During the repeat elections in Kenya, I was holed up in the world’s largest democracy, on a domestic flight from Calcutta to Delhi. Now there are some very interesting things I learnt about the country with the largest number of vegetarians. For instance, Indira Gandhi airport is the world’s largest by volume, moving between 25-40 million people a year and is the sanest part of Delhi.
Beyond its boundaries lies an arena of vehicular madness! Before you attempt to understand how driving in India works, you must first understand the phrase, “India no problem”. This simplest of phrases belied the most profound of meanings.
It was the answer consistently given by three taxi drivers over the two weeks I was in India. It was, in almost every instance, the most suitable response to my quizzically flabbergasted face! A man driving a Suzuki Swift DZire met me at the airport.
Suzuki sells one out of every two cars in India and I suspect most of them are white DZire’s, which make up the majority of the taxis with the national hero, the Ambassador, relegated to a supporting role.
His white Dzire bore the scars of battles lost against what I assumed were other Dzires as none of them was running around undented. It seemed like they’d all undergone reconstructive surgery from the same very drunk and wobbly plastic surgeon. I quizzically inquired about the retracted side-mirrors and he replied with a wry smile, “India no problem”.
I knew India has the worst driving standards in the world but I wasn’t prepared for how comically dangerous it all is. He explained, by slapping his hands, that another motorist could swipe them as they went by.
This is because, as I soon found out, nobody keeps to any particular lane. As far as I could figure, there are only two road rules in India. Drive into any space you can fit in and hoot enthusiastically as you do it. Think of it like driving through a cattle stampede, except all the cattle have very precise spatial awareness. Bikes, Tuk-Tuks, lorries and pedal powered rickshaws jostle on congested roads.
There were a million close shaves per minute. I asked if there was a government body to regulate this madness but he again replied; “India no problem!”. He explained that police weren’t really concerned with traffic violations.
It was up to everyone to make sure they didn’t kill everyone else. This led to a gentleman’s agreement between road users. Drive as quick as you can into any space that you can as long as you hoot your horn. Hooting in these here parts has evolved into a language.
The motorcyclist hoots at us as he zooms by as the cab driver hoots at the rickshaw warning him of his impending demise were he to swerve an inch to the right. The oncoming car hoots at the motorcyclist to remind him he’s on the wrong lane, to which he responds with a hoot as if to say, yes I see you.
The motorcyclist then hoots at us as he swings back in-front, narrowly missing the cow chewing cud nonchalantly in the middle of the street. It is unnervingly chaotic and I loved every minute of it.
I was impressed when we almost lobbed off someone’s leg dangling precariously from a rickshaw, he didn’t even twitch! Neither did the driver when he missed by inches a group of ladies, sat on the edge of the road.
Even when he hooted it was not expected that they should move, he was just being polite by letting them know he was there. As I looked around at the hooters and the hooted at, I realised that neither had frowns or angry eyes. It was just a means of communication. I convinced the driver to let me have a go on a reasonably quiet part of the road and I could see his deep apprehension as I set off.
In the first hundred metres we both knew I was going to have a crash and by the time I’d done 5 kms I’d wisely handed the man’s car back. I had another try a few days later in an Ambassador but I never really got used to the madness.
Imagine a country made up entirely of matatu drivers and you’d have the right idea. They all brake too late and swerve too fast into the smallest of spaces while blaring their horns. You and I may be gobsmacked by this behaviour, but not once did I witness an accident. Leading me to accept that, in India, driving like a complete lunatic really isn’t a problem!