Darwinism on the Streets of India PDF Print E-mail
Features - Features and Views
Written by TK   

Have you ever seen a cow hit by a rickshaw?  No, me either. And that is despite backpacking in India for five weeks.  I was, however, one day taken by surprise as I drove past an ambulance in Goa.  Perhaps what was even more amazing that spotting an ambulance in India was the fact that it was by the side of the road upside down on its roof.  Out of the backdoors of the ambulance was a protruding body draped in a white sheet.  This type of scene is perhaps not uncommon in this colourful and overpopulated country of over one billion people.  There is definately enough happening on Indian roads to keep you interested while you are drinking chai-tea and slamming down samosas in a roadside cafe.

People have said that there are so many cows roaming around on Indian roads that traffic often comes to a grinding halt to allow the creatures to walk across the lanes.  I did not have the privilege of witnessing such a sight.  Nor did I see a rickshaw hit a cow.  That would have been too lucky.  Not because it would be physically impossible.  Actually the opposite - it is a surprise it does not happen more often.  No, the only thing preventing such an occurrence is the rickshaw's drivers morbid fear of losing his life if he ploughed into a cow.  If the driver survived the initial impact (which is quite likely: there is no chance that rickshaws would threaten the land-speed record), then his life would be in more danger from his fellow Indians.  After all, in India cows are higher in the social hierarchy than rickshaw drivers.  In fact, in a Hindu society, cows are very comfortable in the knowledge that they actually sit atop the social hierarchy.

Upon entering India, I was immediately taken aback at the sheer numbers on Indian roads and the overriding theme of chaos.  Within two days of being driven around I had witnessed more near misses than I care to remember.  In a colourful and overpopulated country of over one billion people, it appeared that nothing was impossible.  There is a constant stream of weaving vehicles, and there are no rules as to which side of a vehicle you must overtake. 

And tooting of horns like Ganesh's life depends on it.  If you can imagine yourself on an African velldt listening to the incessant chipring of crickets at dusk, but rather than crickets it is horns and instead of the beautiful veldt it is the grime and grey of Mumbai, then you will have a fair idea of the volume of the noise emanating from the car bonnets. Indians sound their horns more than they talk.  

Horns are arguably more important than brakes.  They certainly appear to be in better working order in most vehicles than the brakes.  Horns must be used to warn traffic that you are approaching another driver, overtaking another driver on the right, overtaking another driver on the left, slowing up, speeding up, turning left, turning riht, approaching a corner, going around a corner, or completing a corner successfully without crashing.  Horns also appear to serve a useful mechanism for communication between rickshaw drivers and for male drivers to release their sexual frustration when they go flying past an agreeable looking woman.  Indian drivers never use their horns in fits of road-rage, or when they are in danger of crashing with another vehicle! 

Another truism is that nothing is sacred on Indian roads, apart from cows.  Cars, taxis, buses, motorbikes, pedestrians, push-bikes, carts, trucks, dogs, and pigs all fight over a limited amount of bitumen.  Trucks are the school bullies, and buses are their coward offsiders. The remainder of the traffic is left to battle it out like roosters in a cock-fight.  Alliances between drivers are often broken as quickly as they are formed.  Most rickshaw drivers are best friends until one of them steps on the other's toes and scores a dumb European tourist ripe for ripping off.  The ensuring scuffle and verbal stoush of Hindi is often like a scene from the Godfather; a mafia war minus the guns. 

The only road-user higher in the pecking order than trucks are cows, who are treated like Gods.  Like all Gods, the cows like to make life difficult for all and sundry, often walking across the road unexpectedly causing accidents and near misses.  Unlike Western society, there is no cursing of the deities, and the other road-users take it all in their calm stride. 

A country's traffic usually serves as being a useful indicator of a society in general.  In the Western world, often roads and traffic are predictable.  Western countries have a highly regulated road system to thank for that, which is a reflection of the greater-regulated society.  In India, the roads are simply chaotic. As is society.  However underneath this ostensible chaos is an inherent order and hierarchy.  For some reason, traffic never clogs entirely.  Cooperation is the name of the game.  But don't get me wrong - on Indian roads, it is the survival of the fittest, similarly to the greater Indian society.  If you happen to put your head down for a breath, you will be struck down and swallowed up by a sea of traffic.  

Unfortunately, in a state of chaos, not every care and life comes out unscathed.  There are about 80,000 deaths on Indian roads each year.  Every car has a battle wound, including the shiny new white Mercedes that you see driving around the business areas.  Therefore, most Indians treat their cars like it is their last possession in the world.  For many, it is undoubtedly their only possession.  Rickshaw drivers don't only drive their cars - they also often shelter in them.  It is not uncommon in the early mornings to see rickshaw drivers catching some sleep alongside the less fortunate in the streets.

Indian does not need theme parks.  Instead, for your kicks, head to the Western Ghats and get a bus journey from the top of the mountain to the bottom.  If you actually get out of the bus alive, you will never want to step foot on another roller-coaster ride in your life.  During my stay in the Western Ghats, a friendly Welshman told me that the previous year a family of eighty Indians had plunged off the side of the mountain in a chartered bus on the way to a wedding.  The bridesmaid and groom were among the dead.  This demonstrates the constant flirtation you have with dead when travelling on Indian roads. It is lucky I am a bad flirt.

You may be surprised to hear that not many travellers actually do sustain injuries whilst in India.  You actually grow accustomed to the Indian road standards whilst travelling about.  Within a couple of weeks, I too was foolishly travelling around by scooter without a helmet putting my life into the hands of the Indian gods.  

But don't get me wrong, some people do suffer greatly at the behest of the Indian roads.  Tourists fall off scooters, often resulting in their deaths or in serious injury.  But for all those who are travelling to India, just keep this in mind.  If you hear a toot coming from a vehicle just about to round the bend in your direction, pray it is a rickshaw and not a truck. 

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