Ever felt worryingly that you’re in for an epic? Like when someone gets up to make a speech and you see the sheaf of papers he is about to read out?
Once I became slightly more used to the sheer busyness of the roads, I started noticing things. For example, how everyone walked at the side of the road rather than the pavement. This was for various reasons; partly because the pavements were quite uneven, partly because there is usually someone asleep on them, whatever time of day and sometimes there are street vendors, sweepers, various people in ones path and it’s easier, presumably, to take your chance with the traffic.
In Britain, it has for many years been compulsory to wear a motorcycle helmet (no, don’t be silly, not everywhere, just when you are riding or a passenger on a motorbike), which caused some consternation for Sikhs as they, of course, wear a turban. I’m sorry to say that I can’t remember how that particular problem was resolved, can you?
It was startling and alarming to see a whole family on a motorbike. Father driving, behind him a small child, then mother perched side-saddle on the back with a baby on her knees. She would be wearing a sari and her sandal hung from her toes, never, apparently, falling off. I’m sure Indian babies learn very quickly not to wriggle.
When I first visited Chennai, 6 years ago, I didn’t see any women riding motorbikes themselves, only as passengers. The most recent time, it was quite a regular sight, either alone or with another girl riding pillion. Many of the younger men and women wear helmets, but almost no older people.
I don’t know if, seen objectively, the roads are busier than here. There are fewer traffic jams (in Chennai, that is, not in Bangalore, where I felt quite at home in the stationary traffic) and even more jockeying for position than here. I never did understand the traffic light system, sometimes traffic went through a red light and sometimes not; maybe it’s that you are allowed to turn left (of course the traffic drives on the left as in Britain) through a red light? I also did not understand how anyone ever finds their way around. There are hardly any street signs and when I asked my hosts about road maps they looked slightly puzzled and were not sure they existed (someone tried to sell me one, again in Bangalore, but was it likely I was going anywhere unless with someone who knew the way? Not a chance!).
I fancied going in an auto-rickshaw. But my hosts advised against it, on the grounds that it was too dangerous. They, being rather posh, had two drivers and so there was usually a car available to take us where we needed to go – I do not know anyone in this country with one chauffeur, let alone two.
Scary as the roads were, I only saw one accident, and that was an overturned auto-rickshaw, with the driver standing by it trying to pull it upright again and his unhurt passengers standing disconsolately by, stuck in the middle of the road and waiting for a gap in the traffic. If accidents do happen, however, they can be very serious and I read on a couple of occasions that a whole family on a motorbike had been killed.
I don’t know how people learn to drive in India. I never saw a car with L plates on, do they learn off-road? I would certainly never dare to try. It’s not that people drive badly, but they are so fast and so impatient – so they are here, but in a different way. We are more regulated, but less alert and so we tend to react slower as we don’t expect cars to change lanes suddenly or a bike suddenly to weave in front of our car.