May 21, 2011

The What Ho! Guide to Honking on Indian Roads

 Recently, someone suggested I write about the delightful practice of honking on Indian roads. After mulling this suggestion over for all of two seconds, I decided that I would go even further. Like Starship Enterprise. I would go where no man has ventured before and scientifically explain this riveting “Only in India” phenomenon, which has inexplicably been left unstudied by scientists of repute till date.

The Horn and The Human Body

In most countries, the horn is analogous to the appendix in the human body. A vestige of times past, the horn is largely unused except, of course, by New York cabbies, who must certainly have Indian DNA floating around somewhere in their systems. Honking is typically an unusual event in the West – much like the sounding of the siren during war. If you heard one, it usually meant that something really bad was going on, like the driver was about to hit something or had been cut off on the freeway.

In India, the horn occupies a status at par with the central nervous system. It confers important and critical evolutionary advantages. In the Indian traffic jungle occupied by bicycles, motor cycles, autos, cars, trucks and buses, the blessed horn is the primary means of signaling important messages such as “Dude, I’m here. I’d like to stay alive till my next bonus” to fellow ecosystem occupants.

How did the horn come to occupy such an important position in our society?

There is only one possible explanation. And, as always, we must start at the beginning with how something we are all familiar with – eyesight – works.  The human body is no more than a loosely held federation of bones and flesh, governed by the brain with inputs from a sensory system through a mass of nerves that run up and down from the brain. A notable aspect of the human sensory system is “visual perception”, the ability to interpret information on the surroundings from the effects of visible light reaching the eye. This perception is also known as eyesight, sight or vision. The lack of such perception is referred to as blindness. We’ve all heard the phrase “blind as a bat”. That’s because bats have poor visual perception. They rely on sonar to navigate their way around. To put it in a nutshell, bats have bad eyesight but great hearing.

Close observation of Indian drivers reveals an astounding ability among these species of Homo Sapiens to instantly switch to a “bat-like horn-sonar” based mechanism to detect objects in the vicinity when they get on the roads behind the wheels. Equally astonishing is the ability to filter out and ignore any inputs from the visual perception system.  The maha vakhyas of India road vedanta spell out the inviolable dharmas of driving that govern the lives of pedestrian and driver beings in this universe.

Honking on Indian Roads: The Mahavakhyas

The pedestrian mahavakhya goes “I don’t see you and will assume that the coast is clear until you honk”, rebutted by the honker dharma of “If I honk and receive no response, I have a right to assume that there is nothing unreasonable about continuing to zip along a 20ft wide street in a residential neighborhood

The Indian road dharma, in fact, is to honk everyone to safety, a practice reported in the Rig Veda and implemented around 300BC during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya when fast moving chariots were outfitted with men sounding trumpets as the jalopies trundled through city streets and state highways.

So, it should come as no surprise to anyone, to us Indians of all, that fast moving vehicles, animals and pedestrians will blindly go about their merry ways unless honked at and warned of impending peril.

Proof in the Pudding

Here’s an example. A few weeks back, I was cruising along at 45 kmph on the Outer Ring Road in Bangalore, a luxurious speed by any standards. Further ahead, I espied a couple of gentlemen, who at first glance, appeared to be in two minds (or was it four?) as to – whether to cross the road or not. While they held their 1-on-1 in the middle of the road, debating the relative merits of “to cross or not to cross”, they casually watched my car hurtling itself in a straight line towards them. My right hand lay ready, poised to sound the horn, a-la Clint Eastwood ready to pull the trigger on a bunch of uglies at high noon. And my left hand wrapped itself around the hand brake lever. On that high noon, I was confident that they had spotted me, would take timely evasive action and the trigger would not need to be pulled. My nerves finally cracked and I succumbed to sounding the bugle. The result was an immediate disbandment of 1-on-1 and  a scattering of the individuals – each in a different direction.

These otherwise fine gentlemen had completely suspended their powers of visual perception, naturally assumed that all was kosher in the absence of honking, but acted expeditiously and randomly upon receipt of auditory signals. Quod Erat Demonstratum, which is Punjabi for “I told you so”. I have not rested my case. There’s more.

More Encounters of the Weird Kind

How else do you explain the Indian law that fines you Rs 250, if you drive with headlights *ON* during daylight? The same law does not treat driving *without* headlights on during night as an offence! Headlights at night apparently are optional, preferably turned on just prior to head on impact with oncoming vehicles, livestock or road barriers.

How else can you explain the invariable and random honking that spontaneously erupts when traffic slows to a crawl on congested roads, an occurrence that Bangalore denizens are more likely to have experienced firsthand than others? The only explanation can be impairment of visual perception, causing drivers to resort to horn SOS-es in the irrational hope that the simultaneous sounding of a thousand horns will cause traffic to evaporate instantaneously.

Epilogue

The factory installed horn on my Honda, after a swashbuckling innings at the crease, appears to be giving up its ghost and readying itself for horn heaven, where good horns go when they die. These days, it  bleats at painfully low decibel levels, causing severe consternation to my driver, who is having withdrawal symptoms not unlike a Wall Street broker deprived of his Blackberry. I mean, not even puppies on the street are giving us the time of the day.  Not to mention the fact that my driver comes from the school of thought that believes that the engine will switch itself off unless the horn is used every two minutes or so.

It’s probably about time we moved up the pecking order to one of these electric, polyphonic bad boys which can blast rhinos and elephants out of the way!

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