Driving in India – the Insanity and the Ecstacy

I’ve started driving. For several weeks, I watched Kaveri at the wheel as she negotiated potholes, rickshaws, motorbikes, zombie pedestrians, herds of goats and, of course, cows. It always amazed me that she could find a route through this madness and we could come away unscathed. GetAttachment-1
Then I watched her tailgating one day, her hand firm on her horn, before impatiently squeezing the car into a gap you’d do well to get a pushbike through at walking pace.
‘You’re one of them,’ I said.
‘One of what?’
‘You’re an insane Indian driver.’
‘I’m Indian and I’m driving, if that’s what you mean?’ she said, hurtling towards the moped stopped at traffic lights, jamming on the brakes and screeching to a stop just inches behind the back wheel. There were five people on that bike. Mum, Dad, kids, baby on the handlebars, its eyes black with kohl. A whole family. Out for a potentially lethal jaunt.
‘Look at the baby,’ said the potential murderer. ‘So cute.’
‘You almost killed it,’ I said.
‘You drive then.’
So I got behind the wheel. It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. With much cajoling from my fellow drivers, in the blare and screech of horns, I joined that great orchestra of Indian traffic. I learned the rules. There are very few of them. You may drive the wrong way up a road, pull out from a side road on to the main road without looking, drive without a helmet, drive drunk, talk on your phone while riding your motorbike, and carry all your family and a few of your neighbours on a small moped. None of these are a problem. Not really, for if there are rules about these things they are rarely enforced. And when they are enforced they are quickly forgotten about in a handful of baksheesh.
But there are two very important rules you must observe. The first, from biology, is survival of the fittest. In other words, get the hell out of the way of that bus hurtling towards you. He is bigger and therefore intrinsically right; you are smaller and therefore wrong. The second is from physics: nature abhors a vacuum. Every space in the road shall be filled. And if you leave the sniff of a gap between you and a vehicle in front, a moped will come nosing in, beeping and squawking and trying to edge through. Even at 50 miles per hour you must be so far up the arse of the car in front you can see your own eyes staring bloodshot and insane in his rear-view mirror.
All the time, of course, you must lean on your horn, though this is not so much a rule as one of the joyful expressions of selfhood – ‘I am here, happy and honking on this wonderful pot-holed, exhaust-choked earth’ – every Indian driver learns to appreciate.
It is a fast learning curve, full of milestones. I remember negotiating my first cow. It was lying in the middle of the road, drooling, as if it were in the lush green valleys of Kashmir and not the honking dusty streets of Cox Town. I remember stopping in a busy main street in Frazer Town for a shepherd and his herd of goats. And I remember lurching the wheel to the right when a motorbike came at me head on, the unhelmeted (obviously) driver blithely speeding wrong way up a one-way street. It was a crucial test. And it wasn’t so much the lurching away from catastrophe that was proof of my passing out with flying colours. It was the aftermath. Following this near-death experience, Kaveri and I said nothing. Then, after a minute’s silence and some idle gazing at life on the streets, we looked at each other and, in a moment of recognition, burst into laughter. The unimaginable had become everyday for me. Mundane and worthy of no comment. It was a milestone.


Another milestone came a couple of weeks later, during Divali. We took a rickshaw to  Shanthi’s – Kaveri’s mum’s – apartment, in Malleswaram. This is a swanky Brahmin (high-caste Hindu) neighbourhood, all fruit markets and flowers and temples. And, incidentally, people scowling at the sight of me and Kaveri together, because as beautiful as Malleswaram is, it is also a deeply Conservative part of town. Anyway, Diwali was warming up and the crackle of bangers and the deep boom and flash of atom bombs erupted from every alley.DSCF0825

The hallway to Shanthi’s front door was lit with Divali lamps. At the door, Shanthi and her friend Sandia performed a ceremonial puja, which involved anointing us with crimson powder and showering us with rice. Inside, the house shone with lamps and candles.

