Previously in Atlantic Abroad
Manhood and Bureaucracy in Ozyory (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, June 1, 2000).
Soccer in the City (Erik Barmack, Italy, May 10, 2000).
This Goat Goes to Market (Joshua Kurlantzick, Oman, March 29, 2000).
Monsoon Time (Rahul Goswami, Dubai, March 1, 2000).
Rank Strangers (Jeff Biggers, Italy, February 9, 2000).
Midnight Express (Akash Kapur, Romania, January 5, 2000).
The Price of Devotion (Jeffrey Tayler, India, December 22, 1999).
Israeli Forms of Identity (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, December 1, 1999).
New Year's and Nothingness (William Tyree, Indonesia, October 27, 1999).
Searching for El Chapareke (Jeff Biggers, Mexico, September 29, 1999).
Opium in the Naga Hills (Rahul Goswami, India, September 1, 1999).
A Saturday at the Auction (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, August 4, 1999).
For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad index.
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July 7, 2000
For the past several years I have been living, and driving, in India. If you've seen Indian traffic recently you'll appreciate the paradox: living and driving. When I first visited India in the mid eighties, city streets were relatively quiet and pleasant. There were few private motor vehicles in those days, and the majority of Indians plied the roads by public bus, rickshaw, or bicycle -- mixing comfortably with ox carts, pedestrians, and meandering cattle. The past decade, however, has ushered in a new wave of prosperity and consumerism for India's enormous urban middle class. Sales of motor vehicles have skyrocketed. Today, Indian commuters share the narrow streets with a wide array of cars, jeeps, and other internal-combustion conveyances, especially the countless scooters, mopeds, and motorcycles that, through the Indian flair for spatial economizing, can carry as many passengers as the American family minivan or SUV.
In Pune, a city of 2.5 million people in west-central India, where I currently live, there were just 90,000 registered motor vehicles in the mid eighties. By 1999 that number had swelled to nearly a million. This surge in vehicle density, however, is only part of the problem. It is compounded by two other factors. One of these is that while India's public-works departments do their best to widen the roads and keep pace with the volume, they face a public outcry when this involves cutting down trees or relocating one of the ubiquitous roadside temples and shrines. Compromise usually results in paving around these features, and they remain in situ as hazards in the middle of the improved road. The other bedeviling circumstance is that, such obstacles notwithstanding, Indian drivers are among the most fearless and innovative that I have ever encountered. City traffic moves in every direction, on every side of the street. Hence, when it does move it is downright terrifying and, when it doesn't, it becomes hopelessly gridlocked.
Despite all this, the most remarkable feature of Indian city traffic is that its drivers -- to their tremendous credit -- rarely lose their cool. For those of us acculturated to American road rage, it can be astonishing to watch Indian commuters getting through the morning's tangled maze of buses, sedans, lorries, scooters, motorcycles, horse carts, rickshaws, tractors, cattle, stray dogs, banyan trees, temples, and pedestrians without breaking a sweat or losing the freshness of their smiles. In one city in which I've lived, the traffic melée even included an assortment of dromedaries and pachyderms. Imagine starting off for work in the morning on your motorcycle, narrowly escaping a tumble into a gaping, unmarked manhole, dodging an oncoming ten-ton truck, and then colliding with a thud into the leathery rear flank of a jaywalking elephant. It's happened to me, but that's another story. The point is that while American drivers would suffer anxiety over such daily ordeals, Indian drivers usually manage to take it all in stride.
Chaotic as the traffic may be, driving your own vehicle in India does offer a certain degree of freedom and mobility -- so, after years of dependency on buses and rickshaws, I decided to take the plunge. I'd purchased a second-hand Bajaj motorcycle, acquired a temporary learner's permit, and honed my skills on the back lanes of town. After a few weeks of practice, I felt ready to take the examination for a full-fledged driver's license. That was when -- I now believe -- I discovered the secret behind Indian traffic cool.
