Mastering the laws of the Indian Jungle.
I picked up my friend, Mark, from the airport the other day. He had never visited India before and he was so keen to explore this incredible country.
‘I want to rent a car and drive,’ he said immediately. ‘That’s what I always do when I visit a new country. Which side do you drive on?’
‘Whichever side you like.’
‘In the UK and Australia you drive on the left, Europe and America the right. So which side in India?’
‘Both sides, right side and left side’ I repeated. ‘It depends on your mood. Now, look ahead. What do you see?’
‘A short traffic jam.’
‘No problem.’ I swung into the right lane. Oncoming traffic swerved away and allowed me a free passage. Mark cringed and looked back, a dozen cars were following me. ‘If there is a vacant lane, it’s your right to fill it up. You see what I’ve done – I’ve over taken four cars waiting stupidly in the left lane. Buses and trucks drive in the centre of the road, so you can’t over take. This is a free country and we have the freedom to drive the way we want to.’
I swung back into the left lane when the right lane blocked my passage. Ahead of us were traffic lights, the world familiar red, orange and green. As it was turning red, I drove right through.
‘Don’t you stop for lights?’
‘You kidding. If you stop for a light the cars behind you will crash into you. Just keep going. They don’t expect you to stop or slow down for any reason, including hitting a pedestrian or a cow. And never ever stop at a zebra crossing for a pedestrian. You’re condemning him or her to death as cars, buses and motor bikes on either side of you will just keep going.’
‘But where do pedestrians walk?’ He was looking out at very narrow strips of raised broken ledges on either side of the road. ‘I don’t see any pavements or sidewalks. In my country, they are given a lot of space.’
‘Not in India, as they waste valuable road space. See, in India, our politicians might make big speeches on the common man to get his votes but they don’t believe he has any right to a pavement. All the road space is reserved for us middle class in our big shiny new cars and I’d say 90 per cent of the owners have never even seen the inside of a polling booth.’
Reluctantly I stopped for a traffic light behind a car in the right side of the left lane. ‘Now you see that car in front. When the lights change he will turn left. And that bus on the far left of our lane is going to turn right. So while the two drivers disentangle themselves, the lights will change and we will still be sitting here. One of the great joys of driving here is to psychically try to figure out what the driver in front is going to do.’
I saw how nervous he was as a two wheeler missed us by inches. ‘Two wheelers are free to do whatever they want. It’s in the Indian constitution that they can jump lights, swerve into incoming traffic, squeeze in between two cars and if there is enough space when you stop at a traffic light they have the right to inch past you sideways so they’re a foot ahead of you.’
‘I notice you don’t have any rear view mirrors,’ he said quietly. ‘What about the traffic behind? In Europe you can be fined if you…’
‘The first lesson you learn is pay attention only to the front of your car. Never ever look in the rear view mirror, as you’ll have a nervous breakdown and turn to stone.’