On Sunday, May 26th, 2013, I played driver on all the trips we made into Chennai. Our driver rode shotgun.
We left Kelambakkam around 9:45 AM, and headed to Tiruvanmiyur first. Down the OMR I drove, up to the Shollinganallur intersection, cut across to the ECR, and then turned north on the ECR to Tiruvanmiyur.
After visiting with a cousin who lives in Tiruvanmiyur for about an hour (a ripe mango, coffee, and catching up), I headed to Vepery, where a paternal aunt lives. After considering, and discarding the Beach Road route, we went through Besant Nagar, Teynampet, onto Mount Road, and then turned by Spencers to the Egmore station, from where my aunt’s house is a stone’s throw.
I spent a couple of hours at my aunt’s (grief about my marital status, a very Tamilian lunch, general bull session with my cousin and his wife) and at a little after 2 PM, we started for home. Now we drove past Central Station to the Beach Road, and simply took that through Adyar, back to the OMR. We were home in slightly less than an hour.
In the evening, my parents and I went out to a movie (Ethir Neechal – smart, and light on its feet, in the way Tamil movies often are), and after that, dinner. The movie was playing in the multiplex in Mayajaal, which is on the ECR. After the movie finished around 8:30 PM, we drove towards Tiruvanmiyur again, to Hot Chips, where we refueled with a quick meal, and returned home on the OMR.
Needless to say, the exercise was interesting.
Traffic falls off to an astonishing degree on Sunday. On a weekday, the same drives would have taken almost twice as long. I knew the roads would be relatively empty on Sunday, which is why I picked that day for my test drive. However, I was surprised at the extent of the difference. The stress of living in the city during the week seems to be so high that folks are happy to stay off the roads on Sunday. Most shops are closed on Sunday, but movies are open, and so are restaurants, not to mention temples. But few takers, that I could see.
All through the day I noticed cars that were traveling much slower than I was. Remember, I am supposed to be the delicate driver, conditioned by the soft life in America, and thrown into the deep-end of the hell that is Indian driving. Regardless, I got the distinct impression that I was negotiating the roads more assertively than a lot of other folks. Later a possible explanation came to mind. These are car owners, driving their vehicles themselves. During the week, they have drivers who deal with the harsh realities of Indian traffic, while the owners sit in the back-seat, and day-dream in air-conditioned comfort. Perhaps on Sundays, the drivers have a day off, and the owners gingerly take their cars out into the sunlight themselves. Leave traffic aside; I can imagine that some of the owners are not even fluent drivers. They have no need to become good drivers. Just a theory.
Facility and Insanity
I pulled out of our neighborhood, and onto Vandalur road. The car was beginning to feel familiar, and the road was fairly empty, and since it had a concrete divider there would be little chance of traffic in the opposite direction. Almost without thought, my body sagged in relief, and I began to swivel my head this way and that, looking around. Bang at that moment, our driver, sitting next to me, yelled a warning. I snapped my gaze back to the road in front of me, and there was a motor bike, weaving out of the way. Where the hell did he come from? The road in front of me was empty a moment ago.
After the initial alarm subsided, my driver explained, and I saw what had happened. The concrete divider has breaks, which you become aware of only when you are almost at them. Moreover bushes have been planted on the divider, which blocks your view of the traffic on the other side. Vehicles come across those breaks in the divider without stopping, and without warning. If you are new to Vandalur road, and you are not prepared for these virtually invisible breaks in the divider, you are liable to be surprised. As I was.
This is classic India. The divider is a good idea. It makes driving so much easier. The traffic moves more smoothly, and you waste less time. Even the bushes on the divider have something going for them. The road looks pleasant. At night, the bushes block the head lights on the opposite traffic. However, what the heck is going on with those breaks? Why isn’t there any kind of indication that they exist? Why is there nothing that forces traffic to stop at those breaks, and give folks a chance to proceed safely?
