I remember clearly that early summer morning twenty years ago when I got off the plane in Delhi after a long and tiring night flight via Moscow. The Indira Gandhi International Airport then was a small building. As I entered the sleeve from the airplane, I felt as if I was about to be knocked down by a wave of heat. Those were the days when the international airport was not yet equipped with air conditioning and it was unbearably hot inside. Wheezing, I rushed through passport control and baggage claim as fast as I could and exited the building almost running. Outside I gasped for air, but it didn’t help. I had never experienced before such sweltering heat. But that was not all. My nose and throat were instantly overpowered by a heavy, penetrating, unidentifiable smell that almost clogged up my air passages. Later on I figured it was a mix of heat, humidity, thick dust, sandalwood smoke, spicy tea aroma, exhaust fumes, the smell of sweat, urine, cow dung, and who knows what else. The entire place was swarming with people. With relief I saw my name on a big sign held by a cab driver, who had been sent to wait for me. We tossed my luggage into the trunk and already soaked in sweat, I collapsed in the center of the back seat, my arms spread out as I waited for the car to get on the road and offer me some breeze from the half-opened windows on both sides.
Right away the cab driver and I began to converse in Hindi. After all, this was one of the reasons why I had come here. We talked about my flight, how long he had waited, the distance to the hotel, the hot summer weather. “It is going to be fun, I am here” I thought. “I will definitely enjoy myself.” I sighed, thrilled that I was finally in India after fourteen long years of studying it from books and movies. So, I settled down in my comfortable seat and completely forgot all about the heat. Five minutes after we had left the environs of the airport, quite unexpectedly, the driver instructed me to move to the left side, next to the door. I wondered why and he explained that the traffic was going to be heavy and I would have to help him make his way through it. I thought he was joking and that he simply wanted me to move because I was blocking his view through the rear-view mirror. So, I grabbed my bag and slid to the left. The window on my side was half open. He asked that I roll it down completely, for more air, I figured.
By this time we were stuck in awful traffic. We were hardly moving. This was the heavy traffic he had referred to a few minutes ago. But to me it was more than that. It was a real tumult! A throng of cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, bicycles and rickshaws … horns continuously honking, drivers hollering, every vehicle crawling in a seemingly unknown direction, everyone less than a foot apart from each other, filed as if they were going to different destinations. I could not see any street signs and even if there were any, no one appeared to be paying any attention to them. Traffic rules seemed to b
e non-existent. I could only think about whether we would ever be able to get out of this chaos and make it to the hotel.
Suddenly, the driver ordered me to stretch my left hand out of the window. I thought I had misunderstood him and I asked him to repeat what he had said. We were going to try to make a left turn, he told me, and I would have to signal the turn with my hand so that other drivers, especially the ones behind us, would notice us. He had been signaling right turns himself, but he couldn’t give a signal on the left, he explained. So, I didn’t ask any more questions and silently transformed myself into a blinker.
However, this was not enough. I was expected to do more. The traffic was really congested and we needed to make sure that drivers on both sides saw us. At this point he asked me to actually reach out and knock on the adjacent cars, then make the same signal that he was making on his side. We needed to synchronize our signals on both sides. With a feeling of responsibility, but also with a deep understanding of the comic role I had been fated to play, I became fully committed to assisting my driver and to immerse myself in the surrounding setting. I moved very close to the back door, removed my glasses as a precautionary measure, decisively stuck my head out, extended my arm and proceeded to perform traffic regulating signals as instructed from inside: a hand up with palm facing the direction of moving traffic meant we intend to stop; a hand stretched out flat signified we would move out to the left, change the lane or turn left; a hand in a circular motion showed intent to move to the right when performed on my side, left from his; a hand moving vertically up and down indicated our intent to slow down; and a hand moving horizontally back and forth was a sign for the car in the back to pass us. Soon I was waving, beckoning, gesturing, pointing in the desired directions, knocking on the cars next to us, instructing the fellow drivers to wait for us or to go ahead, to turn or to stop in order to make room for us. All this went on to the accompaniment of screaming to be heard over the hullabaloo of motorcycle and car engines, horns, unabated voices, screeches and shrieks. At first I was closely following my driver’s directions, but gradually started gaining confidence and took the matter into my own hands: “Go!” “Stop!” “Slow down!” “Come on, brother!” “Left!” “Right!” “Watch out!”
