January 20, 2012

The What Ho! Guide to Driving in India

The Uninformed Reader might scoff at, and even under-estimate the significance of the dark art of driving in India. To her, I must point out that data collected from observation of Indian drivers has been the only reason that scientists have been nail down the exact moment in time we homo sapiens branched off from our ancestors.

Say what? What ho, let me explain. Scientists estimate that humans branched off from chimpanzees exactly 7 million years, 240 days ago, at 11am in the morning. They were able to nail this date and time down precisely by comparing remnants of chimpanzee DNA found in Expert Indian Drivers and DNA found in normal Homo Sapiens (aka lesser mortals). By analyzing the differences, they were able to compute the time it must have taken for 100% pure chimpanzees to mutate into half-ape, half-human entities – otherwise known as – yep, you got it – Expert Indian Drivers.

So, scoff not and read on.

The What Ho! Guide to Driving in India

1. Never assume anything. Assumption is the mother of all screw ups

Let’s start with an example. When driving on the Outer Ring Road in Bangalore, you might consider yourself blameless for assuming it to be a major roadway of sorts, on which traffic flows unencumbered. In an unguarded moment, you might carelessly flirt with the notion of putting metal to the pedal and speeding things up. Wrong assumption.

India is a country of 1.2 billion people, living on 3.3 million square kilometres of land. Unfortunately, the Reddy brothers own 75% of land in India, and so the area available to the rest of us boils down to a fraction of what it could be. There’s not much room to move around in this country of ours. What this means is that the average Indian has to conduct his business in public. Consequently, terms like Outer Ring Road, National Highway 4 (NH4), etc. are loosely meant to describe anything along the lines of children’s parks, playgrounds, parking lots, race courses, cattle sheds, places of worship, venues for cricket matches, etc. However, I will concede that on rare occasions, traffic might be allowed to pass through. But, that’s besides the point. The point is – don’t let names lull you into making wrong assumptions.

A sure sign that you don’t have active remnants of chimpanzee DNA in your system is that reading this will have the effect of either frightening or depressing you or both. Despair not.  There is good news. There still exist those places you can drive freely with abandon. It’s just that, thanks to our lack of attention to detail, we’ve named these places wrongly. For example, pavements, airport runways, residential streets, gated communities and parking lots are places where you can roll the windows down and experience the joys of driving on an open road. When you find yourself in one of these locations, feel free to let your hair down and have a wild time.

While we’re on the subject of assumptions, I feel compelled to go on a tangent to belabor a related point. I’ve often noticed a mistake committed by neophytes in the process of mastering the road shastra. Which is to assume that there will be sign boards at the sides of the roads, and these aforesaid sign boards will convey meaningful information. Out here in this lovely land of ours, sign boards are akin to newspapers. They are the best places to get information on movies that have been just released or the scoop on the local elections. Experts are beginning to come around to the point of view that traffic sign boards may be the sole and ultimate reason why we have a citizenry that has unusually high levels of general knowledge.

2. There is something called “Too much information”

The fact that you are driving on the road does not imply that you should pay attention to or know everything that is going on around you. Listen carefully when I say that there is something called “too much information”. There is no better place in the world that this phrase applies than on Indian roads. What this means is simply, you must not, I repeat, must not absorb any information about the goings on around you. Road nirvana, which is the zero information state, has thus far been achieved only by auto rickshaw drivers and cyclists who, scientists claim, closely resemble random particles in Brownian motion. The Nirvana state has been described as a blissful state of simply being, in which illusions of material activities around the self are obliterated into complete nothingness. Trust me when I say that your iPod may be your best friend on the roads. Put on your favorite music, crank up the volume and get set to experience moments of bliss. In fact, this article was conceived, typed up and posted while driving from work to home.

In other words, do what you feel compelled to, unmindful of anything else that may be going on around you. Stay focused on gaps in spaces ahead of you (or behind you, as the case maybe). Make it the sole purpose of your existence to penetrate those gaps faster than a photon shot through the Large Hadron Collider.

3.  Be aware of the power of stationary objects

Technically, this falls both into both categories of “wrong assumption” and “too much information”. But, this insight carries such enormous significance that I felt compelled to call it out separately so what ho! readers do not miss its import.

Surprising as it may sound, some of us are human. And, it is a natural human tendency to associate driving with motion. For the humans amongst us, driving raises strong visual images of steering an object that is moving. Under certain circumstances, it turns out that nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, there will be those situations when the best form of driving is to suspend all motion.

First, let’s understand the critical benefits of static energy on Indian roads. The case for stillness and complete lack of motion starts with the important point that a stationary object will never be blamed. This is especially true of static objects found in middle of roads. Examples of stationary objects are bull dozers, city buses, large groups of people buying and selling stuff, Manmohan Singh, traffic policemen, abandoned vehicles, small and large sized animals, and occasionally birds in addition to the usual fare of impediments such as stupas, edifices and national monuments which are there on roads for the sole reason that it hasn’t yet occurred to anyone to move them. In fact, a team of archaelogists have carbon-dated a 5-foot tall granite stump smack in the middle of NH4 as belonging to Chandragupta Maurya’s period. So, for thousands of years, we Indians have learned to navigate around animate and inanimate objects that we encounter in our paths.

Now for how to convert this blinding insight into an actionable plan. When in trouble or doubt, immediately convert yourself into a stationary object. If you’ve been slipping and making the mistake of absorbing information from your surroundings while driving, you will find yourself nervous and paralyzed with shock from time to time. When this happens – Come to a complete halt, switch the engine off and have a cigarette. Use the break wisely by catching up with the latest bhangra beat or calling your near and dear ones. Because you’ve converted yourself into a stationary object, no harm can and will befall you. The traffic will begin to magically adjust, weave and make its way around you, while you enjoy beatific solitude and the stiff drink that you so richly deserve.

So, there you go. The 3 commandments from our “Beginner’s Bible for Driving in India”.

Astute readers will point out that there are those other rookie mistakes like assuming that – to drive, you’ll need a driver’s license, should be possessed of eyesight, should be older than five years of age, etc. etc. – all of which, I’m sure you’ll agree with me by now, fall into the categories of wrong assumptions and too much information.

In parting, I must point out that you must realize that not every one amongst us is destined to master the road shastra and get behind the wheel. For those who have suffered Fate’s cruel sleight of hand in not having adequate chimp DNA in the system, all I can say is – Treat your driver like a Greek god and make burnt offerings every day at the altar.

If you liked this, you’ll enjoy reading Horn OK Please – on the delightful practice of honking on Indian roads.

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