Now that I know those breaks exist in the divider, and I also know that I may have little warning about vehicles that may be coming through those breaks, I necessarily have to slow down on Vandalur road. It is better than a one lane road, but it has all these hidden surprises, which defeat some of the benefits of a divided road. Why can’t they think something through completely? How could they not know how those breaks in the divider would be used?
Well, that is India. It gives with one hand, and takes some of it away with the other. I’ve seen Indian computer code with exactly the same personality.
Some batsman say they like to face brutal, short-pitched bowling first-up, as soon as they reach the crease. It knocks them into a fighting frame of mind. This incident on Vandalur road had the same effect on me. It woke me up. I was now completely cognizant of where I was, and went on full Indian Driving Alert (INDRA).
Er, rules, anyone?
I can’t see that there are any accepted rules of the road. The method, such as it is, seems to consist of just two points. One, don’t run into anyone. Two, if you find a gap in front of you that can accommodate the vehicle you are driving, fill that gap. Beyond that, Indian driving is a free for all.
There are speed limits. But apparently, you are apprised of them only when a cop stops you (I haven’t seen a single sign yet). However, 9 times out of 10, you can bribe your way out of the situation, so there is really no need to take the speed limit into account, ever.
I see traffic lights, but many people, treat them as a suggestion, rather than a mandate. On a red light, they slow down, look for traffic they might need to avoid, see if any cops are around, and if not, just keep going. I saw a whole damn bus go straight through a red light. I was told it was a government bus, and they can do anything they want. The possibilities are limitless, so to speak.
You cannot count on anything. You absolutely have to watch everything, and look everywhere, all the time. Imagine the most unlikely thing this side of a UFO that might come across your path on the road, and I will bet my last shirt it will happen.
Mama, where did that motorcycle come from?
Back in the U.S.A, I always have a good idea of what traffic is around me. So much so that I very rarely have to look over my shoulder when I shift lanes, or pass someone. In my more vain moments I like to think that this is like the awareness that a quarterback has of the defenders – he knows where they are, and where they are headed, apparently without deliberately looking. On Sunday, driving in Chennai, that instinct completely disappeared. I had no idea what was behind me, on my left, or on my right. I don’t quite know why.
Perhaps there simply are too many vehicles. You share the road with automobiles, large, and compact, trucks of various weights, three wheeled jalopies that move both cargo and people, all manner of two wheelers, including bicycles, and last, but not least, pedestrians. Do you know those computer games, where things are coming at you from all directions, at various frequencies, and at various speeds? Traffic in the city is almost exactly like that. There is no way I could absorb that much information, much less process it to make good decisions.
The blind spot, which the DMV manuals warn you about, is alive and well here in India. Only, in the Indian version, that spot can hold several motor cycles, each of which may be up to something totally different, and of course unpredictable. After narrowly missing one gentleman who as on my left, as I tried to pass a car, I started to turn my head left to look over my shoulder before swerving left. But this turned out to be a mistake too. In that one moment, when I took my eyes off the road in front of me, two vehicles (a scooter and a three wheeled rickshaw), out of God knows where, suddenly appeared in front of my vehicle. I think they must have come from my right. Is there a blind spot on the driver’s side of the car? How the hell am I supposed to look at both sides of my car at once?
As if this was not enough, our car, something called a Skoda, threw me another curve. The driver’s side mirror is one of those jobs where “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”. What the holy F? In my other incarnation, intrepid weekend American road warrior, I almost exclusively rely on the rear view mirror and the driver’s side mirror, to get an accurate picture of what is beside, and behind me. I rely on them to estimate distances so I can move left and right on the road. When I realized that the driver’s side mirror was deceiving my eyes, another piece of my mental arsenal against traffic, died.
So at the moment, every change of lanes, every attempt to pass a vehicle, is a slightly nerve wracking struggle. I simply am not able to accurately judge the distance between me and vehicles behind me. I cannot relax. I cannot take my eyes off the front of the car. Driving is a deliberate act now. You know how you get from place to place, and you can’t remember how you did it. It is not that way when driving in India. Not for me. Not now. It might happen some day, I suppose.
