Traffic Shock


Coming back to India after a longish interval of time has its reverse cultural shocks to account for. The maximum impact is made by the unruly traffic. No matter how long you have lived in India and how little time you have spent outside India, it always hits you smack in the face (I hope not literally) the moment you touch down. To top that effect, I have one heck of a driver in my dad. He spells rash driving with a capital R and not once has he ever admitted to doing so. He has the unique ability to go from Mumbai airport to Panvel, a distance of approximately 40 miles in almost 20 minutes; the hour being pre-dawn seems to encourage him a little more to step on the gas. Believe it or not, it was my first ride when I landed in India and I was pale with fright by the time we reached home.

But I have always considered him to be an exception when it comes to driving. Other drivers crawl at a snail’s pace, I consoled myself so. But I couldn’t brace myself enough for the shock that was to be a regular feature during my stay in India. I may sound like a unaware foreigner from bucolic environs who has never experience traffic before. But an extended period of disciplined (generally speaking) driving and strict adherence to the law, even if it was in the fear of the car with the flashing lights standing nearby probably has habituated me to the life of pleasant driving. In Mumbai, it is virtually the battle of the impatient souls who never seem to have an idea where exactly they are headed in such a hurry. Traffic rules, much less the white painted lanes are considered mere suggestions not strictly enforced rules of traffic. The recently-installed countdown counters on the Navi Mumbai intersections seem to have an opposite effect. I have never seen the traffic wait until the clock counted all the way down to zero before turning green. The impatient vehicles, revving up with hungry anticipation teeter on the brink of impatience ready to shoot off as soon as one of them decides to jump the signal. The rickshaws are the worst. I had the unfortunate misfortune of sitting in one who would dash out like a Triple Crown equine before the criss-crossing traffic had an opportunity to stop; zigzagging his way through the maze of blaring horns he would have this triumphant grin plastered over his face as I held on to dear life. Somehow I was missing out on the machismo of the incident. They are not wrong when they say that you gotta learn driving in Mumbai if you have to drive in Mumbai; well they say that for Pune too, and Delhi; each with a different flavor of urban wildness.

Anecdotal evidence aside, accounts of any visitor to a bustling Indian metropolis always has countless stories about our traffic and of course, the proverbial cow or the elephant on the street. Actually, I did see couple of elephants in separate incidents within a span of one month. The accounts are so prevalent among the tourists that you feel they would be disappointed if they saw any less. And we are only too eager to please. We have enamored ourselves to the romantic notion of unruly traffic and crowded trains. You haven’t lived in Mumbai if you haven’t honked your way through Linking Road or hanged outside the packed train at peak hour – are common statements among Mumbaikars; especially if you are talking to a drunk one almost eight thousand miles away from Mumbai. Does a bustling metropolis carry the baggage of disobedience and inculcate a sense of lack of discipline under the guise of ‘fast pace of life’, or are people just obeying the law in less dense cities because it hasn’t inconvenienced them yet. Metaphorically speaking, do concrete jungles bring out the animal within you? You are scoffed at or almost made a social outcast if you make the mistake of trying to obey the traffic laws. We bore the brunt of honking cars and screaming strangers as we refused to budge as the clock counted down to zero before budging. I was called an NRI for obeying the rules. I am not sure if that was an insult. You tell me.

cross-posted at Desicritics

2 thoughts on “Traffic Shock

  1. Surekha Mhatre

    I read your article “Traffic Shock” February 1, 2006
    I am happy that there is at least one person who agrees with my thinking on driving pattern, which is going from bad to worst in cities like Bombay.
    In the disguise of fast life, the drivers have adopted so-called style, which not at all deserves any appreciation. If you feel that they call you NRI what ever be the hidden meaning behind, it is far better than what normally I hear from people. They call me illiterate, person having rural thinking (Gavathi) and for that matter old sick person Just because I prefer safe, comfortable drive, which is not only peaceful for me but also for the driver.
    When I travel locally in Navi Mumbai normally I take that blessed vehicle autorikshaw. As soon as I get in I politely tell (you have to respect their sentiments too, to tell them drive slow means insult to them) “Bhaiya aaramse chalo .Koi jaldi Nahi.” Some of them pretend that they are following my Instructions or some teach me how they are right because the other drivers are not following the rules, so why should I?
    You will not believe, once I repeatedly told the driver to take care while driving, He stopped and asked me get out of it as he was not ready to change his attitude.
    One driver broke the signal consecutively twice while coming to Kopar Khairane. I asked reason for not waiting at signal. Very coolly he said I don’t like to wait because it is waste of time.
    But some people don’t understand that this kind of reckless driving may turn fatal instead of saving time. ‘Importance of obeying traffic rules’, ‘Moral responsibility,’ respect for the person sitting next to you’. These words are not there in their dictionary.
    Secondly, although it is not the subject since we are discussing driving I would like to throw some light on the mentality of Indian men, it is peculiar. Whether one is driving Mercedes or an autorikshaw they will be of unique opinion, some how they cant stand a lady driving. They will try to tell her how she is wrong or some may advise her to sit at home or abuse her in any sort of possible way.
    I may contradict you in one statement of yours. It is not because you have been out of India, so you have change you pattern of thinking and so you can’t gel with the system over here .you call it as cultural difference. For some extend it is true but I feel basically you are a person with deferent temperament, you have quiet, calm and composed personality. Normally it develops due to extensive reading. Such person does not like hasty things. He does not like doing which is not right. He hates breaking rules, and can’t stand corruption. Such people are misfit in this society. People call you foolish.
    It is very difficult to go against the stream. It is also too difficult to change the direction of the stream when once set up. So if you want to survive you forcibly adopt the pattern or ignore it. That is what we are doing. Very few, like you get chance, to get away from this mess.
    Somebody has to change this….but who?
    To conclude I will say there is nothing wrong, you have done by obeying rules. Breaking law is very easy but obeying is difficult. Ordinary people do easy things extra ordinary are made to difficult task. There is no doubt that you are an extraordinary person.
    All the best and be the man of principles.


    In response to Traffic Shock:

    It was a pleasure reading your views on the state of Indian traffic.I would like to throw in my comments on the questions posed by you:

    A bustling metropolis does not carry the baggage of disobidience, for we have many examples round the world to support this.But, try telling this to the son of a farmer who is driving your auto-rickshaw to earn living for his family staying a thousand kilimeteres away.For him, as any American, time is money.And offcourse, one must appreciate the quantity and quality of returns he recieves as compared to those earned by a typical cab driver in America.

    And believe me, you are appreciated by many more (though they won’t come over and thank you) for following the traffic rules as compared to those scoffing you.

    India is an ideal case of a multi-cultural settings.And our culture and traditions are so rich that it would take centuries to get our roads cleared of cows and elephents(even animals command respect in our culture).

    And we are still changing;trying to absorb new things and fashion them to the existing.

    Its good to compare with others,but understanding the contexts is important before passing on criticism. Our population and illitracy are our biggest problems. Fill in as many people in any country,and you would see worse problems.

    Driving (& living) in a country like this demands certain qualities of its individuals.(some of them are aptly pointed out by Ms.Mhatre)
    But,surely the issues raised by you are pertinent,and can help transportation planners,if we have them in India.

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