to bear more vehicles, even European style roundabouts have found their here—but all of these measures have had little success in taming the traffic. Having spoken with many drivers here, the seemingly haphazard treatment of transportation here boils down to one thing: a lack of civic sense. In order for a law to be enforceable, the public has to, essentially, be willing to submit themselves to the law and allow for it to be enforced upon them should they break it. That is nowhere near the case here. People here are impatient, wanting to get to their destinations with as few hassles as possible, laws included. No one seems to care enough to follow any real set or rules on the road. Everyone complains about the traffic and the lawlessness on the road, but everyone contributes to the same problem.
It is an optimist’s nightmare. One can’t even try to follow the rules on an individual level. Gandhi himself would be honked at and bypassed angrily if he tried to ‘be the change he wanted to see in the world’. The one time I asked a driver to wait for a red light to turn green—just to see what would happen—we were met with a barrage of honks and drivers behind us pulled over and drove right through the red light a full thirty seconds before it turned green. Traffic laws here seem to be more guidelines at best, perhaps even suggestions. I fear that even Gandhi himself would be honked at and met with a few choice words from fellow drivers if he tried to be the change he wanted to see in the world by following the traffic laws here. Poor chap.
The word in backpacking circles is that India is the litmus test for travelers. If you can survive your time here and enjoy it, well then heck, you’ll make it anywhere. I think the same holds true for drivers. If you really want to test your chops as a driver, hop in a little Maruti Suzuki Ritz in Mumbai and try to go a few kilometers. You won’t ever break 100 km/h. Heck, you won’t come close. But it will be quite the test. Last month in Bangalore, my brother-in-law tossed me the keys to his Honda City as we were about to head out for dinner. I politely handed them back and declined. I am not a brave man.
For all my criticism of the traffic here, I’ve come to love it during my time. Through all the chaos, a sense of order seems to arrive. I still manage to reach all my destinations, the rickshaw system here is incredibly convenient and this whole country manages to get on with its day. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t organized, but it works. Sometimes I find myself grateful that you can get away with damn near anything on the roads here. The other day I was taking a rickshaw back to where I was staying after running some errands when the driver missed a turn. I pointed this out to him and without hesitation, he turned into the oncoming lane, popped a u-turn in front of a huge lorry and doubled back to catch the turn he missed. No signal, no warning, no problem.