During this exercise it crossed my mind that there was a chance I was going to miss to making the proper signal or start performing the motion incorrectly or that something else would go wrong, and as a result we would either cause scratches on the car next to us, or someone would knock into us on the side, or we would jam a moped driver and cause a leg or hand fracture, which actually does happen sometimes. Then I figured we would have to wait for the ambulance and then for hours we would have to deal with the police, talk to witnesses, fill out paperwork. However, we arrived at the hotel without even a minor scuff on the car. My head was spinning. I was not sure whether the ultimate success of the ride was due to the remarkable skills of my taxi driver, to my own relentless efforts for which I felt I deserved lots of credit or just to my good fortune. In the next couple of days, every night I had that same dizzy sensation in my head and that gut feeling that we had been really lucky again.
Many highways and streets with proper signs have since been built in cities such as Mumbai, Calcutta, Delhi and other places, and there is some degree of order present, but in smaller cities like Kanpur, Gorakhpur, Jaipur, Banares, Agra, and others, there are still areas where the traffic at first glance looks terribly dangerous and unbearably frantic. Yet, in reality, fatal accidents rarely occur in these places. The speed is relatively slow and when necessary you can brake quickly. Sudden and unexpected maneuvers are in general not feasible. When traffic is moving somewhat smoothly it is not so difficult to see what’s ahead. You can pass a car slowly by going around it from whichever side you prefer. You do not think about or even consider the cars behind you. You move according to what the car in front of you is doing. If someone behind you wants to overtake you or has another idea, the signal you receive is persistent honking. When you hear it coming from the back of your car, it is for you and this means that you should not change your direction at all, because someone is warning you that they are trying to squeeze through the space on the side of your vehicle, but whether on the left or on the right, you don’t know. If for some reason, however, you cannot continue going straight, you have no other alternative but to stop. You cannot do anything more. You often have neither a mirror, nor a blinker, and even if you did, what does it matter? You’re stuck because someone from behind has already moved into or has started to occupy the lane you need. You just wait it out and when the honking is silenced, then you can move forward again.
There’s more: you’re seated in your rickshaw waiting for the light to turn green; a motorbike appears alongside you, stops and the man on it stretches his hand out, leans toward your seat, his leg rubbing against your hand or even your thigh, all the while never looking at you. Well, why should he have to put a foot on the ground for balance or for change his sitting position when the neighboring rickshaw is conveniently close? And in all this confusion there aren’t many irritated, incensed, or aggressive drivers. Since you are being cornered and cut off, you don’t hesitate to do the same when necessary. You will only hear someone yell “Hey, brother!” embellished by an epithet or two, or someone will mutter an insinuation about certain relatives while addressing the person cutting him off, but nothing more. Not a lot of bullying, cursing or swearing, however unlikely it seems, not a lot of agitation or tension.
Rank and status are at the core of the structure of Indian society, and it appears that the idea of rank and a corresponding status has spilled over into the way traffic is regulated. 80.5% of the population, which is about 827 million (according to the 2001 Census of India), follows Hinduism and cherishes its countless stories and legends. In one of them the four varna, or classes, appeared during a primeval sacrifice performed by the Gods when the whole Universe was created. According to one of the relatively later hymns of the Rig Veda (X.90), which represents the most ancient collection of religious-philosophical poetry, created between 18-9 centuries B.C., the sky, the moon, the earth, the air, and thus the worlds appeared from the body of the primordial being Purusha. In addition, the brahmins, who are responsible for religion and education emerged from his mouth. From his arms appeared the rajanyas (later known as kshatriyas), i.e. the kings, warriors, leaders and from his thighs were born the vaishas – the merchants, producers, farmers. The shudras, i.e. the servants of the top three ranks came from his feet. The varna system with a vertical social hierarchy is further divided into jati, i.e. castes, founded on professional distribution of kin, thus diversifying each individual varna. It is not completely clear when exactly and how the varna and jati systems evolved and which one preceded the other1.