Now this probably all sounds traditionally Hindu, but the truth is Shanthi only dabbles in such rituals and pretty soon we all decided it would be a good idea for me and Kaveri to pick up some beer.
So off we went, me driving Shanthi’s car, Kaveri directing, into the increasing madness of Diwali. I had felt pretty competent driving up to this point but, like a video game, driving in India now reached a new, higher level of complexity. As well as the cars, mopeds, cows, dogs and pedestrians, I had to contend with the firecrackers and bombs erupting in the road before me. Kids lit them, grinning, perfectly timing their detonations just as our car approached. I quickly learned to judge the detonations, accelerating over a just-lit banger to safety, slamming to a halt well back from fuses that bristled and fizzed with an impending explosion. This sounds like fun. It isn’t. Indian fireworks are nothing like anything I am used to. DSCF0824By comparison, British fireworks are the crackle of bubblewrap. If British fireworks are a visual and aural experience, Indian fireworks are a whole body one. You do not merely hear them, you feel them. Through your chest, your teeth, shaking your eyeballs in their sockets.
We trawled the streets, amid crackles, explosions, flashes of blinding light and clouds of drifting smoke. At a promising-looking store, I pulled over, jumped out, and, aware that time was ticking by and dinner was ready to be served, ran full pelt to the entrance.
‘Beer!’ I shouted over the crackles and bangs. ‘I want beer!’
It occurred to me at this point that an overstimulated Westerner shouting ‘beer!’ would not necessarily go down well in a conservative Hindu neighbourhood, during a major religious festival. Particularly as this swaggering, thirsty Westerner, was sporting a vermillion puja mark on his forehead.
I was right. A small crowd of men looked daggers at me, shook their heads and continued chatting.
But we got the beer somewhere else and, despite this glaring faux pas, on the way back, swerving amid the cows, pedestrians and explosions, I caught my grinning, pujad head in the mirror and reflected that I was beginning to go native. And it was the driving that was doing it. The metaphor is obvious, of course, but I had been a passenger for my first month, an observer, and now I was in the thick it, bumper to bumper with India, slapping cows asses from my window and honking joyfully, proclaiming my tiny existence in the great farting, squawking, belching Indian night.
And yet I had a lot to learn. It would be some time to come, surely, before I’d follow Kaveri and pull out onto roads without so much as a glance at traffic coming towards me. You can’t learn that blithe, joyful disregard for impending disaster; you must know it, over long years.


And nothing illustrated the mere novice madness of my driving like the insanity of Shanthi at the wheel. After a beautiful dinner of chapatis, dals, curds, curries and rich buttery sweets, she offered to drive us home. I cringed as we hurtled down the steep streets of Malleswaram, towards frail, stick-legged old men pedalling bikes, our bonnet inches from shunting them 30 feet in the air as Shanthi either slammed on the brakes or jerked the wheel at the last moment and flew past. As for pedestrians: elderly women, pregnant women, children – none were safe from the hurtling inevitability of her right to career on through. I began to suspect she aimed at people, She certainly aimed at cars, veering towards the centre of the road at oncoming traffic, the whole journey like some neverending game of chicken.
And the most remarkable thing of all was that she undertook the whole trip in a state of serenity, a small smile upon her lips, her glasses perched nonchalantly atop her forehead, as we discussed Alan Watts and other Western interpreters of Eastern metaphysics. And surely there is no better example of a total faith in karmic inevitability than her leaning over her shoulder towards my back seat to make a point about legendary guru Paramahansa Yogananda, while stepping on the gas and speeding forward into traffic and hapless pedestrians.
As we got out of the car, I thanked Shanthi profusely, cringingly. Not so much for the ride, as for the improbable gift of a life still intact.GetAttachment-2
Is it possible that there is some divine intervention on the Indian roads? Yes, pedestrians are mowed down every day, buses career over cliffs killing dozens (‘mishaps’ the papers quaintly call such accidents). And yet driving on the Indian streets, I am amazed not to see, on every corner, fountains of blood and old men hurtling through the air, rickety pushbikes close behind. Perhaps I will never drive like an Indian. Perhaps it is only the truly faithful who drive with such abandon while I, meekly, agnostically, crane my head left and right, tortoiselike, before pulling out into the chaos.

One Response to “Driving in India – the Insanity and the Ecstacy”
  1. gc141x says:

    A bit overstated for effect bu I am sympathetic.

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