Driving in India
January 23, 2009
My wife Sadhana Devi’s first impression of India was of her ride from the Delhi airport to our ashram in the suburb of Gurgaon. This was before the new expressway was built, with the road still narrow, bumpy and chaotic. It was late at night, and I was escorting her through four lanes of interweaving bumper-to-bumper traffic moving at a snail’s pace.
“Traffic’s bad tonight,” I thought. After a mile or two of intense congestion we saw the approaching headlights of a car coming toward us in our center lane, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was going the “wrong” way. He had probably missed his exit and was going back by the shortest route. Traffic parted and flowed around him as he proceeded nonchalantly to his destination.That driver, marching to his own tune, was a great illustration to Sadhana Devi of the two sides of India. On the one hand, you have someone willing to go against the tide, unhindered by mere conventions and rules, doing whatever it takes to achieve his goal. Or, if you choose, she could have seen him as an example of someone so self-absorbed in his personal needs that he was totally oblivious to the needs of others and his impact upon them. Which was it? Maybe both. Or, maybe he was just a lousy driver.
When I first moved to Pune last October, I needed some way to get me around the city and decided, against the advice ofa few, to buy a motorcycle. I had owned two-wheelers before but that was many years ago, so I knew my skills would be rusty and not on par with those around me. Yet, the practicality of driving a motorbike outweighed my concerns and, to be honest, it seemed like a whole lot of fun to be zipping around town like the young kids. Yogananda said, “The mind follows the heart,” and I think this was a good example of that.
I bought a small 100cc Hero Honda, the most common model in India. You see millions of these on the road, so I figured they must be reliable. Brand new, it cost about $800 and I haven’t regretted it yet. It gets great mileage (100+/gallon), can be parked most anywhere and is peppy enough for my needs. That said, I must say that riding a motorcycle in Indian traffic is seriously dangerous, but it’s a great way to blend in and feel a part of the scene. It’s a terrific education too, so I thought I’d share a few observations and lessons.
1. Expect the unexpected
A driver in India should never allow himself to say, “I never thought he’d do that!” If it’s possible, expect it! Americans drive by the rules; Indians don’t. Just like the fellow going the wrong way didn’t invite undue concern, you can expect behavior of any and all kinds: indifference to traffic signals, turns from wrong lanes, passing on blind curves, murderous road conditions, buffalos/cows/camels/goats, and suicidal pedestrians. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you’ll be surprised. In America, you can drive and have your mind elsewhere. Not here. You must be 100% alert at all times.
2. Indians are programmed to get ahead
I was riding with an Indian friend when he commented as a car passed us, “An Indian driver has to get ahead of the car in front of him. You see, we Indians are a competitive people and you see it in our driving. It’s our strength and our curse. Wherever we go in this world, we have to get ahead of the next fellow. It drives us to success but at the same time, it makes it difficult for us to cooperate with one another.”
When riding my bike, I inevitably find myself going faster and faster as I weave in and out of traffic, trying to get ahead of the next fellow just like everyone else. I get caught up in the competitive spirit and must constantly remind myself that there are at least a quarter million young men in Pune between the ages of 16 and 25 fully capable of winning motocross races in America. There is absolutely no way I should let myself get caught up in that. Slow down! Take it nice and easy! Relax and enjoy!
3. Space is measured differently here
In America, personal space between people is not the same as in India. Americans keep a greater physical distance between themselves and others and feel uncomfortable when someone “invades” their space. Here, people stand close and the same goes for cars. In America, clearance between vehicles is measured in feet. Here, it’s measured in inches. It’s a bit disconcerting to have someone pass you by at high speed with only inches to spare. In the West, this would elicit a nasty reaction but here, it’s normal. Maybe it’s because space in India is at a premium and the population is high. Highways marked for two lanes soon become three or four, with a total disregard for lanes. Cars squeeze into the tiniest of openings and you soon understand the utility of a motorcycle.
4. Know when to yield.
Indian culture is hierarchical. It’s the same for driving. You yield to tonnage, or else! The car yields to the truck or bus. The motorcycle yields to the car. The pedestrian yields to the bike. Everyone yields to the cow or buffalo. While driving on a two-lane road, a car coming in my direction will pass another and bear down on me in my lane. No problem. I’m expected to move to the far edge of my lane since I’m only driving a motorcycle. I understand that the on-coming cars will allow me enough space to slip by. Usually. The attitude is, “There’s enough space for all of us to get by, so why waste it?” This is why you’ll see cars passing on blind curves. Indians don’t waste things like Americans do, whether resources or space. Roads can usually accommodate three vehicles in a pinch, so what’s the problem. If there’s enough space for a third car to pass a second car passing a first one while still leaving room for me, I expect it.
5. Don’t wait for someone to be nice to you.
American drivers, by and large (Boston excepted), are polite. We are taught to yield to on-coming traffic, to defer to pedestrians, to give the right-of-way to those who possess it, to think in terms of the best interest of all. It’s so civilized by comparison and reflects a community spirit. Not so in India. Here, you never yield space if you can help it. You take it. To defer and yield will turn a ten-minute errand into an hour-long journey of frustration. If you leave a safe space between your car and the one ahead, it will be filled again and again. If you wait for someone to let you into traffic, you’ll be on the sidelines for a long time. It simply won’t happen and it can be dangerous. You have to ease in and force others to accommodate to you. But don’t feel bad, it’s expected. Life off the highway is much like this too.