Nowadays, a person’s caste can be guessed sometimes by his/her last name, or profession, customs, celebrations, food or region of residence. In the last couple of decades, however, a new trend has emerged in the bigger cities, namely the belief that the caste system is not connected with a choice of a particular profession, but that it is merely an indication of a horizontal/cultural diversity. But when one takes into consideration that less than one-seventh of the Indian population resides in the city, it becomes obvious that such a perspective is still in a very initial phase and represents a new way of thinking, an exception to the rule.
This is India – a hierarchy is also necessary on the streets. In other words, everyone seems to know his or her place, even among the chaos of the streets. At the base of the pyramid of this hierarchy is the rickshaw biker. He is the most unprotected and no one makes way for him. As a matter of fact, he is often forced to stop in order for the bigger vehicle to pass, which also means that he loses his momentum, something extremely important on such bumpy roads. Every time he has to decrease his rickshaw’s speed or has to make a complete stop, it costs the poor man incredible effort to turn the pedals again and go. Usually the rickshaw drivers are very scrawny, just skin and bones. A man of about 50 kilograms often pedals around a man or a woman, who weighs at least 70 kilograms and often he pulls a load of two or even three people at a time. He makes a meager living and his average life expectancy is about 35-40 years. Rickshaw drivers suffer daily physical exhaustion, they have no shifts, and work every single day of the week from dawn to dusk. At night they catch whatever sleep they can on the seats of their rickshaw and they do not return to their villages during the week. They don’t carry water with them and are constantly dehydrated. They are also malnourished, since they can afford just a little food at night. All of this, combined with smoking and constant tobacco chewing, wrecks their health and in particular their hearts.
The next in rank are the auto rickshaws, mopeds on three wheels with a seat in the back that fits up to three people, and is covered by a hood. But these also do not have the right of way. The private bicyclists and motorists are somewhere in the middle, but everyone knows that a person in a car is of a higher class, and if you see a car it is best to lower your speed and make way for it. However, the automobiles protect themselves from the trucks, while the buses simply do not stop. And everyone drives bumper to bumper.
It is truly mind-boggling that the chaos is further enhanced by the presence of sacred cows, which seem to know their status here as well. They lumber around in the streets freely and most importantly quite slowly, and rather solemnly. But they look so weary and emaciated, poor things. Spending their lives going from dunghill to dunghill, in the end they offer suffer a painful death caused by all of the plastic bags they have swallowed and which have clogged their digestive systems. You should also be prepared for monkeys. They saunter on the road. But they are not chased or shooed away since they too have a holy place in myths and legends.
A mango seller begins crossing the street with his cart. Everyone stops. But then one of the wheels happens to fall into a pit right in the middle of the road. The fruit scatters all over the place. Drivers and pedestrians run to the fruit-seller’s aid. The wretched creature receives several colorful verbal insults, but in the end the mangos are carefully gathered and a collective effort is made to push the cart to the other side of the road.
The chaos is in motion once more! And when we take into account the left lane traffic… I still haven’t gathered enough confidence to drive, especially after witnessing the scene at a railroad crossing. The gate was down. Most vehicles on both sides were seemingly piled up almost one on top of another so that they could all be in the front. It was as if they were ready to watch a show. The lane for traffic moving in the opposite direction slowly disappeared. The delay could take an hour to a couple of hours. If you were on a rickshaw bicycle your seat would be conveniently higher, hence allowing you to easily observe all that happened around.
