Driving in India can be as hair raising an experience as trying to milk a cow only to realize that its a bull. (Infact I’ve seen that happen too.) Here are some points that will help you reach your destination without a visit to a hospital.
1) Motorcyclist need to be negotiated with care. Simple honking doesn’t normally work for them. Wind-buffeting takes the edge out of their hearing and most of the time they have to be told about the presence of a car behind them by the one of the 4 rear passengers. The fourth tells the third and so forth until the driver cocks his head to one side, nods and then move exactly 4 inches to the left. More honking will just lead to 5 pairs of angry eyes glaring at you. So give them a wide berth and overtake by going off shoulder. In cities, motorcyclists are very good at filling up spaces left between cars. Since their own lanes leave them very lonely, they like playing peek-a-boo with everyone else. Don’t be surprised if an obnoxiously loud pressure horn (like the ones on trucks) screams behind you and a moment later a puny 70cc moped wheezes past you, all ablaze. They like playing connect the dots on city roads, and drive accordingly.
2) Reversing is out of the question. When we were small, our mothers used to tell us that it’s very shameful to pee your pants, not finish your veggies, or get caught reversing on the road. It shows a timid and pessimistic attitude towards life, and no way will a girl want to marry you. Thus, confronted with a vehicle bang in front would mean a good 15 minutes inching slowly past each other, watching every millimeter of side clearance. But no reversing. That’s for girls.
3) The system of traffic lights may seem daunting to some but are very simple once you get the underlying rules. Green means go, yellow means go faster and red means cowboy mode i.e. all horns and lights blazing and just zipping past before anyone figures out what’s going on. Frantic waving of hands from the window like you’re having a stroke also discourages other cowboys, I mean, drivers.
4) Always look out for pedestrian pathways on city roads. They are so much better to drive on than the roads themselves, not to mention less crowded. Of course there might pedestrians on them, but not to worry, just show them who’s boss. You’ll also find like-minded people driving their cars on the cycle-tracks and road shoulders. They’re the ones who’ve fought with their wives in the morning (and couldn’t come up with something clever to say in the end) and are just looking to annoy people. It’s nothing personal, and makes one feel superior. I do it all the time (but i always find something clever to say first).
5) The horn is a great tool for communicating with other drivers. Use it to inform others of your mood. If you’re irritated, give short rapids bursts. The long sustained ones are good when you want to inform the jackass up front that the light is green, even if he’s got a better view of them than you. It’s best to start honking immediately as the signal changes and not let up until you reach the next one. In this country honking is directly proportionate to how bad the fight was with the wife before leaving for work.
6) Lane changing should be done with military precision i.e. no hesitation. Just swerve and go for it. There is no need to be polite; this is not your father-in-law’s house. Rapid flicking of the headlights is also a good idea, just in case the idiot coming from the opposite lane doesn’t like you hogging the entire road. The one who flicks first has the right of way.
7) Don’t worry about which side to overtake from – whichever has more room is alright. It’s not as if anyone is going to tell your mother. Feel free to drive in lanes where you get the best views of the countryside. Especially on highways, if the views are towards your left, then by all means drive on the left lane. The fact that there are no overtaking, or slow, lanes makes highway driving much less stressful.
8) Never ever look directly at other drivers while cutting them off or overtaking. That’s just waving a red flag in their faces. Even if you’ve sharply cut them off, pretend as if you’re really busy with the road and can’t be bothered with such distractions. If you make eye contact, be prepared to receive some manic gesturing. That’s their way of being polite.
9) Never give way to ambulances, especially the smaller ones which are vans. Chances are he’s ferrying passengers on his time off, and he can bloody well pass you like any other bloke – i.e. squeezing into whatever gap you’ve left for him. Nothing more. And don’t worry about the flashing lights; in India even a gram pradhan (village idiot) will have a blue light and blazing siren atop, so just how are you supposed to know the difference?
10) The most difficult vehicle to negotiate on Indian roads is undoubtedly the state transport buses. Those drivers give a new meaning to the phrase “as crazy as a fox”. Their qualifying requirements will give you a clue. They have to be physically sound (important, as a 3 feet diameter steering wheel takes some strength). At least one eye should be working. Hearing is not important, nor is reading, as there are no meaningful road signs in India (only ads for condoms and secret sex clinics). Nowadays, however, the drivers you get are ones who came last in their class, were always picked-on by other bigger drivers (hence the pent up aggression) and were always pointed at when someone farted. That and the fact that they aren’t getting any at home, and probably have a small penis. With a background like this, imagine putting him in charge of a 10 tonne vehicle, with no brakes and a candle for headlights. How polite do you think he’s going to be? Couple this with a fondness for the home-made stuff, and you can see why driving on the same roads as them would be like Russian roulette – you just don’t know which one is loaded. With them aggression does not work. If a gentle I’m-so-sorry-to-disturb-you-but-I-need-to-pass horn does not work, just forget it. Wait for him to stop sooner or later, and then pass. Otherwise you have as much chance as a giraffe wearing white gloves, trying to get into a polar-bear only nightclub.
11) If you think the buses are fearsome, wait till you see the passengers. Packed like a really crowded sardine can with smelling room only. Four hanging out the door. Two more hanging on to the pants of the ones hanging out the door. One hanging on to the little toe of the one hanging onto the pant of the one hanging on to the door. If you think this is complicated, look up. You’ll find more holding onto the roof rails. Imagine this entire entourage on hilly roads, at breakneck speed, with a ‘happy’ driver who’s had a fight with his mother-in-law. Fast and Furious meets Young and the Restless meets Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets Bongo gets a new toy for Christmas.
12) Never ask a cop for help in India. He’ll first check all the occupants of your car. Then he’ll ask you where you’re coming from, where you’re going, you mother’s maiden name and the last time you had sex. (Meanwhile he’ll stop some motorcyclist and extract some money.) Then he’ll ask you what business you have where you are going. (Then he’ll stop a truck and extract some money.) If you’re asking for directions, he’ll slowly face the direction that you’ll be going, with his hands pointing straight and stand there for some time figuring out the way. (Then he’ll stop a taxi and extract some money.) Then he’ll give you wrong directions. So wrong that you’d be better off lost, without a paddle up the creek. If it’s about a crime or robbery, and you can give an accurate description of the offender, don’t be shocked if he picks up the phone and calls the same guy on his phone and ask him if he really did commit it. They have more affinity with the criminals than with you. The way I handle it, is that right at the beginning I raise my hands high above my head and ask them for help. It saves time later on when they eventually find something wrong with you itself. And always carry multiplies of 10 and 100 rupee notes, just in case. Remember, the longer the moustache or the bigger the belly, the more the bribe. It’s a scientific fact. (OK FINE, maybe not scientific, but still very accurate).
13) Left turn on Indian roads is always free. In fact so is right turn, just don’t tell the cops.
14) U-turns serve a good purpose on the roads. One, it wakes up the half-dozing drivers behind you when you slam on the brakes in the middle of the road without warning. Two, it gives you time to perfect the 9 point turn, as most drivers don’t go to training schools and hence don’t have an opportunity to practice this.
15) Pedestrians have a right of way – in their own drawing rooms. Not here. This is a big-car eat small-moped world, and pedestrians are even lower than some plant life. The reason why you see them always running across the street is not because of timing, its blind terror. They have, like, a second to cross the road, and that means with all their bags, wives, kids, dogs, in-laws and chickens. Stopping for pedestrians on Indian roads is like having a bath in prison, you don’t know who will rear-end you while you are at it.