Friday, October 08, 2010

Zen and the Art of Car Driving in India - 2

Well, the day comes when Ismail announces that I have been first-gear-trained enough and now it’s time to take to the road. The actual road, not the back-roads of sleepy hamlets where we have been practicing so far. The only problem being that the ‘road’ in question is the National Highway which runs close to my house. So, heart pounding, pulse racing, hair standing on edge and hand-gripping-wheel, I set out to brush bumpers with overloaded interstate lorries, burly State Transport buses and autos with the hyperbolical legend ‘to seat only 7’, when there is thrice the number clinging to its insides and dripping from its sides. From then on it is pulse-racing, heart-stopping action. Terminator-look-alike lorries bear down on me with exhausts fuming and horns blaring. Buses stop in the middle of the road without warning to upload or download passengers, with scant regard for courtesy or the passengers’ lives, sending me into panic-mode and causing Ismail to jerk the hand-brake. Autos, with their over-flowing humanity materialise from nowhere and streak across my path, making me freeze with fright and Ismail to yet again, pull the hand-brake. And most inexplicably, vehicles driving on the wrong side of the road, approach us head-on, while I stare at them saucer-eyed, bracing myself for a collision, their occupants jaunty and mindless, while I pick up my scattered nerves and shake my head in disbelief. The only thin veneer of safety I have in this unruly medley is the ‘L’ board which we have decided to put up even though I don’t have a learner’s license, but which sends out hidden signals to other drivers, ‘be warned, this car is liable to behave irresponsibly and stop without notice or reason’.

Lesson five : Driving on the National Highway is good for the heart. It gives it a workout even while seated seat-belted in a vehicle with the AC on.

New Zealand as you might know is a pacifist state, in politics and temperament, where there are ‘give way’ signs everywhere and we have been taught to drive defensively. So it is common practice for motorists to stop and give way to other cars and pedestrians. So true to my NZ training, on the first days of my foray into the big, bad jungle of Indian roads, I am giving way with such tameez and taqaluff that would put any Lucknowi nawab to shame, until it prompts Ismail to proclaim in exasperation, ‘if you drive like this you will never get anywhere. You must not give in to muscling-in tactics, otherwise you’ll get edged out of the road’. I protest with equal belligerence that I am not used to vehicles coming so close to my vehicle, I am used to COURTESY. To which Ismail pointedly points out the obvious, ‘but you are not in NZ any more, this is India. Yahan koi bhi kissi ke liye rukne wala nahi’.  Reality check. And check-mate. Bolti band. Heart down in my boots wishing I was catching the next flight out to NZ.

Lesson six - Reality bites. Bites big-time in India. But what is reality but the people and their attitudes. And my response to them.

Anyway, it so transpires that after a few days of being edged out and pushed around and stopped in my tracks by the likes of pedestrians, cyclists, even buffaloes, my hitherto unknown Amazonian genes kick in and decide to kick-ass. No more taqaluff, and most certainly no more tameez! Stopping and giving way? Pooh! what is that? After all the road is mine too, I proclaim belligerently to Ismail, while kindness cringes in my heart and courtesy cowers dumb-struck. I stare aggressively at hungry-looking underpaid drivers, disdainfully turn my nose up at muscled-mustachioed glaring men and frown down at sneering autorickshaw wallas holding my own and not giving in an inch. All the ‘give-way’ rules are wiped clean from my brain, courtesy gets tossed overboard and crushed underfoot. Tameez dries up quickly in the dry heat, while taqaluff was last seen hitch-hiking in the direction of NZ as I slowly get programmed into ‘jungle’ mode in a brilliant case of regression. Sad to see it though, sad to see myself get into ‘survival’ mode, where all one is thinking about is ‘I, me, myself’ with all the others ‘gaye bhaad mein’. 

Lesson seven - when in Rome, drive as the Romans do. Even if it turns you from a sweet-tempered, courteous, pacifist into an aggressive gargoyle with a wicked glint in your eyes and a snarl on your lips. Like Chief Seattle so poignantly put it, “end of civilisation, beginning of survival’.