Driving in India for dummies

I must admit the flow of invective takes me by surprise. It is my second day of renting (and therefore driving), a scooter in Mysore, and an attractive young woman is merrily riding her Honda straight towards me, on the wrong side of the road. Not discreetly, you know, hugging the roadside, but bang in the middle of my half of the tarmac. I’m still finding my marks in Indian traffic, (I’d had practice elsewhere but was a bit rusty), and it takes me a moment to decipher her intentions. When I understand she wants to turn into a side lane, I assume she is at least planning to let me pursue my legitimate trajectory, rather than cut me off. Not so. Hence the ripe language, and the slightly close shave.

In hindsight, this was a rare incident, (the verbal abuse that is, in particular from a lady), and indeed, not only have I been spared further choice insults in Kannada, but I have rarely witnessed other outbursts, even in the town centre, where the density and chaos of the traffic make riding a two-wheeler something akin to an act of faith. A Western traffic policeman would have a field day here, and if every offender was fined, the Ministry of Transport would no doubt be free of all budget deficit concerns for the foreseeable future. (This fact, it must be said, has not escaped the Indian traffic police, who, with remarkable inconcistency, compensated by short burts of admirable zeal, position themselves a few times a month in strategical places, and rake in enough fines to meet, one assumes, the month’s quotas).

I was once driven across town on the back of a bike by a friend, and the experience was nerve-racking to say the least. Indian drivers, of any category and whatever their vehicle, don’t believe in leaving a safe space between themselves and other road users (though their sheer numbers rather preclude this anyway). Back home we are lulled into a relative sense of safety, because we automatically expect drivers to respect the rules. But in India, expecting anything but the unexpected is a luxury the roads do not offer. The only thing you can safely assume, is that you’re going to need to pay constant attention and anticipate everyone else’s moves. And yet, (touch wood), I’ve never witnessed an accident here. Giving an Indian road rules, is rather like giving him a spoon for his rice – it will be ignored completely, after all, using fingers to eat is immeasurably simpler.

And yet, traffic does end up organized, in its own peculiar way, and there are a number of guidelines that drivers here seem to unconsciously adopt.

1) Always take the shortest, or simplest, route, between points A and B, regardless of all other considerations.

2) Always think primarily of oneself, barge in, cut people off, cultivate a healthy disregard for all other life forms occupying road space (except cows).

3) Hoot as often as you can. This means, “I’m coming through! (so get out of the way)”, “Watch it! I’m here!”, or sometimes simply, “Oops, haven’t honked my horn for at least a second and a half, wouldn’t want to lose the use of my thumb”.

4) Never anticipate too far ahead, and certainly don’t make your own intentions plain unreasonably early.

5) Refrain from looking like you’re concentrating on what you’re doing. Use mobile phones, chat enthusiastically with your passenger, make sure one hand is occupied so you can only keep one on the handlebars, take a sudden interest in goings on by the roadside, or pull up alongside another vehicle and engage the occupants in conversation.

There are others, but these are a good start, and leave ample scope for entertaining moments of panic, disbelief, and fright. I must admit, though, that such moments become less and less frequent remarkably quickly. Since driving in India is a bit of a crash course in observing and reacting, it’s surprising how quickly one learns to read the traffic. Standard procedure for turning right (since people drive on the left here), is to cross the road at one’s own convenience (key point here), then drive on the wrong side until said turn appears. This can be done in a leisurely manner, or emphatically and assertively – two days ago, at an intersection with yellow and black concrete blocks, aligned specifically to keep everyone in their own lane, a car overtook another that was turning, eased me off the road in a carefree way, and drove on the right until a space in the blocks allowed it to return to its rightful place. As for overtaking, the usual approach is to accelerate, then weave in anywhere there seems to be a space. Overtaking on the inside is fair game, as is passing someone who is already overtaking. And whatever your move, it is essential do act decisively. Hesitation or changing your mind could cause considerable confusion and a momentary disruption in traffic. Or single you out as a foreigner, silly enough to worry about collisions, road safety or other pointless preoccupations. The odd thing is, though, that for the most part people seem fairly mellow about everybody else’s utterly selfish road use. Since all are thinking mainly of their own immediate interests, it’s only normal that there’ll be a regular flow of more determined, wilfull vehicles around one. Not everyone can get their own way.

As for how many Indians you can fit on a scooter, the answer appears to be, “As many as have decided they are going to get on.” So far, a family of five is the most I’ve witnessed, (Dad on the front, small boy standing between his knees, daughter behind him, and Mum behind her with baby in her arms). I think Dad was the only one wearing a helmet. Ah helmets, that strange accessory to motorcycling! I’ve seen people carrying them while they ride – presumably you can slip it onto your cranium if you spot the cops up ahead, and in the meantime you don’t swelter in the sun with your head in a capsule. Or if your helmet is, like most, rather like a plastic pudding bowl, you can wear it loosely, without the strap, which makes it entirely useless as a helmet (which, at 300 rupees, it probably was from the outset), but will save you a fine. If there are two people or more on a bike, it’s unusual for them both to have a helmet. And should you, for some reason, be distracted, and only see the police when they are already upon you, fear not: even if an officer grabs your handlebars to make you stop, it’s OK to accelerate and break free – all parties involved will get over it. I had to chuckle when I first saw this, thinking what it would earn you back home, but it shows the complete lack of respect Indians seem to have for authority. If a road is cordoned off (or double-cordoned even), so that labourers can resurface the road, people will simply drive up to the cordon, lift it up, and continue onto the fresh, sticky tarmac. Neither drivers nor workmen will lift an eyelid. If the workmen are cleaning the road by blowing sand and litter off it in preparation for resurfacing, they will merrily send thick clouds of obnoxious dust into all the roadside shops and stalls, so that their owners come running to lower their blinds. Again, once the task is complete, life resumes as if nothing had happened, (though you’ll notice the extra grit that found its way into your chai).

Truly, driving in India is an art. But once you understand it, it has its own logic. It’s just a question of learning the unwritten drivers’ code. And of not accidentally running out of petrol, thanks to a faulty fuel gauge on your rental bike.

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