6. Indians are great drivers.
Typically, one’s first reaction to traffic in India is, “These people are crazy! What terrible drivers.” Actually, I’ve come to see it as just the opposite. If you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere. You have to be a good driver simply to survive. We mistakenly equate ability with following rules. In that sense, Indians are terrible, but if we measure ability in terms of successfully navigating a ton of metal through impossible conditions, you gain a healthy regard for the Indian driver. He and she are among the best.
Unfortunately, also plying the highways are road warriors fresh from the village with absolutely no experience behind the wheel. By the time they become halfway competent, another million will have taken their place.
7. Merging—learn to flow.
Although I said Indians don’t drive by rules, there are “unspoken rules”. Traffic flows and you have to move with it, kind of like dancing. Once you get into the flow, you glide along in a natural way whereas the beginner is stiff and moves jerkily. That’s when you get into trouble. As for rearview mirrors and looking first, forget about it.
8. The horn is your friend.
Newcomers get a kick out of the signs on the back of trucks that say, “Horn Please.” But it’s true. Truckers appreciate you giving a honk before passing. Arati said that when she first learned to drive, her instructor began Lesson One with instructions on “How to use your horn.” Brakes can be done away with, along with mirrors and other unneeded accessories, but when your horn is on the blink, you have to fix it. Typically, when you are about to pass someone closely or on a blind curve you honk as a warning to anyone approaching and to the person you are passing. It’s a self-preservative courtesy. Americans, on the other hand, get all hot and bothered when someone honks at them because it’s considered aggressive.
9. Road hazards
In my opinion, this is the worst and most dangerous thing about driving here. The roads here haphazardly constructed and maintained. I just can’t, for the life of me, figure out why road crews invariably leave a mess behind themselves when doing repairs. The job is never taken to 100% completion. There is always a pile of bricks, blocks or debris left behind on the roadway. Last week I saw an unmarked and unprotected crater in a major intersection, about the size of a man-hole. I’m sure it’s still there, waiting for someone to fall in to be seriously injured or worse. Sometimes I’ll be driving along and “Wham!” I’ll hit a speed bump without warning. Awhile back, we saw a biker hit a water buffalo. The driver bounced off and hit the asphalt hard while the buffalo looked completely unfazed. I was driving along recently and skidded to a stop to avoid going into a trench that a crew of fellows were digging across the highway. No signs or flagmen. If a truck breaks down, it stops for repairs right in the middle of his lane instead of pulling over onto the shoulder. He’ll put in the roadway behind his truck a row of bricks or large rocks as a warning. When done, off he goes, leaving the rocks in the roadway to be hit by unwary motorcyclists at night.
I’m always on the lookout for the police who work in teams to flag down drivers at intersections. You’ll go around a turn and six of them will jump out to signal for you to pull over. Don’t make eye contact and keep going if you can. If I can’t, that’s when I play “dumb foreigner.” Usually this will cost you about two hundred rupees as they will always manage to find something wrong with me or the vehicle. I see it as a “road tax.”
I pulled into a coffee shop last month and made the mistake of not getting far enough off the road and into the store’s private space. Within five minutes, while enjoying my latte and not paying attention, a police truck with five happy pirates absconded with my bike because I was illegally parked in a spot that was off limits for the day. If there was a sign to say this, I couldn’t find it. I came out to find my bike gone. Now what? The vegetable wallah next to where I had parked told me in sign language that the police had taken it, so I flagged down a rickshaw and asked him to help me out. He knew exactly where to go and off we oomed to a spot where the police trucks waited. I checked and sure enough, there was my bike with a whole bunch of other victims. The pirates had big grins on their faces as they saw a “gora” (white guy) approach. They knew they had hooked a fat one because I had few chips with which to bargain. Six hundred rupees it cost me that time. No paperwork of course. It must be a fun job for those guys.
The interesting thing about living here is that, after awhile, it all seems so very normal. We have the capacity to get used to just about anything. Last summer, upon returning to America, I noticed that I had picked up some Indian driving habits. I could tell because I noticed so many people honking at me. I was blithely cutting others off in traffic, nosing my way into their space, pulling in front and not yielding the right of way as I should. Actually, after living here, I’ve started to feel that Americans are rather “up tight” about a lot of things, rules for example, and let themselves be bothered by things too easily.
Sometime in 2009, Tata will start selling its new, one-lakh Nano automobile. It will be interesting to see what happens. If traffic is bad now, it’s going to be horrendous when the motorcyclists upgrade to cheap cars. You see whole families now—mom, dad and two kids—driving along on their scooters. With people moving into the middle class, there will be an explosion of car buying, just like there was in America many years ago. I can’t see how the roads will handle it, but I’m sure India will somehow muddle along and cope. It always does. This is a resilient country and the people find a way to navigate just about anything. Compared to everything else Indians face, fighting traffic is a minor bother. When the time comes, maybe even I will buy a Nano.
Much joy to everyone.