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Delhi Driving

By Jim Martin - July 9th, 2004

I got my first taste of Delhi driving as I left the railway station. A sign read, "Zero Tolerance for Traffic Lawbreakers." Cabs, bicycle rickshaws, miasmal trucks, ox carts, scooters, camels, jaywalkers, and antediluvian buses packed sardine tight careened willy nilly under the bored gaze of two cops. A single word was imprinted on the red light: Relax.

Clusters of pedestrians strode into traffic, slicing through gaps like running backs hitting a hole. I studied them but couldn't figure what prompted a dash. Lanes were a fiction; lights disdained. I decided to use the jaywalkers as blockers. I paralleled them downstream reasoning that they would slow down a car on impact long enough for me to tag the sidewalk. It worked.

Drivers use any scrap of road to get ahead. Carpe Via is law, and they do so at high speed and close quarters. I saw people pull their side mirrors back to gain a couple of inches while skirting a truck, tight as a river against its bank.

I caught a cab, and we plunged in. Everyone pressed forward, cutting ahead, creeping sideways. We were almost crushed between a pair of giant Tatas, a common truck in India. Bicyclists would ride three abreast and then constrict to single file without apparent notice of the traffic behind them. Tracking individual vehicles was like following grains in a sandstorm.

To American eyes these folks drove like lunatics. We wouldn't last a minute out there. The rules are tougher, faster and subtler. Understanding the system requires more quantum mechanics than calculus. The drivers display immense skill. They honed their proprioceptive system razor sharp, evincing what John McPhee called a "sense of where you are" in his profile of a basketball star.

Many of the cabs and trucks displayed signs saying "Horn Please," and their fellow drivers all obliged with gusto. The horn is the keystone of driving etiquette here. It says "Watch Out." In a world where turn signals are a mystery, honking announces intent. Indian drivers process a blizzard of visual and auditory data and act instantly. I never saw a collision.

Perhaps something more spiritual is going on. I could swear I saw two objects occupy the same space at the same time more than once. Absent nuclear forces, the material world is mostly empty space with particles few and far between. Maybe they can see the foundation of reality and drive right through it.

India has a million Mario Andrettis. Any one of them could dominate the Grad Prix circuit, at least if formula one cars came equipped with horns.

Jim Martin is a writer, photographer, and marketing consultant who wanders around the world trying to decide what he really wants to do when he grows up.


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