“It just sort of works.”
That’s how our German neighbor and fellow foreigner, Alex, described the jaw-dropping driving culture of India’s major cities.
In Pune, Maharashtra, where husband Brian is serving as a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar at Symbiosis Institute for Media and Communications until May 2013, we’re quickly learning a lot about everyday life in India, and how very, very different things are here compared to our sheltered existence in Fairbanks, Alaska. There’s the obvious population difference (Fairbanks, 90,000; Pune, 5 million) quickly followed by pollution, trash and traffic. Lots of traffic.
Like many former British colonies, Indians drive on the left-hand side of the road. But that’s not what makes traffic here fascinating, exciting….and a little bit terrifying each time we venture out via taxi, autorickshaw or the vehicle of a newfound friend.There are unspoken rules—the way things work, the way traffic flows, the way certain rules are ignored and forgiven to make way for the practicality and necessity of living here—that combine to make traffic so interesting. It’s a mentality along the lines of, “Why bother to stick to three assigned lanes when, clearly, five cars can fit across the road as well as a few motorcycles sandwiched in between?”
And don’t forget that bicyclist over there, that crowd of school kids crossing the road, the man pushing the fruit cart and those cows along the side.
A few words about road conditions. You think Alaska roads are bad, with their potholes and cracked pavement? (That is, if you’re lucky enough to have a paved road?)
In Pune, road quality varies tremendously, from brick cobblestones filled with potholes to modern and fresh-looking blacktop and new bridges. You’ll see a group of men, and often saree-clad women, patching a pothole or fixing this or that along the road with their bare hands, mixing cement in little buckets and spreading it out with hand tools (no flaggers in their helmets and orange vests, radio in hand, stopping the flow of traffic in the name of safety). One day I saw several women mixing cement by hand along the side of the road—no warning sign, no barricades. Another time, on another street, I saw a woman carrying so many red bricks on her head I wondered if she would injure herself permanently.
The sidewalks can be an adventure, with huge holes, gaps, debris and trash, exposed wires, pipes and electrical boxes (one of which killed one poor cyclist a couple weeks ago. The unfortunate man hit a pothole and then catapulted into an uncovered electrical box, which electrocuted him on the spot, according to the Pune Mirror newspaper). The sidewalks are filled with trash, stray dogs and cats, vendors, piles of poop, splats of red spittle from chewing tobacco known as pan, and sewer grates that emit the most awful of smells from the depths below. Understandably, because of some of this found along some stretches (certainly not all), people tend to avoid the sidewalks and walk along the sides of the roads.
And they walk across the roads, during traffic, with a baby or a bicycle, a hand-pulled cart—anything is likely.
Then there’s the vehicles that are actually on the roads. Auto-rickshaws—covered three-wheeled motorcycles that scoot about here and there with rupee-paying customers in the back, are a regular sight. Small trucks called “goods carriers,” often decorated with flowers and pictures of Hindu gods, sound their funny little musical horns as they weave in and out. American-looking cars, only smaller, have different names but look very much like a Ford Tempo or other familiar makes. Crammed smoke-belching buses, windows open, are everywhere. So different from our nearly empty and clean buses that drive around the comparatively neat, tidy (except after breakup and before clean up day!) and vacant streets of Fairbanks.
Numerous motorcycles and scooters, many carrying at least one or perhaps even two or three people, including babies and small children, are everywhere. The rules apply least to them, it seems. Hindu women in sarees or Muslim women in full head scarves sit side saddle on the back, and don’t even hold on, they’re so good at it. They sit nonchalantly with their purses in their laps, easily handling each bump or jostle of traffic, without looking startled or remotely scared. Many women are drivers, their sarees tucked in modestly around their legs, scarves flying in the wind.
Motorcycle drivers and passengers often wear flip-flops or other flimsy footwear, apparently unconcerned that they might stub a toe or have a foot run over. You do see helmets worn now and then, but not the majority. Pune motorcycle drivers make the Hell’s Angels, with all their leather jackets, chaps and so on, look like a bunch of wimps.
The most delightful part about traffic in Pune, to me anyway, is the use of horns.
The drivers love to use their horns. But what’s different about horn honking here is it isn’t very often the angry sounding, prolonged honking (accompanied by one-fingered gestures) that you often find in many American cities and towns. The honks are short little “toot-toot-toots!” that say, “I’m here, behind you! Hey, take care, it’s me coming up on your left!” Trucks actually have signs on their tailgates that cheerfully command “Sound your horn!” The honking is a form of navigation and communication, not a signal that something is amiss or some affront committed. With the thousands, perhaps millions, of people and drivers that I encountered in my first few weeks in India so far, I’ve only rarely seen drivers or pedestrians look angry.
“It just sort of works.” Our neighbor Alex demonstrated one night as we all went out to dinner. One has to be a bit pushy but not too aggressive, he explained, gingerly nosing the hood of his car (the closest thing to an American SUV that I’ve seen) out into the busy lanes, making a right hand turn and therefore having to cross a lane of traffic going the opposite way first. “Yes, yes, here I am, you see me, you slow down. Go ahead and tell me you’re there by honking your horn…I’m coming across,” Alex said, quietly talking to the traffic itself under his breath, smoothly moving the car to where he wanted to go.
It looked to me, sitting in the back seat, that the oncoming traffic might not have stopped or slowed or allowed him to go. But they do, just enough so that they can get around him. Nothing is jerky and there’s no slamming of brakes—everything seems to move in some sort of orchestrated fashion, as if each one of the vehicles knows what the other one will do.
It’s the unwritten rule of the flow— a rule that requires keen alertness and reactions of each driver, pedestrian, cyclist and so on. Sometimes there’s a cow on the road, or a fruit vendor pushing his cart. Once we saw a young girl dressed in some sort of costume, doing gymnastics in the narrow space between our car and others stopped at a traffic light, hoping for a rupee or two. She showed off her double-jointed shoulders, unhinging them, it seemed, to place her arms behind her back before doing another back walkover, then looking into the windows of the cars around her, her empty hand out in front of her.
The flow—the giant moving organism that is Pune traffic—went around her, barely stopping but slowing enough to ensure no harm came to the young gymnast.