The day I was to become a licensed driver in India I was bursting with excitement. You see, for the preceding weeks, as a holder of a learner's permit, I had been compelled by Indian law to drive around town with a ten-inch-tall red letter "L" hanging from my handlebars -- declaring to all and sundry that I was a "Learner." You might think that's funny, but in India it is decidedly not. The scarlet "L" is a warning to others: innovate with caution -- novice on the road. It created a noticeable barrier between me and my fellow drivers, as if, somehow, it was I -- a student of rules, an observer of semaphores and lane lines -- that they feared, and not the traffic in general. They seemed to view the Learner's mere faith in the possibility of order as a threat to the bedlam they had come to expect.
Upon reaching the testing center, on the outskirts of town, I found a figure-eight driving track about forty feet long, marked with painted lines upon the blacktop. Elsewhere in the compound, similar courses of different lengths and types were set up for the Learners driving three- and four-wheeled vehicles. In the waiting area beside the figure eight, hundreds of aspirants were queued up, shoulder to shoulder, handlebar grip to handlebar grip, on mopeds, scooters, and other two-wheelers of all shapes and sizes and colors. Above and below our headlights, red "L"s dangled in the breeze like the insignia of some grievously nerdy motorcycle gang.
When it became time for the examination to begin, a heavy-set man sporting a green Traffic Authority cap and an equally authoritative orange hennaed mustache arrived on the scene. He explained the procedure. We would be tested one at a time. There would be no simulated conditions of actual driving -- no potholes, no deadly oncoming vehicles, no trees or quadrupeds obstructing the route. We were simply to go once around the pristine surface of the track, maintain a reasonable speed, and stay within the lines. It seemed simple and fair enough, and we all nodded with relief. But in the backs of our minds we recognized that there was a catch: these were not the conditions under which we had trained. Indeed, as the day progressed, we saw that some of us had difficulty adapting to the contrivance of the course.
Ashok, a young man in line to my left, was a case in point. His name was called, and he drove a shimmering Honda scooter up into position. He looked out over the course: a remarkable swath of open road, ripe for the taking. Suddenly, sweat appeared on his brow. His hands began to twitch. When the order was given to begin, poor Ashok in his excitement turned the throttle so far that he galloped straight across the center of the eight, rather than around the curve of the track. Several Learners jumped to their feet in hot pursuit, and ultimately helped him regain control of the vehicle.
My name was the next to be called. I started my engine and cautiously, as gracefully as possible, approached the base of the eight. The man in the cap said "begin," and before I knew it I was navigating the first loop. Recalling Ashok, I fought every gnawing instinct to overtake nonexistent rickshaws and to skirt imaginary herds of itinerant cattle. I paced my speed, watched the lines, rounded the first hemisphere without a hitch, and pressed on into the second half of the digit. Nearing the end of the final loop, I exultantly ran the speedometer up to fifteen miles per hour and felt the wind rushing through my hair. It was the clearest, most beautiful stretch of urban pavement I'd ever driven, and I brought my Bajaj back to the man with the cap in triumph.
It took several more days -- visits to various buildings and departmental windows for official signatures and rubber stampings -- before I received the final copy of my Indian driver's license. But that day at the figure-eight course was the day of victory; the day I removed my "L." Now, when I'm negotiating the morning traffic, I understand that my fellow motorists look at me differently. And as we dodge mortal collisions, throttle ahead into the narrowest of narrow gaps, or idle motionless in the heavy uncatalyzed smog of gridlocked intersections, I imagine that I know the reason for the Indian drivers' irrepressible good cheer. In our exchange of smiles we acknowledge that we have all been there. We have been to that wide-open figure eight. We have tasted that ultimate but fleeting freedom of the road, and bask in the enlightened afterglow of those few feet of exhilaration, somewhere on the outskirts of town.
And on those rare occasions when other drivers get ruffled, shaking fists and shouting coarse words, the rest of us look to each other with wisdom and mirth, mouthing a silent imputation. That one, we say to ourselves, is a Learner.
Mike Youngblood is a frequent contributor to Backpacker magazine and other travel and outdoor adventure journals. He is currently writing a book chronicling India's contributions to Western culture.
All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.