Perhaps I should have titled this note How to Go For a Ride in India rather than How to Drive in India because, if you’re a tourist like me, you probably won’t get behind the wheel yourself. The way of the road is one of those startling things about India that confirms, for a visitor from somewhere like the U.S., that you are in a very different place. Perhaps the most startling thing about driving in India is that people survive it. In fact, survival is the predominant outcome. And yet, all sorts of things happen on the road which, if the same thing were to happen on an American highway, would cause immediate catastrophe. And so, I find driving in India fascinating as an example of how a completely different way of doing things is possible — a way that defies “common sense” and plays to our deepest fears, a way that works as long as one key ingredient is present: cooperation.
To illustrate this, I’d like to describe one of the most dramatic and frequent maneuvers my driver Syed made on a recent road trip we took through the state of Karnataka. I’d like to speak about passing in India, which is nothing like we do it in the U.S.
Let’s say you are on a two lane road with traffic going in opposite directions and you want to pass a truck in front of you. From your perspective, you and the truck are on the left (remember, Indians drive on the left like the Brits), and there’s traffic whizzing toward you on the right. I won’t even go into a description of how “traffic” in India may mean all sort of things from livestock (sheep, cows, goats, oxen-drawn carts), pedestrians, two-wheelers (mopeds) carrying families of six with groceries, rickshaws (autos), cars, buses, and giant trucks stacked with timber, grains, and pretty much anything you can imagine. If this were the U.S., tough luck, there would be no way to pass that truck. But since it’s India, what you do first is you start honking, not to express annoyance or frustration, but just to signal to the other drivers that they might want to know what you’re up to. There’s so much “communicative” honking going on (trucks even have signs pleading with you to honk when you’re near them: SOUND HORN) that one wonders how drivers distinguish any particular honk from any other, but that is another topic.
Now that you’ve initiated the passing process by adding your own honk into the ongoing chorus, you veer into the wrong lane. If you were an American driver risking an illegal maneuver like this, you’d probably do it with some caution, checking that there are no cars approaching before you proceed, and paying some heed to your passengers who might be asking whether you’re crazy. But in India, what you do if you see a car zooming toward you after you’ve veered into opposing lane — that is, after you find yourself in a perfect set up for a head-on collision — is you accelerate. The logic here is that by accelerating, in what seems very much like a game of chicken, you make it possible to complete the maneuver before the approaching car hits you. Accelerating also demonstrates your seriousness about the move; it’s a way of saying to the other drivers, “Yes, I am doing this.”
Having stepped on the gas, you will soon find yourself at passing’s Point of No Return. You’ve gained ground on the truck you were trying to pass and you are now driving directly alongside that truck, in the wrong lane where an approaching car is about to hit you. The first few times this happened in my recent trip, I closed my eyes and thought “We are going to die.” And in fact, if the other cars involved in such an impending accident did nothing to adjust, we would have died. At the Point of No Return, it’s too late to swerve back into the proper lane since you’d hit the truck that’s now next to you; but stay in the wrong lane and you’ll smash into the approaching car. It really is like one of those moments in action movies where the protagonist’s demise seems 100% guaranteed.
But because this is India, everyone else on the road is familiar with the maneuver you’re trying to execute, as they are practitioners of the same art — in fact, if they dare go on the roads, they’d better be masters of it, as it seems most drivers are. Furthermore, they know they have to help you complete the maneuver, or else they will share in your unpleasant fate. So what happens is, right at the last moment — right when the scaredy-pants in the back seat concludes there’s no way out — all three drivers will quickly and smoothly collaborate. The truck will slow down a bit, creating a little room for you to swerve back into the proper lane, just a hair in front it; and the approaching car will slow down or (if absolutely necessary) move to your right, just enough to avoid hitting you. All of this depends, of course, on your recognizing precisely when the moment is right and veering suddenly back to safety — doing it a second too early or a second too late would make for an entirely different story. Throughout this process, the drivers are totally calm, even peaceful — there’s no swearing, no flinching, and no one at any point thinks an accident is going to happen, except maybe a squeamish foreign passenger.
So you’ve done it, you’ve passed a truck by getting into the wrong lane and brazenly accelerating into opposing traffic — what happens next? Of course, you find yourself in front of another truck, so you start the whole thing over again. This kind of maneuver is not the exception but the norm, and can happen dozens of times in a few hours of driving. I’ve heard an Indian driver’s situation described as “a state of constant passing.”
It strikes me that in the U.S., traffic laws are set up so that if everyone follows the law, things will generally work out. Many accidents come about when someone doesn’t follow the law, and there’s an assumption that if too many people ignored the law, the whole system would collapse. From this perspective, there’s a tendency to view driving in India as pure chaos. And yet if we call it chaos, we visitors should notice that it’s chaos that actually works — most people get where they need to go. It’s highly structured chaos that’s built on the quick responses, supreme alertness, and near-automatic cooperation of drivers who have no choice but to be experts at what they’re doing. There’s a kind of collective consciousness that drivers share, where instead of focusing their awareness on traffic lights and road signs, they focus on each other, and they help each other out.
In my recent trip, after closing my eyes during a dozen or so Points Of No Return only to open them and find our car safely restored to the proper lane, I developed some optimism and started expecting to survive the next pass. Still, I astonished my driver with what seemed to me like a simple request. Would he help me pull the seat belt out from underneath the back seat so I could wear it?
“You don’t need it,” he assured me.