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