I left home late today. Thought I’d have open roads, since it’s Eid and most people would be either celebrating the festival or else, have an off. For most part, it was great. Good music in the car, an encouraging fuel gauge, smooth roads…until I reached Kailash Complex near Powai. I was stuck in traffic, wedged between a truck and a wheezing Sumo, with an obese tourist-type bus breathing down my car, trying to prevent sneaky overtakings by an auto, and also trying not to run down an imbecile pedestrian trying to cross the road. When one is in such an unenviable position, one tends to think. I thought about why it's better, easier, and safer driving in Delhi. And why driving in Bombay is so arduous. Here’s my theory.
It’s not because of the roads. Contrary to what people believe, I do not think that Mumbai roads are inadequate. In fact, the Kailash Complex route that winds up the hill is actually a pretty wide 4 lane road. The Asalpha road has widened considerably. The Marol-Saki Naka road actually has 6 lanes (3 on each side) despite the metro work going on in the middle.
But it’s not about the size of the roads anymore. From what I remember of Delhi, (wherever I have driven at least) – around the High Court and Supreme Court, India Gate, Khan Market, etc. – most of the vehicles are similar in nature. Most vehicles have four wheels. And if they are not Altos or Swifts, they are usually some other variant of a Maruti specimen. There are not as many auto-rickshaws, buses, trucks, or pedestrians. And because most vehicles are of similar nature, there is more…umm…vehicular empathy. They know how much margin to leave while overtaking, they will not honk or grunt laboriously when you are taking a turn around a round-about, and if you are on a slope, they will definitely not try to overtake. There is a sort of, I suppose, kinship.
In Bombay, at any given time, you are not sure which is the most representative vehicle on a particular stretch. Between Vashi and Mankhurd, it will be BEST buses, from Ghatkopar to Powai, it will be rickshaws, from Powai to SEEPZ it will be cars and two-wheelers, from SEEPZ to Marol, there will be buses again and pedestrians…Now, it’s not as if the road space is in adequate. In fact, on days when buses are not plying as much (strikes or Sundays) or when autos are on strike, more people bring out their cars. But cars manage – even if there are a lot of cars, they will manage well. Because everyone sort of drives to a similar rhythm. Conversely, if one is in an auto and if one is traveliing via Chandivali (a route where most autos ply between say 10:30 to 11:30), one will notice that the ride is smooth despite the road being full of autos. It’s not as if the road is wider or if there are fewer vehicles. It’s just that they’re just the same sort of vehicles. This makes it easier.
I think that wherever you have a variety of transport on a road at a point in time, driving will get progressively difficult. Irrespective of the width or nature of the road. In fact, my take is that narrower the road, the more homogenized the vehicular profile should be.
Most people, by nature, start identifying with the vehicle once they are behind the wheel or on the seat (if they are on cycles/ cycle-rickshaws or bikes). They perceive any threat to the vehicle to be a threat to them personally. Most people are not aggressive drivers. Earlier, I used to think that Bombay drivers are the most aggressive in the world. Now if I observe objectively (without cursing the Bejeezus out of them), I think it’s not them, but the situation. When we see a lack of a resource (a road) taken over by someone that’s not one of us (i.e.- not on/ in the same type of vehicle as us), we feel threatened and push forward. But, when you see one of your kind, you are generally more benign. Most Swifts have given me way, most autos give way to other autos, most taxis will politely wait for another taxi to pass – when you start identifying people by the car they drive, you start forming groups. Communities arise, loyalties are forged, and thus, competition begins.
Also, I believe that it’s time that all people – and I mean – ALL PEOPLE – are taught how to walk on the streets and drive. Everyone must, at some point, get behind the wheel to realize how challenging it is for a car to maneuver, stop, or manage not hitting an imbecile. I think the world’s dumbest morons are in this city crossing roads. (And if they are dumb and selfish, they are on two-wheelers.) People always notice when a car hits someone. But everytime a car does not hit, every time a car swerves with precision to avoid hitting a jaywalker and not colliding with a divider on a narrow strip, we expect the guy or woman to carry on. No biggie, we shrug it off. No harm done.
Well, it was a very, very big deal. It was skilfull and difficult and the person managed to pull it off.
In fact, even though I don’t really feel much fondness for BEST buses after one of them hit my car, I must admit this – they are fantastic drivers. Only after I started driving I realized what it must take for a BEST to cut across traffic at SEEPZ. How adroit a driver must be to back up in a perfect line outside Ghatkopar bus depot, move carefully alongside Linking Road, or take a U-turn anywhere in Andheri. Sometimes in the rain. Sometimes on a slope. Most times on broken roads with people and autos scrambling around it like insects, not giving it enough clearance. I think it’s amazing that Bombay doesn’t a have a higher accident statistic.
Most people walking on the roads don’t get that. I wonder if there is some kind of a misplaced sense of justice – one where they feel that those with perceived privilege (of being inside a vehicle) must be taken to task.
Vashi is one of the finest places I have seen – with regard to footpaths. There are footpaths practically everywhere. And most of them are not dug up or are taken over by hawkers. (And I know this, because I have walked around extensively.) They are cleaner than other places – sans urinating junta or spitting characters. But still, people will amble along on the roads. On. the. roads. holding hands and chatting loudly. You honk. They don’t move. You honk again. They don’t move. You wish you could do what one rickshaw fellow in Pune used to do – bump them lightly from behind, shout ‘Kutriya!’ and whiz past. But for some reason you can’t do that. You wait and honk some more. Finally, they will deign…not to move, but to shrug. As if saying – ‘this is the amount of motion my lethargic, rapidly-decomposing body can afford’ – so, take it as a favour. I do that. Not releasing my clutch fully, afraid that I might hit the person who should be dead and donated for scientific experiments. All the while, clean footpaths line the road wistfully – their potential and utility unexplored.
Also, there are some people who sit in autos and insist that the rick take a U-turn on roads that are clogged with traffic. I mean, come on – you are in a rick…just get off and walk. What one auto trying to cut lanes does to manic congestion is unimaginable. Not to mention the unnecessary stress that the auto-fellow goes through. I have been one of those arrogant sorts who would insist that the rick drop me to whichever coordinates I had specified. Even if it meant for him to inconvenience other cars that actually had the right of way. Or generally be a nuisance, when it could all have been avoided if I could’ve just walked. Because it was too hot, or it was too inconvenient. Or I was in heels. Or I just didn’t feel like it. So many cars and people were inconvenienced because I chose to not think of the bigger picture.
One day, an auto-driver in Bombay refused. I told him that he better do it because I wasn’t asking him to do it for free. I was paying him, after all. And he turned back and said, “Paisa sab kuch nahin hota, madam.”
Now, I understand why some autos will not go to a place in heavy traffic. Every time, there is one less auto on a particular route, I like to think that the traffic there is behaving itself. I don’t care if it is wishful thinking or not, but it makes me hopeful. That maybe next time I get out my car, I’ll have an easier drive.
Ironically, driving in Bombay has not just made me a better driver (if not better, then certainly a more intrepid one), but an infinitely better pedestrian and a more understanding passenger. I never imagined that driving, more than anything else in the world, would make me more empathetic. But it has. And this is why, even if one never drives a car in Bombay, one should definitely learn the skill.
Oh, by the way, I reached office late and magically – magically – found a sunny, happy parking spot right inside my office.
Eid Mubarak, all!