Here is the perfect tell-tale sign of how hard the driving was – usually, when I myself drive somewhere the first time, I remember the route. I was so focused on just keeping the car going safely, that I had a hard time keeping track of the route we were taking. I can’t remember how to get to my aunt’s house in Vepery.
Can I ever “go gentle into that good night”?
Driving at night threw up its own surprises. The ECR is not a divided road. It is just an old-fashioned two strips of blacktop, separated by a thin line of white paint. Very few people on the ECR seemed to know that vehicles have a low-beam. You haven’t lived till you find yourself squeezed between a slow moving three-wheeled rickshaw on your left, and a pair of high-beamed headlights coming towards you on the right, which incidentally, also completely blinds you. I passed that auto-rickshaw on pure faith. I could not see a goddamned thing. And this is pretty much the norm. My brother-in-law called it “gambling”; “night driving is gambling”, he said.
Two motor cycles coming in the opposite direction at more or less the same speed, look no different than a single automobile with its headlights on. Until suddenly one of the lights splits off. I felt like I was in the middle of Close Encounters of the Third Kind; I cannot trust my eyes anymore.
My favorite characters were the vehicles that decide to drive down your own lane. In the opposite direction. They have given up all pretense of adopting the civilizing influences of modern road rules, and there was something refreshing about that. Well, why the hell not?
In the middle of all this, there was a herd of cows standing absolutely still in the middle of my lane. My Dad finally pipes in – “the cows can be very dangerous at night”, he says. After everything I had seen my two legged brethren do all day, he was blaming the cows. I, actually like the cows. I can count on the cows. They don’t make any sudden moves. And they never honk at me. My short fuse went off, and I turned my head left to let my Dad have a piece of my mind, but just at that moment, an enterprising Pizza Hut delivery man on a scooter materialized in front of the car. And on we went.
I tried another short drive yesterday night, to a local grocery store and back. It was quite unsettling, and I gave up on a longer trip we had to make later in the night, to the airport. The problem with night driving is exactly the opposite of the problem I have with day time driving. At night, I can see precious little. My low beams are negated by the oncoming high beams. The traffic is just as dense and varied. I came perilously close to running over pedestrians that were crossing the road at random, because I did not see them until I was close to them. At night, I don’t have enough information, early enough, to make good decisions. In the day, I am overwhelmed with information, which has the same deleterious effect.
How does our driver do it? Day, or night, he drives like he owns the road. He must be seeing exactly what I am seeing, or not. The data he perceives has to be the same that I am picking up, right? How is he making the decisions he makes, behind the wheel?
I am also told that much of long distance road travel, primarily buses, and trucks, moving people, and cargo, happens at night. How do they do it?
Sister, what is that on your head?
The most intriguing sight on the Chennai roads is women, on two-wheelers, and on foot, wearing a sort of head-gear that I first saw in Pune a couple of years ago, and which now seems to ubiquitous; from big city Chennai to small town Nellore. They wrap their heads with what seems like their duppattas, in a manner that looks like the top of a hijab. Everything is covered but their eyes.
Perhaps this is just to protect their faces and hair from the heat and the dust. However, to my eyes it comes across as some hitherto unanticipated confluence of Islamic chic, plain inventiveness to deal with the grime of everyday life, and an unapologetic expression of female power.
Imagine a woman fully living and fighting in this world, but who does it in some modern variation of the hijab. You perceive clearly that there is a whole human being in there, but she only gives you her face, and often only her eyes, to deal with. I can’t explain it, but it seems a daunting task to me, and demanding it of us seems an tremendous act of confidence on their part.
I remember security personnel in the Kuala Lumpur airport, clad in trousers and long-sleeved shirts, and a scarf tightly wrapped around their heads. They left me wonder-struck, and not a little intimidated. Would I measure up?