Poor ignorant me. I used to think New York City was the
ultimate test of a driver’s skills, that once you had
labored down one of those snarled streets, you could handle
traffic anywhere. But I’ve just experienced traffic in
Chennai, one of India’s biggest cities, and let me tell you
this: New York City is child’s play. Take a Chennai taxi
driver to the Big Apple and he’d glide through traffic
during rush hour, blindfolded with one arm tied behind his
back and the gear stuck in reverse.

“How did it go, Ramaswamy?” you’d ask him.

“What, sir,” he’d say with a perplexed expression, “is today
a holiday or something?”

“No, Ramaswamy, it’s the busiest day of the year. The city
is hosting a championship parade for its baseball team, not
to mention the annual convention of the Larry King Ex-Wives
Association.  So what are your impressions?”

“New York drivers are so nice, sir. Kind and nice. Such
polite people. I am also impressed with all the pavements
here. Very smooth to drive on. So much space. And no one is
sleeping on them.”

“Any other thoughts, Ramaswamy?”

“I like all the one-way streets, sir, because I have to
worry only about oncoming traffic. No one is trying to get
past me. And the pedestrians, they are so few here. I had to
swerve around only six or seven.”

“But what about the rules, Ramaswamy? Don’t you follow
 them?”

“Rules? Hahaha! In Chennai, we have only one rule: Don’t
give the police more than you have to.”

Anything goes on Chennai roads, not just cars, trucks and
buses. I’ve seen such an array of vehicles – bicycles,
scooters, motorcycles, auto-rickshaws, vans, carts – that I
would barely raise an eyebrow if I spotted an airplane
weaving through traffic. “It costs too much to park it at
the airport,” the pilot would say. “So I’ve decided to drive
it from home. Those are my relatives sitting on the wings.”

Now and then, you may also see a stray cow in the middle of
the road. But most animals, thankfully, are smart enough to
stay away from the madness. Humans, on the other hand, aren’t
just trying to travel down the road – many are actually
trying to walk across it. This requires good reflexes and
agility, for you never know where a vehicle will appear
from. Indeed, Indians would be guaranteed a gold medal if
“traffic dodging” ever becomes an Olympic event.

At the busiest times, it’s hard to find space between
vehicles. What Americans call “tailgating,” Indians call
“good driving.” If you leave the slightest gap between your
car and the next, someone will try to squeeze into it. And
you’d better put your foot on the brake, otherwise you may
run over the encroaching party, perhaps a cyclist
transporting bags of groceries or a motorcyclist carrying
his family of 12.

If brakes are overworked in Chennai, so are horns, warning
everyone of a vehicle’s approach. The incessant beeping is
the chief contributor to noise pollution, other than local
politicians. Some drivers, worried about straining their
fingers, have programmed their horns to blare every three
seconds. That’s why, if you ask a hotel clerk for a wake up
call, he’ll smile and say, “Don’t worry. You’ll be up at
dawn. It’s a great benefit of the city.”

What amazes me most about Chennai traffic is the apparent
lack of concern for personal safety. Few motorcyclists wear
helmets, few drivers wear seat belts. But many motorists do
have pictures of gods in their vehicles, so there’s at least
some much-needed praying going on.
 

Copyrights – Melvin Durai Web Column