I remember being told once that Italians view the white lines marking lanes on the roads and motorways as mere suggestions as to how they might like to use the space. Indians have taken this concept of flexibility to an entirely different plane. There are roads in towns and highways in the country areas that have carriageways divided by barriers, but any driver who allows that to lull him or her into a sense of security is dicing with death. Dual-carriage highways are in theory (I think) for one-way traffic on each side, but if a driver (of a bus, a truck, a car, a motorbike or a camel or ox cart) has to get from A to B where the closest distance between the two involves going the wrong way down one of these carriageways he won’t hesitate. So you will suddenly find one or a whole stream of them coming towards you in what you thought was the slow lane on your side.
In Tamil Nadu once, we were just admiring the brand new highway when we spotted an unexpected obstacle in the fast lane. A farmer with a cunning plan had decided that a nice hot road was just the place to dry his grain. So a tarpaulin on the tarmac, a few stones to keep it from blowing away, et voilà! Sometimes on rural roads the plan is even more cunning. Grain laid out on the road will be run over, doing the job of separating the chaff from the grain very easily indeed.
If you need to get off the highway onto a minor road to your right, you may well find that the only way across is to mount the central reservation (which will have been broken down – a bit – by others with the same mission) and drive for a few yards down the other carriageway until you can turn off. Best to shut your eyes if you are of a nervous disposition.
The same is true in the towns. One of our most terrifying journeys was in a cycle rickshaw (whose drivers are always the scrawniest souls around so that you feel hideously guilty accepting a ride from them) taking us from the Red Fort in Old Delhi to our vehicle, whose driver had parked further away. The cycle rickshaw man headed down the wrong side of a dual carriageway, weaving between oncoming trucks and buses, and I have never been so afraid of imminent death in my life.
Many a time our driver here in Udaipur, realising that we need to go to a store on the other side of a crowded shopping street, has gone several yards down the road on the wrong side so as to deposit us right outside our shop. When pulling away again, he will simply push into the traffic, into the path of oncoming tuktuks, bikes, cars etc, and make his way unhurriedly onto the right side of the road again. This is entirely par for the course.
The other evening bringing us home he suddenly stopped as a young man riding a motorbike headed towards us on our side of a road divided by a concrete barrier, failed to control his vehicle (remarkably unusual) and clipped the front of our car. Much consternation, the driver leaps out and harangues the sheepish young man, a crowd immediately gathers, a nearby policeman’s view is sought. We stay in the car, thinking for the thousandth time that we will NEVER venture out behind the wheel here. After much rather unproductive conversation, during which time the young man returns and surreptitiously wipes down the scratched bumper with a cloth, hoping to make the damage go away, our driver returns. The young man has no money and no insurance, so beyond a bawling out there is not much to be done. We ask what the policeman said – nothing much other than that our driver was in the right.
The only surprise is that there are so few collisions. Indian drivers seem to know how far they can push in front of others, and our driver clearly had a sixth sense that, for once, this bike was not going to manoeuvre in time out of his way.
Police there are on the roads in town: rarely if ever singly, and generally in groups of 2-4, always to be found standing chatting to one another, their backs to anything they might actually be called upon to deal with.
Indian drivers love to ask you what are the three things a driver here needs: good brakes, good horn and good luck! Horns are regarded as essential. Almost every truck has ‘Horn Please’ (as well as the somewhat mysterious ‘Wait for Side’) on the back of them. On the highways they drive in whichever lane they fancy (generally the ‘fast’ lane, for reasons perhaps explained above) so a speedier vehicle has to weave between them, the horn blaring repeatedly to try to ensure the driver has spotted it. In town too, as one approaches a roundabout the tactic seems to be to drive straight onto it (Belgian style), horn blaring, as you play chicken with the other vehicles. Of course you might decide that, if a big old bus is coming towards you with no obvious intention of stopping, discretion is the better part of valour. But a mere car, bike or cart is simply to be honked at as you push in front showing you mean business.
The variety of the road users is something that takes a while to get used to. I remember on our first trip to Jaipur some years ago, on a very busy main street, seeing a mouse crossing the road between trucks, cars, buses, scooters, elephants, camel carts, ox carts and pedestrians. I thought it would never make it, but it was obviously a city mouse, much more skilled in braving these streets than I will ever be.
Some of the sights cannot fail to bring a smile to my face. Today I saw a camel, snooty-looking with its nose in the air as always, pulling a flat-bed cart topped by an advertising hoarding forming a pyramid beneath which was a cassette player blaring out promotional messages. Years ago, as we drove from Ranthambore and tiger-spotting towards Jaipur, we passed an empty petrol station where a camel had pulled up beside a petrol pump – perhaps to fill up a jerry can, who knows. I always wish I had asked the driver to back up so John could capture the image with his camera.
Elephants are fairly common, sometimes carrying produce, sometimes wandering back home from duty trundling tourists up to a fort as at Amber near Jaipur, sometimes just carrying a mahout who is taking it to collect tributes at a temple in exchange for a ‘blessing’ from the elephant’s trunk. (I once had to pay extra to get a second blessing as the camera wasn’t quick enough first time – no names! – and was dimly viewed by others in the queue!) And I remember looking up from a major road in Delhi to see a couple of elephants carrying grasses crossing the bridge above us.
Camels are common too in Rajasthan. They are often pulling carts carrying goods of one sort or another. Donkeys are trained here to carry building materials from yard to building site without supervision. You see them, sad little creatures, heading forlornly along the road, loaded up with bricks going one way, running a little faster on the way back, but never daring to deviate from the route.
Horses, particularly white, are hired out for ceremonies such as taking a groom to his wedding in procession with drummers and family members, and we sometimes pass stables full of surprisingly fine-looking beasts, their little ears endearingly turned inwards in true Marwari style.
Cows of course do their own thing. They wander through the towns finding strange things to eat, before heading at dusk to be milked in a dairy which might well be in someone’s front room in the maze of backstreets of the old town, as John has described earlier. There are ladies on the outskirts of town who sit with bundles of grass which they sell to passers-by who wish to placate their gods by feeding the cows. One or two cows have worked out that this is a good place to hang around! At night, they often lie down on the unlit roads, so that you have to pick your way very carefully around them. Some of them respond to toots on the horn, some do not and have to be slapped on the rump or pushed out of the way.
One morning in Bikaner, on our way to a temple, the guide pointed out a line of dogs standing on the side of the road all looking in one direction. There the locals would bring spare chapattis left over from breakfast and throw them at the waiting hounds, again to curry favour with the deities.
The saving grace amongst all of this chaos, as it appears to a western eye, is that the speeds are generally low. Most of the trucks and cars do not look as if they were ever new, and buying a spanking new vehicle of any sort seems little short of folly. One evening we came out of a restaurant in Delhi which clearly turned into a hot nightclub once the wrinklies had eaten and departed. Hordes of well-heeled youths were hanging about waiting for the nightclub to get into gear, and as we walked outside my eyes nearly popped out of my head to see ranks of Ferraris, Porsches and Maseratis lined up. Where do they drive these cars? Do they just sit in garages and have one trip out every Friday night?
As India ponders the value of its Grand Prix, I wonder about its relevance to 99.9% of the road users in the country.