Sunday, 10 April 2011

Driving in the fast lane

Do you drive on the left of the road or the right of the road in India ?? Its not as stupid a question as it seems. Most of the British Commonwealth drives on the left of the road. India, being an honourable member of the Commonwealth, ostensibly follows the British tradition and drives on the left. But as with many things about India, its not all that simple.

One of the axioms of Indian roads is that however wide they may be and however many lanes may be designed, traffic flows only in one lane on either side. This is the right hand most lane. The other lanes to the left, if they exist, are used in a multitude of creative ways. So you basically drive on the right and try and find an opening on the left to overtake. That makes you a right hand drive country, right ? Confusing ??

You see, the problem is that only the righthand most lane is open for driving continuously. That is where the truck laden with 24 tons of precariously balanced stuff, the autorickshaw (tuk tuk to some) and the bullock cart , all ambling at a stately 20 kmph admiring the scenery, monopolise. So if you want to drive in the fast lane, you keep darting to the left.

The left has its own story to tell. Firstly, about 30% of the space is encroached by street vendors, who are hawking every imaginable type of stuff. A further 20% is encroached by the Rajalakshmi who is buying the stuff (if she waves her arms as she is wont to do, then an additional 10% goes). Then there is the Ramamritham, who has brought the aforesaid female in his car and who has parked it right in front of the street vendor (Parking is my birthright and I shall have it - with due apologies to Tilak). In any case parking even 50 mtrs further on and walking is anathema to Rajalakshmi - regular readers of this blog are familiar with her dimensions which make this act a physical impossibility)

Further on, occupying  the next 30% of the road are the7000 people waiting to catch a bus. Now anybody who has ever caught a bus knows that you better your chances by standing right in front of competition (queuing is a peculiarly British trait that was not bequeathed to the colonies). Therefore you get the picture of 7000 people each trying to be in front of the other. Ahead of them is the bus itself parked at an angle of 90 degrees to the road, so that he can make a quick getaway and overtake his buddy in front,

The next 30 % of the fast lane is blocked by a big SUV coming on the wrong side of the road with his headlights full beam on. It is accepted wisdom that if you drive on the wrong side of the road with your headlights on, you are OK , whereas if your lights are off, you are committing a cardinal sin. What he is trying to do is save an additional 2 yards to the next U turn - our SUV drivers are very conscious about petrol conservation.

A further 25% is commando territory. That is the domain of the 2 wheelers, who insist that driving in a straight line is an insult to their manhood (or increasingly to their womanhood). This is the fat mama, with even fatter mami behind, a kid in front, a kid wedged between the two, helmet hooked in his hand (he wouldn't wear it in case it messed up his hairdo),  and doing spurts and bends which would make Valentino Rossi proud. No sane driver with aspirations to the fast lane would mess with this crowd.

A futher 15% is at the mercy of the big car who wants to turn right, but can't be bothered to wait in the right lane. So he waltzes up the left in order to pass the idiots who are waiting on the right. Of course he is not the only one with the idea, so the next guy passes even more to the left. And so on and so on.

Discerning readers would have noticed by now that it all adds up to more than 100%. That's because, both space and time, are rather flexible in India.

It is also important to remove misconceptions about Indian roads that exist in foreign lands. No, elephants do not roam the streets ( as long as you are not uncharitable to Rajalakshmi). There are no monkeys either (be kind to the two wheeler hero). Neither are there buffaloes (the lumbering truck is not a buffalo).  Its all a question of right or left. 

Now tell me, do Indians drive on the left of the road ? Or the right ?


kiwibloke said...

A friend of mine from overseas (whose mental picture of India is the usual snake/rope trick, elephants reared at home as pets, cows ambling along every where, lions and tigers frequenting suburbs and eating up kids), politely inquired if we have freeways in India. My answer was "yes indeed, every road is a freeway, 'cos you are free to drive any which way you want"

zeno said...

As long as U and UR vehicle can reach safely with out paying bribe to Uncle Ramamirtham, all the sides u drive is right! I know one American client who closed his eyes for most of times during his travel in India!

gils said...

see..we are a muti party demo(nstrating)crazy...inga not only Leftists but centralist..middilist..cornorist..sidewalkist..ella ist um can and has to wrongangaratha vida..lefta outta ngaratha paakrathu thaan better. Oru quote varumay..the war doesnt decide who is right but who is left nu..namma oor trafficum apdi thaan :)

Ramesh said...

