As Indians, we are accustomed from the cradle upwards to the lethal combination of gridlocked traffic and suicidal driving habits. So much so that when foreigners use the phrase “a life and death struggle” to describe a road journey, it elicits from us no more than a cynical shrug. Back in the days when I was gainfully employed in the granite industry, I would motor along the highways and byways of South India on inspection tours, accompanied by my Italian buyer, Valerio, a beefy, cheroot-smoking, grizzled veteran built on the lines of Bud Spencer. Despite being of Italian ancestry, a country which is not known for sensible driving habits, Valerio was scathing on the subject of our roads. ‘Roads indicate Culture,’ he would chuckle, reading from a sign posted on the Hassan highway. ‘Heh, heh, good joke this. In India! What is the culture where only the fish don’t cross the road? Monkey, donkey, elephant, pig, cow all animal cross, but only fish don’t cross.’ Then, as if struck by an afterthought, he would explode with, ‘What am I saying about fish? I tell a lie, my dear. Wait, monsoon is coming, fish also going to cross.’
Valerio’s views on the subject of Indian drivers were equally withering: ‘One time we going to quarry and I get the only driver in the whole of India who don’t use horn. Me, I am shocked. I ask him, you are foreigner? Why you don’t do beep-beep-beep all the time like normal driver? You imagine, he tell me horn is not working. Deo mio, I get heart attack. I told him, idiot, stop the car immediately and put me out. Brake not working, no problem, steering wheel broken, no problem, but horn is not working you don’t drive, you take to workshop. This is India, capisce?’ After a particularly close shave with a passing lorry, he mopped his brow, turned to me and solemnly said, ‘My boss Conti ask me if I want increment. I say leave it my dear, but increase life insurance. Every day when I get into the car, I feel like I am going to battle. Like a soldier in Iraq. Come back in the night in one piece, I think, eh, I survive the bombing. Arnold Shwarzenegger he buy tank for style, to give American journalist some rubbish to write. Here in India, you need tank to survive your shit roads and your drivers with intelligence of three-month old monkey. Police make fine if you don’t wear seat belt. Madonna, here you need body armour made of titanium.’
I was in Delhi last week and couldn’t help being struck by the irony of naming a road after Rajesh Pilot who died in a road accident. I am all for commemorating the dear departed with a hospital perhaps, maybe even a school, but to name a road after a Minister who was a traffic fatality seems a tad insensitive, even by our admittedly thick-skinned standards. Such is the prevailing apathy about the insane traffic conditions in India that nothing sensible is said beyond the usual platitudes, “Its karma, yaar.” Or the Dilli favourite, “Beta, when your time comes, you got to go.”
Many moons ago, I promoted a concert featuring Joe Beard, a blues musician who played with Muddy Waters. Post his India tour he went back and pitched Nintendo with his version of a video game called, ‘Indian Roads’. Apparently players got three lives and an additional one if they successfully negotiated a digitalised Cuffe Parade or Marine Drive without hitting a pedestrian, automobile or stray cow. To make it more challenging, a game changer in the form of a kamikaze auto driver was let loose on players at random intervals to keep them on their toes and sharpen their reflexes.
As Valerio moaned, ‘In normal country they teach the children, look in the left, look in the right and then cross the road. In India, they teach run and when you reach the other side, if you reach the other side, you look back and laugh.” Ultimately, we may lack a traffic gene but no one can deny our mastery of irony. How else can one explain this ubiquitous road sign in Delhi: “Animal driven vehicles banned.” Really, you think? Dude, at the risk of upsetting Maneka Gandhi and the SPCA, this would exclude 90% of Delhi drivers. Or maybe not, if one goes by what my rickshaw driver in Chandni Chowk said last week as an SUV rear-ended his eco-friendly vehicle at Jumma Masjid, “Sab sale jaanvar hain.” Literal translation: “They are all animals.”
The Article First Appeared In Deccan Chronicle
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