I lol'd! IndiaStar: On the Road in India by Acharya Palaniswami
IndiaStar--A Literary-Art Magazine
* _____ *
On the Road in India
by Acharya Palaniswami
[Editor's intro: Acharya Palanswami*
is the editor of*Hinduism Today.*
This article takes a humorous look*
at traffic on Indian roads.]
Nations are defined, in practical reality, not by their financial clout or
military strength, not by cultural heritage or natural resources, nor even by
their political system and history. They are defined by their traffic. Show me a
nation's roads, and I'll show you its very soul.
Think about it for a minute. Germany has the Autobahn, where not-so-poorish
engineers in highly-engineered Porsches ply the wide lanes at 200 km/hour.
Americans are limited to 88 km/hour, but they make up for that since they are*
conceived, born, live, work and all-too-often die in their cars (and in Southern*
California die for their cars), which are outfitted with exotic toys like hydraulics,
TVs, fax machines, cellular phones and computer maps that show where*
the stars live.*
Singapore has no roads, having reinvented the notion. Instead, with its miles
and miles of very narrow parks and lush gardens through which cars are permitted
to pass, it has raised driving from progress to epiphany, reminding us that
destiny is more than destination (except you could get caned for entering a
restriced zone without a permit). China has something like a road, but it is used
for tractors and trucks, bicycles and such, since there are only 256 cars in the
Which brings us to India-- ah, India, where roads are not a way to
get from here to there. Roads are here and there. Roads are slept on, walked on,
spat on in India. Roads are used to store and winnow the rice crop, to dry acres
of red chilis, to milk the family cow. Roads serve as temporary shops. Not only
is every type of transportation found on every road, but every kind of living
thing. Goats and ducks are shepherded in front of screeching busses. Elephants
stop dutifully at the red lights and waterbuffalo meander aimlessly and fearlessly.
While life in America is lived inside the car and not much else exists on the
street, in India it's all on the outside. Bikes and lorries fight for their
place. Pedestrians, using a NASA-developed form of Doppler-based sonar software
that allows them, without looking back, to "see" vehicles approaching from behind
and gracefully step aside exactly 10 nanoseconds before being run over.
There are no traffic rules of the ordinary kind one finds elsewhere. Signs
forbidding littering? Forget it! Fines for jaywalking? Are you kidding? No
street people? Au contraire, everyone is a street person. Speed limits? Who
would enforce them? When our plane landed in Goa a few weeks back, there was
actually a road crossing the runway, and traffic had halted behind a railroad-like
barrier to let the aircraft land! It's a lawless land, India's highways, where
each one makes up her or his own rules.
But wait! In the absence of man-made laws there must be some cosmic principles
guiding one billion human beings in their urgency to turn cars into carnage.
Indeed, guidelines exist, but like guarded secrets of yoga, they are known only
by the initiated. They have never been consolidated, interpreted and codified. Now,
for the first time in history, we reveal these arcane rules to our readers with
the certain knowledge that lives will be saved by this disclosure, based on our
recent survival sojourn in India in collaboration with Rajiv Pant (Betul), a
Mensa member, computer whiz and engineering student who lives in Paoli,*
Pennsylvania, and can be found on the Web at http://www.rajiv.org/ii/
Rules of the Road, Indian Style
Traveling on Indian roads is an almost hallucinatory potion of sound, spectacle
and experience. It is frequently heart-rending, sometimes hilarious, frequently
exhilarating, always unforgettable--and extremely dangerous. Most Indian road*
users observe a version of the*Bharat Highway Code based on*Rickshawsutra,
a disputed Sanskrit text summarizing ten rules of the road.
The assumption of immortality is required of all travelers. If death frightens
you, stay home. India enjoys the world's original mass transit system, which is
hereby defined as "mass rules the road." If you are bigger, you have the right
of way, no matter what other conditions prevail. However, in the case of
accidents this rule is reversed, and the driver of the larger vehicle involved
in any collision is, a priori, guilty and may be summarily beaten by passers-by,
lest the short arm of the law fail to exact his due punishment.*
Indian traffic, like Indian society, is structured on a strict caste system. The
following precedence must be accorded at all times. In descending order, give
way to: cows, elephants, heavy trucks, buses, official cars, camels, light
lorries, buffalo, jeeps, ox-carts, private cars, motorcycles, scooters,
auto-rickshaws, pigs, pedal rickshaws, goats, bicycles goods-carrying), handcarts,
bicycles (passenger-carrying), dogs and pedestrians. 1992 Addendum: The above is
superceded when any one of the above is ahead of another and both are traveling
in the same direction. The vehicle in front is allowed any and every movement.
