Notes from India #4: Drive Safely. Avoid Death.
One thing you learn quickly in India, is the universe is governed by forces that are beyond your control. Daily events are not determined by the sane, rational flow of human logic you might assume to exist in, say, Des Moines, Iowa. No. They swirl and coalesce in brilliant flashes of form, emerging in mystical fashion out of what appears to be absolute bedlam.
A prime example of this mass of quantum unpredictability, is the Indian traffic system—a mysterious chiaroscuro of random chaos, so crazily impossible, that it hurts your brain with the seamless beauty of its functioning because, against all laws of probability and expectation, you do make it through.
There are a few bare bone rules at play:
1) Everybody heading in the same direction keeps more or less to the same side of the road (it’s supposed to be the left); but only if it is convenient. Example: A friend of mine is taking a taxi into New Delhi from the airport. The left side of the divided highway being blocked by stationary cars, his trusty driver lurches over the central divider, leans hard on his horn, and heads directly against the flow of the traffic. “Don't worry, sir,” says the cheerful driver to my apoplectic friend, “Goes in same direction!”
2) Size matters: Larger vehicles take precedent over smaller vehicles. Think of a game of bridge: trucks trump cars, cars trump scooters, scooters trump bicycles and if you are a pedestrian then prayer is your only recourse. Elephants on the road are huge in comparison to cars, so are camels; bullocks can sure get in the way, and God help you if you hit a sacred cow. Sadly, nobody cares much about dogs except us westerners.
3) If you ask your driver to go faster, he will blow his horn more frequently but move at exactly the same speed.
The rest is up to Divine Providence. A Mercedes may get there no faster than an auto-rickshaw but it’s far more comfortable and much classier to behold. Traffic lights or stop signs are negligible, and no one takes notice anyway. Billboards in New Delhi declare quite sagely: “Drive Safely. Avoid Death”, but few do. Most plunge gaily into the mayhem. Vehicles dance in and out of micro units of space, missing each other by bare rusty inches, jigging and jiving like swirling crowds of ants.
The ratio of people per moving unit defies the laws of physics. Women in brightly colored saris sit calmly, side-saddle, on the backs of dangerously weaving scooters, their kids astride the handlebars, while Daddy plays chicken with Lord Yama (the god of death). I once saw a family of four and a large German Shepherd all perched on one teetering Vespa. The air is yellow and thick with acrid fumes and the chorus of horns louder and more distorted than Jimmy Page on steroids.
Every rational cell in your body tells you there is no way you will reach your destination alive. So there is nothing to do but relax, enjoy the ride, and trust your fate to a higher power. Because it soon becomes apparent that He/She is in the one who is in charge.
Footnote: India tops the world in traffic fatalities: 118,000 in 2008, the latest figures available. As you might expect, the vast majority of victims are the ones who cannot get out of the way fast enough: pedestrians, cyclists, drivers of two-wheeled vehicles, etc. Surprisingly, the current figures are not too different to the United States, which has close to a third of India’s population and a similar proportion of fatalities (39,000 last year); and we probably have one of the strictest highway codes in the world. But no doubt the figures in India are rising dramatically as more cars hit the roads.
(Portions of this article previously appeared in The Iowa Source online edition).
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