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Glimpses of India: Driving in India – Lessons Learned

by Nayaswami Jaya
Spring 2013 3 Comments

When I first moved to Pune, I needed some way to get around the city and decided, against the advice of a few, to buy a motorcycle. I had owned two-wheelers before and it seemed like a whole lot of fun to be zipping around town like the young kids. Yogananda said, “The mind follows the heart,” and I think this was a good example of that.

That said, I must say that riding a motorcycle in Indian traffic is seriously dangerous, but it’s a great way to blend in and feel a part of the scene. It’s a terrific education too, so I thought I’d share a few observations and lessons.

1. Expect the unexpected
Once, late at night and before I bought a motorcycle, I was driving from the Delhi airport to the Ananda ashram through four lanes of interweaving, bumper-to-bumper traffic. After a mile or two of intense congestion I saw the approaching headlights of a car coming toward me in the center lane, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was going the “wrong” way. He had probably missed his exit and was going back by the shortest route. Traffic parted and flowed around him as he proceeded nonchalantly to his destination.

A driver in India should never allow himself to say, “I never thought he’d do that!” Just like the fellow going the wrong way didn’t invite undue concern, you can expect behavior of any and all kinds: indifference to traffic signals, turns from wrong lanes, passing on blind curves, murderous road conditions, buffalos/cows/camels/goats, and suicidal pedestrians

In America, you can drive and have your mind elsewhere. Not here. You must be 100% alert at all times

2. Space is measured differently here
In America, personal space between people is not the same as in India. Americans keep a greater physical distance between themselves and others and feel uncomfortable when someone “invades” their space. Here, people stand close to one another and the same goes for cars.

In America, clearance between vehicles is measured in feet. Here, it’s measured in inches. It’s a bit disconcerting to have someone pass you by at high speed with only inches to spare. In the West, this would elicit a nasty reaction but here, it’s normal.

Maybe it’s because space in India is at a premium and the population is high. But cars manage to squeeze into the tiniest of openings and you soon understand the utility of a motorcycle.

3. Know when to yield – and when not to
Indian culture is hierarchical and it’s the same for driving. You yield to tonnage, or else! The car yields to the truck or bus. The motorcycle yields to the car. The pedestrian yields to the bike. Everyone yields to the cow or buffalo.

While driving on a two-lane road, a car coming in my direction will pass another and bear down on me in my lane. No problem. I’m expected to move to the far edge of my lane since I’m only driving a motorcycle. I understand that the on-coming cars will allow me enough space to slip by. The attitude is, “There’s enough space for all of us to get by, so why waste it?” This is why you’ll see cars passing on blind curves.

That’s also why you never yield space if you can help it. To defer and yield will turn a ten-minute errand into an hour-long journey of frustration. If you wait for someone to let you into traffic, you’ll be on the sidelines for a long time, and it can be dangerous. You have to ease in and force others to accommodate to you.

4. Indians are great drivers
Typically, one’s first reaction to traffic in India is, “What terrible drivers.” Actually, I’ve come to see it as just the opposite. If you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere. You have to be a good driver simply to survive.

In America we mistakenly equate driving ability with following rules, but if we measure ability in terms of successfully navigating a ton of metal through impossible conditions, you gain a healthy regard for the Indian driver. He and she are among the best.

5. Merging—learn to flow
Although Indians don’t drive by rules, there are “unspoken rules.” Traffic flows and you have to move with it, kind of like dancing. Once you get into the flow, you glide along in a natural way.

When riding my bike, I inevitably find myself going faster and faster as I weave in and out of traffic, and must constantly remind myself that there are least a quarter million young men in Pune between the ages of 16 and 5 fully capable of winning motocross races in America. Slow down! Relax and enjoy!

6. The horn is your friend
Newcomers get a kick out of the signs on the back of trucks that say, “Horn Please.” But it’s true. Truckers appreciate you giving a honk before passing.

An Indian friend said that when she first learned to drive, her instructor began Lesson One with instructions on “How to use your horn.” Brakes can be done away with, along with mirrors and other unneeded accessories, but when your horn is on the blink, you have to fix it. Typically, when you are about to pass someone closely or on a blind curve you honk as a warning to anyone approaching and to the person you are passing. It’s a self-preservative courtesy.

A resilient country
The interesting thing about living here is that, after awhile, it all seems so very normal. Last summer, upon returning to America, I noticed that I had picked up some Indian driving habits.

Actually, after living in India, I’ve started to feel that Americans are rather “up tight” about a lot of things, rules for example, and let themselves be bothered by things too easily. India is a resilient country and the people find a way to navigate just about anything. Compared to everything else Indians face, fighting traffic is a minor bother.

Nayaswami Jaya is a founding member of Ananda and a Kriyacharya. Together with his wife, Nayaswami Sadhana Devi, he lives in India where he serves as spiritual director of Ananda’s work in Pune.

To learn more about Ananda’s work in India click here

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3 Comments »

  • Alfreda Weiss says:

    Funny and interesting description of how traffic works in India. Afraid I am much too up-tight to easily adjust. Probably I would become either a better driver or not be alive to talk about it. Thank you.

  • Som says:

    Dear nayaswami Jaya,

    You’ve missed adding Sheep, Horses & Elephants to the list.
    As an Indian, I can vouch for these.

    Also, the crazy people, who grab a stick just to stand in front of a bus and poke its engine. With the bus driver honking away, and traffic jammed, makes a hilarious sight!

    Not to mention police patrols who themselves go on the wrong side.

    Its a nice article, sums up Indian driving!

  • Sridhar says:

    Dear Sir,
    You are being very kind!
    After spending my first 29 years in India, i moved to US and all i can say is: there is no way i can drive again in India.
    Indians don’t follow road rules. This has resulted in a lot of deaths on roads. These deaths could easily be prevented by following lane discipline. In major cities, traffic moves very slowly. It is no fun driving on those roads!

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