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Under a blanket wearing earplugs that block my ear drums with my latest go-to-sleep playlist, I can still hear the endless hooting on the streets of India. It’s apparently Road Safety Week here in Delhi but no one seems to notice the men holding up safety tips on the side of the road. In fact, in the last three days I have almost died five times while being driven around in a locomotive (ricksha, auto or car).
I noticed it on day one while being picked up from the airport. A driver cut in front of a car and just stopped mid-cut, taking up almost three lanes in the middle of the road, to pick up a passenger. He got out his car like there was nothing wrong and placed the luggage into his boot at a normal unrushed pace before returning to the driver’s seat and driving off.
"Lane driving is safe driving" read one of the Road Safety Week billboards. A tourist in India wouldn't even know that it was written among the rules and regulations of India roads. No one drives in their lane, they just hoot. A car comes too close, they hoot. A car doesn’t move fast enough, they hoot. A car hoots at them for no reason, they hoot. It’s endless and rings louder than any temple bell or amplified azan.
There are signs everywhere that attempt to end the ceaseless trumpeting on the streets, but to no avail. To drive in India requires the skill to be talented at being talentless and the ability to break all the rules and somehow make that the rule. Even robots counting down the seconds until they turn green don’t stop drivers from driving through red lights. They turn right at a four way stop from the most left lane, they squeeze through any gap that they see and traffic circles... Oh em gee! Traffic circles in India are what it must feel like for a sardine to swim against the shoal during the annual shoal run.
On top of all that chaos, the streets in Delhi are almost always busy with every imaginable vehicle. It’s the type of nightmare you have before the day of your driver’s test or when you are running late for an important appointment. It’s crazy... it's also a way of life here.
In one instance, a cycle rickshaw that we were travelling on rode in the opposite direction of oncoming traffic... A cycle against a tirade of honking cars, autos, trucks, taxis, motorbikes, buses and other bicycles. It was like staring death in the eye and saying, "Marry me!"
In the last year, I have complained endlessly about how pathetic and inconsiderate drivers were in Pietermaritzburg, especially on the Chota Motala Bridge with all the construction going on. There were many incidents that left me infuriated and wanting to lash out at the lawlessness that drivers face on the roads; the lack of courtesy and the overwhelming amount of impatience, intolerance and arrogance. Thinking about it now, driving in South Africa feels like a Solero on these hot summer days.
While India has less serious accidents than South Africa, the stress one experiences just driving a few kms in India would likely give you a heart attack before the age of 40... I came close to one just riding in an auto during peak hour. So, next time someone does something on the roads that twists the hair on your nipples but doesn't kill you, be glad that you aren't driving here.
* Tharuna Devchand went to India courtesy of the India Consulate for the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas that is being held in Jaipur on January 7-9, 2012.