29 August 2010

Tetris Traffic

There are people in this world, who when you meet, envelope you with their light of compassion, gentleness and calmness. I am not one of those people on a good day and even less so, when behind the wheel in India. Something about driving here brings out the Shaitaan in me.

N got us a car so that we could run our errands and have a life outside of the auto circuit. My world view now can technically expand beyond Road no 12. Yet, each time I take Nandi, our car, out on the streets everything that is wrong in our attitude as Indians hits me in the face.

The traffic light is a stop light purely in the optional sense. Till the light switches to green the entire block of vehicles is involved in a giant game of tetris - nudging, swerving and edging into crevices so that when the light does pop, we are in the most convenient position to skip it. It doesn't matter where you want to be - left or right; after the light,what matters is - have you crossed it?

I started driving at 18; my Dad insistent that this was one skill I should learn as soon as legally possible. I went through a driving school: one of those places where the instructor is a sarcastic man who think women make lousy drivers. Although, in the end it's all for the the good because his chief talent is not teaching, but ensuring that on D Day you pass your driving test. My family of course, did not buy the credentials of the driving school and after I got the license I was put through the back seating driving instructions of all the adults who drove our cars: mum, dad AND grandma. Having all three together, I imagined sometimes, was like being a charioteer in the Mahabharat war.

I drove to college everyday with mother by my side hearing constantly "Don't go beyond third"; the magical gear beyond which our Maruti 800 turned into a Porsche. Other unforgettable advice from mother dearest included: "Drive slowly, you don't know when a child/dog/cow/buffalo might wander on to the road"; which remains solid advice even today. Given this history then I was smugly happy when the parents visited me in the States. Ah-ha, only I can drive here and that too, in MY car. Sweetness. This emotion was short-lived. On a drive from Long Island to New Jersey, my dad chided me for not pulling up the handbrake when I stopped for the light and then later as the car picked up speed, he slept in the back seat, requesting the radio be off. Where he left off, my mother started. She watched the speedometer intently, not pausing to blink even and orally recited the speed every five seconds. I had my very own speed gun and FYI, I have never got a speeding ticket in the States.

Well, I digress from my rant. Driving in India makes me mad and fills me with moral righteousness which is completely unjustified at times. I am in the middle of reading a book by V Raghunathan "We are like that only" where the author makes an attempt to draw analogy of our lousy choice making to game theory. It's an interesting read: the author himself starts out by talking about how he cuts lines in India! However, these intellectual pursuits do not aid whatsoever in a better driving experience in India.

I never enjoyed computer games so I do not possess either cunning or the agility to grasp a quickly changing traffic scene. Consequently, I sit at lights for minutes on end; annoyingly, this city has pathetic choice of FM stations as well. There is only so much Telugu pop one can take! I have to admit then, driving in the States was a much more pleasant experience and I miss the orderliness and NPR.