@kiwi - Oh yes, the word freedom has an altogether different meaning on the road.

@zeno - the reaching safely bit is the challenge. I've posted before about how the most dangerous place on earth is the Indian road - more than Iraq or Afghanistan or Congo.

@gils -lovely quote about the war. very apt for the road too.

Anonymous said...

Driving in India itself is not right,then why should anyone ask if India is driving right or left?
As gils says we drive all the way,right,left,middlist,cornerist everything.


Sandhya Sriram said...

But you know what Ramesh, this is the best way to learn sister in law is trying to learn driving in the US, she is alrealy completely paranoid about the very strict written and road tests that she has to pass but i am sure, she will need to relearn if she has to drive here. she would have been better off learning here.

What completely amazes me here is the concept of "Right of Way". Every driver coming out a By lane imagines that it is his right of way and the main lane better wait. but i dont mind if he has to go past since a few seconds of wait is ok but it is just that the wait is until the traffic moves on the main lane on the other side & the by lane fellow manages to intercept the way of the ongoing traffic (with 0.1mm) gap between two cars and find an entry way. Only in this country, the signal at the other side of the road can stop you from moving :-)

But it is interesting to drive here. my philosophy is to keep a reasonable speed and dont mind a few dents here and there... what are insurance premium paid for after all

RS said...

You know, this confusion of left or right began ever since I was at school. With a distant voice of 'left','right','left','right' :D. Even before the left leg goes forward, there is a 'right'. Which hand goes with which leg??

Anonymous said...

I am amazed at the continuing parallels between India and your former place of residence, China. I think I could have swapped out a few terms and made a couple of tweaks and passed this off as a write up of my experience with traffic in China. Driving in America is a meditative retreat in comparison!

Vishal said...

Lane driving finds no place on Indian roads. Right??? Left??? Neither right nor left. The way which suits the mood and does not test patience is the right way.

How about -25% part on the left side of the road? I mean the lanes meant for padestrians. Half of this is also commando territory especially on the traffic signals.

Ramesh said...

@Sandhya - Yes, a sense of equanimity can help on the road.Perhaps a reflection of the Indian culture of tolerance !

@RS - Ha ha. Plizzz to take lessons from Chotu :)

@Hopfrog - Oh no - there's a world of difference. A Chinese would feel very much like you if he came to drive in India.
American roads are oasis of tranquility !!

@vishal - Pedestrian lane/foothpath ??? What's that ?

Deepa said...

Guess what, I flunked my driving test in the US 3 straight times, because I just couldn't get myself to turn into a lane without stopping or slowing down cautiously simply because I had the 'right of way'. Apparently my brain never understood this weird 'right' I was bestowed with! :)

Venkat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RamMmm said...

That pic from Namma Bengaluru? Doesn't look like, but the autos look like it, though. There is an empty lane on the top left corner of the pic. All space available must be filled, or encroach the opposite lane if there are no medians, is the rule.

If you do what is right on the road and keep left, you will be left behind by the wrong right side drivers who do not think in their right mind to have left you in the lurch. (yaedho visu pada vasanamaattam vandhurichchu)

Enjoy what you think is right until you need to turn left when you put your right indicator, signal left with your hand and then go straight, like our auto drivers do

Venkat said...

If i have the ability to become politician someday the first thing i will do is to ban fixing of horn in the vehicle. indian roads without honking, can you imagine!!!!! people will become more concious on safe and dicipline driving if horns are not fixed in vehicels.

gils said...

mudhalla indiala neria edathula roadaye imagine panni thaan oatta vendi iruku..ithula honkuma...hmm :)

Venkat said...

horn' ன எடுத்ததா வேகமா ஓட்டவும், குறுக்க குறுக்க ஓடவும் பயம் வரும் இல்ல, அதான் இந்த ஆசை எனக்கு:)

Ramesh said...

@Deepa - I know the feeling exactly. First time I drove out of India, I was doing exactly the same thing.

@Venkat - The musical capabilities of th stars on the roads is a post subject on its own. What a cacophony.

@RamMmm - Ha Ha - your description of the right indicator, left turn and going straight is so true.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...but, Are there lanes here??:-)
One should be glad if we Indians drive on the road! You can catch a lot of motorists showing off their urgency and machoism, driving on the footpaths. No one cares if it is the right side or the left side or the wrong side!

Ramesh said...

@hema - Of course - what is a lane ?? We are a nation in a hurry.

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