Driving in India: An invisible order
Delhi Traffic Police has asked the local police for help to deal with the traffic situation in the national capital. Photograph: (AFP)
First time travellers to India enter a cab from the airport and almost immediately are positive they will die.
Westerners need human-made rules, and on Indian roads things just are what they are. Being in a place where every aspect of life operates according to such a different underlying schema can be shocking, especially when in a zooming car. But switching between these two worlds is the real shock. The two worlds go something like this.
The West presupposes that society needs codified rules everyone follows. It's OK, but the rules rather than general order end up becoming their own goal. This explains why Western driver's sometimes (always) freak out at the slightest road infraction, even if it has no impact on their life. Drivers from my hometown Toronto scream if another car's wheel accidentally crosses a painted line. Paint on an Indian road is like paint anywhere else, purely decorative.
In India there is no need to create a set of rules when physics already has good and inescapable ones. Another way of putting it: The Westerner observes the laws of the road, while Indians are subject to the law of physics. I ask cab drivers if they feel bound to drive within their lanes and they smile at the adorable question.
I half joke that North Americans drive on the right side of the road, Europeans on the left, and Indians on both. If an Indian can go forward, they go. Isn’t the point of driving to drive? India is a vast country with everything on Earth in it somewhere, except for stop signs. It's less reckless than it sounds, though.
Indians are incredible at gauging space. Maybe because they need to be, they're more in tune with what's physically around them. North Americans have wide generous lanes, and often feel uncomfortable driving without a foot or two of clearance on either side. Indians need one inch. Even when backing up into a spot or negotiating tight traffic, there doesn't seem to be enough room, but there always is. Barely, but always. I joke that India would be stuck in hopeless gridlock if the country was a centimetre smaller.
I ask cab drivers if they feel bound to drive within their lanes and they smile at the adorable question
Whereas Western driver's safety and comfort derives from their expectation that others will follow The Rules, Indian motorists trust their fellow drivers are competent. While this is simple to understand it requires time to really get. In lieu of rules, Indian drivers appear to have developed a hive-mind linking them to all other drivers. Like the Borg. A friend in Delhi, mimicking an unspoken conversation he has with all nearby drivers, put it this way: “I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but come…let’s pull a maneuver!” This everyday telepathy somehow works, even when the road is shared not with fellow drivers but cows.
I can see a Western person reading this, shaking their head. If you’re from a place where the prevailing order on the road is very formalised and laid out, the apparent absence of any system governing driving (which after all does kill many people every day) seems understandably scary. But there isn't nothing; the lack of a formal system to govern the road gives rise to an informal one.
Indian't know there are no rules and they drive accordingly. They slow down if needed. Roads have their own groove. Indians, with their incredible spatial awareness, made a shocking discovery, that actually two cars can be stuffed into one lane, or five cars into two, etc. Lanes seem to shrink and swell here when needed. Cars get close enough to kiss, and drivers don’t flinch, as if every vehicle is protected by a force field.
In the way more protective padding makes ice hockey possibly more rather than less dangerous (because players who wrongly feel they’re indestructible resort to violent savagery), the lack of rules and safety infrastructure may make Indian drivers feel more vulnerable, and drive more cautiously. Once the vibe of Indian roads is felt and not merely grasped, they can be beautiful to watch! Cars here dance and weave with a fluency yellow dashes on Western roads prevent.
The West smugly thinks that not only is its own system superior but that India has no system at all. The West believes life will fall apart without rules. Just like the West believes that the only thing keeping neighbours from murdering each other is the Bible's commandment not to, so it thinks every driver would always crash and soon die if not for its rules. The West is paranoid and cynical!
On the flip side, Indian roads place an affirming faith in other people's judgement and life-preserving instinct. Indians do value being alive, too! But to them danger means two cars colliding at a high speed, not a tire touching a painted line. Indians are gaugers of reality, not followers of a constructed reality. The Westerner obeys a system of rules not for their individual sake, but to know what everyone else will do. Indians simply avoid disaster and carry on with their life.
Once near Vasant Kunj I saw a man descending public stairs towards a sidewalk, and right below the very last step of this sidewalk was a gaping manhole. As if someone left a trail of breadcrumbs meant to lead someone directly into the sewer.
If this were Toronto a committee would install pylons and warning signs, to prevent lawsuits. Then some idiot would fall in anyway and successfully sue the city. A committee would empower tax payer-funded inspectors to prowl the streets, carrying bigger pylons and signs. Rules breed rules, lawsuits and bureaucracy.
So, what did this Delhi gentleman do upon reaching the final stair? He simply avoided walking into a sewer and continued his life.
Such is Indian driving.