Those behind must submit appropriately.
All wheeled vehicles shall be driven in accordance with the maxim: to slow is to
falter, to brake is to fail, to stop is defeat. This is the Indian drivers'
mantra. In observance of this rule three things are required of every licensed
driver: a good horn, good brakes and good luck.*
Cars (class II,4,b): Use of a horn (also known as the sonic fender or aural
amulet) is manditory. Drivers caught neglecting a horn for more than a minute
will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
1. Short bursts (urgent) indicate supplication, e.g., in clearing dogs,
rickshaws and pedestrians from path. Even if they can see you clearly, others
will not acknowledge your presence unless you blare, at least a bit.
2. Long bellows (desperate) denote supremacy, e.g., to oncoming truck: "I am
going too fast to stop, so unless you slow down we shall both die."*
3. Single blast (casual) means: "I have just seen someone out of India's 870
million whom I recognise," or "There is a bird in the road (which at this speed
could go through my windscreen)" or "I have not blown my horn for two minutes."
Trucks and buses (class IV,2,a): All horn signals have the same meaning, viz: "I
am at the helm of a 12.5-ton juggernaut, am tired, late to my destination,
unafraid of death and have no intention of stopping, even if I could. Do what
you think is prudent."
4. Incessant din indicates either A.) Cautious, professional chauffeur is
approaching, or B.) Driver is napping for a few minutes with his head on the
horn to clear the road ahead. Article IV remains subject to the provision of
Order of Precedence in Article II above.
Never stop for an accident, except to pummel victims as outlined in Article I.
As you drive past the mangled mountain of metal, show compassion by thinking to
yourself, "That's karma," or in the case of a big collision, "That's truckma."
All maneuvers, use of horn and evasive action shall be left until the last
possible moment to assure an uninterrupted flow of automotive-induced
In the absence of seat belts (which, like God, is omnipresent in India), car
occupants shall wear garlands of marigolds. These must be kept fastened at all
times. Upon arrival at one's destination, a moment of tearful prayer is
compulsory--a large donation to one's favorite temple is optional.
1. Rights of way: Traffic entering a road from the left has priority. So has
traffic from the right, and also traffic in the middle. 2. Lane discipline:
Vehicles are permitted half of the roadway. White lines, when provided, are used
to center your vehicle on the road, so your half is taken precisely out of the
middle. When similarly aligned on-coming vehicles approach, do not relent your
position until the last minute, lest they deem you a feckless road warrior and
drive you mercilessly into the nearest paddy field.
Speed: It is the responsibility of each village and community to control the
velocity of vehicles. Since signs are ineffectual and traffic will move at the
fastest speed possible, this is done by a well-planned program of road
negligence whereby an 80km/hour roadway is assiduously maintained once every
twenty-five years and a 40km/hour thoroughfare is never subjected to repairs.
Roundabouts: India recognizes no roundabouts. Ostensible traffic islands in the
middle of crossroads have no traffic management function. Any other impression
should be ignored.
Overtaking is mandatory. Every moving vehicle is required to overtake every other
moving vehicle, irrespective of whether it has just overtaken you or whether you
are in a rush or not (stories of drivers who were not in a hurry still circulate
in remote villages). Overtaking should only be undertaken in suitable
conditions, such as in the face of oncoming traffic, on blind bends, at
junctions and in the middle of villages/city centres. No more than two inches
should be allowed between your vehicle and the one you are passing--and two
millimeters in the case of bicycles or pedestrians. When two lorries are engaged
in passing a passenger car simultaneously, other vehicles are advised to wait
for a narrow bridge or roadside accident to begin passing procedures. Corollary
Rule: If one car is ahead of another, it shall, by deftly swerving across any
number of lanes, make a responsible effort to keep others, even ambulances, from
passing, thus preserving the ancient tradition that no one gets around an
No more than eight passengers shall occupy a single-seated motorscooter, and
commuters hanging or sitting on the outside of a bus or train shall in no
instance exceed double the number of seats provided inside the vehicle. Highways
of four lanes or more, if ever built, are required to cross a one-lane bridge or
pass through a conjested hamlet every ten miles. Traffic enforcement officers shall
have no fewer than 10 hours of college-level Chaos Theory and animal husbandry.
The state of Gujarat is hereby exempted from all humorous insult and innuendo,
being the only place in India with really good roads.*
India's traffic thus reveals her very soul. India is courageous and able to
survive just about anything. She is intense, complex beyond comprehension, and a
little bit wild. She is nimble, gregarious and unselfconscious. She loves
liberty more than law and risks the higher road of trust in the spiritual
process while others ply the safe byways of control.