Apparently not everyone had time to wait for the train and many people pushed their way through the crowd and toward the gate. A milk-man on a bike was evidently in a hurry to get to his destination for fear that his milk might go bad or that the competition might get there first, or he just had to be somewhere on time. So he decided to make his way through, got off the bike loaded up with six huge canisters full of milk, three hanging on each side of the handle bar, and began pushing it through the hordes of people and vehicles before he reached the wooden gate arm. Then he attempted to wiggle under it. He stopped, tilted the bike towards him at a sharp angle and slowly moved underneath, hunched over, with bent knees, while balancing his heavy load. But the metal cans began to shake, wobble, clang and bang into each other, the milk began to slosh, and soon enough to spill with a rhythmic splash. This, however, didn’t stop the lonely tradesman who continued his effort to drag his cargo under the barrier with the same perseverance and loss of sweat and milk. He carefully crossed the tracks, repeated the same grueling routine under the gate on the other side and gradually disappeared from sight, swallowed by the masses gathered there.
During this time a motorbike driver, panting, was also trying to shove his shiny red Suzuki under the dropped barrier. The motorcycle was somewhat heavy and had to be pushed in a nearly horizontal position; the handle bar was soon stuck between the ground and the gate arm. Finally, three to four men come to the motorcyclist’s aid out of brotherly concern, formed a team and discussed the best course of action to be taken in order to get out the motorcycle. When the plan was laid out, one of them headed to the heavy barrier gate and lifted it with his hands, another one went around the motorcycle and lifted its back off the ground so that it wouldn’t get scraped, a third guy in the meantime grabbed the handle bar, tilted it to one side and started maneuvering the bike so that it could be thrust forward under the wooden lath without breaking the mirror or scratching the fender. This entire campaign had attracted several members who participated in the goings-on by yelling instructions and advice. What was surprising was that no one passed any judgment or appeared to express resentment; no one wondered why the man had to do this or where he was rushing to.
Before the train passed a dozen or so similar events happened on both sides of the railroad tracks. Where were the police officers? Well, they were busy controlling traffic on the main highways which had no lights. Anyway, what laws were there to break anyway? You could be stuck for an hour or more, but people did not grumble and whine and they didn’t let themselves get bored. They sat and read, gabbed on the phone, paced around, smoked, chewed tobacco and spat, engaged in small talk, formed acquaintances and friendships, stood in friendly groups, passed around a bottle of water from which each person squirted a sip or two into their mouth and were almost grateful for the chance to offer their undivided attention and assistance when another attempt to sneak under and traverse took place.
But once the gate was lifted, it was as if two hostile armies were ready to pounce on each other. Their flanks having seized both lanes on each side, reassembled by performing short, swift and intense regrouping to face the enemy and got ready for a large-scale assault. Attack! The infantry advanced five or six meters into the battlefield and met the enemy right in the middle of the railroad tracks. The troops were halted and once again chaos ensued as if testing human and technical endurance! The pile of metal and people, or rather the knot of metal and people, at first bloated and expanded, then tightened and compressed, until, eventually, it started to agonizingly disentangle itself. Complicated and painful maneuvers were carried out, accompanied by horns pressed blown to the maximum, shouts, exclamations, interjections, whistles, banging on the hoods of the cars. Arms were waving in the air and people were trying to pass through from wherever they possibly could. Passengers once again left their cars and rickshaws. Some of them conducted necessary topographic and strategic reconnaissance, others became contact patrols maintaining links between the squadrons while some, depending on their tactical expertise, assumed the role of officers in command of complex local operations.
You could not help but admire this matchless demonstration of skillfulness in coordination and synergy from conceptualization to planning and final execution. As always, all these drills were conducted relatively smoothly with patience and with far less aggravation than one could imagine.
However, God forbid that the next train be headed towards the collision field. You just close your eyes and hope that it would never happen. I think I know now why trains in India deliberately move at such a slow speed through railroad crossings.
1 See for more Thapar, Romila. Early India: From the Origins to the AD 1300. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004: 62-68, 122-126