Indiaries, Part Four: Of Chaos And Quirks

03/08/2015 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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India is an incredibly colourful place. And I'm not just talking about the tamarind that stains your hands, clothes, face, and everything around you - I'm talking about the contrast between its countless layers of people, animals, objects and all things beyond. The culinary influences from Portugal and architectural influences from British and Islamic culture; the clash of women in saris with their vivid disregard for western rules of colour combination and girls in jean shorts; the odd black burqa floating along in an explosion of colourful fabric; those who won't eat cow, those who won't eat pork and those who won't eat either; beggar's children pointing at their mouths as you pass them and the school kid looking at you from the back seat of a decked-out Bentley as it passes you on the wrong side of the road; the noise of stray dogs barking and the sound of prayer time you hear five times a day; Buddhist temples and Jesus smiling at you from a bumper sticker; people drinking dirty, stagnant water, the rare, and in contrast especially pasty, British expat or American tourist trying to politely bargain at a bazaar - every second there is something new, exciting, horrifying, funny, sad, surprising or intriguing to see, hear, feel, taste and experience.

India doesn't run because it's supposed to, it runs because God wants it to run.


Generally, roads don't really have lanes, people no lane discipline (note to Indian readers: lane discipline is when you stick to just one side of that white line in the middle of a road), streets do not have sidewalks, intersections don't have (working) traffic lights, and drivers don't have reservations about running you over. Unless you hold out your hand toward the direction the traffic is coming from, which somehow creates a magic force field. Not that traffic ever comes from just one direction. The other day I saw a white horse pulling a bike with an entire Indian family on it on the emergency lane of a highway. Getting around is a big undertaking, especially since street signs or house numbers are basically non-existent. Traffic being such a big part of Mumbai life, there are certain laws of etiquette everyone follows. Now, you might think that the rule that goes "in case of a traffic jam, just oust the other lane" isn't a very good one, but for some reason, it works.

ladies compartment india


Mumbai has a train network that is as efficient as it is ridiculous.

No matter the crowd, there is a window of time you are given to get off, and if you don't manage to in time, c'est la vie, people are getting on now, better luck at the next stop. There are four compartments -

Second class (generally lower-income males and the odd adventurous female, or groups and families), first class (middle class men), second class women (working women), first class women (middle class women). The tickets are 65Rs for 1st and 10Rs for second class - they do not have to be validated and are checked at the overpasses leading to the platforms, if at all, so ticketing for the train is based on an honesty system, because nobody is going to ask you what ticket you got on what compartment with. Nobody. And yet somehow the second class ladies compartment is overflowing with people at all times but the first has people sitting here and there.

One curiosity on the trains is that because there are no doors on either side, people hold on to the door frame and hang out to the sides of the train. And even though this is very dangerous, locals squeeze out the doors next to each other even when the train is almost empty. Maybe it feels nice or something. In rush hour, there is a system Indians follow - they pile into the train in order of getting off, and claim occupied seats, and the people after them claim seats from people who aren't sitting yet. No cheating.

Curiosity: On a train, sometimes, both sides of the driver's cabin have drivers in them and they both simultaneously tinker with the levers. Don't ask me, I don't know.

mumbai rikshaw


Rickshaws, or as the locals call them, cockroaches, are restricted to the suburbs of Mumbai -these little gas-powered not-a-bike-but-not-a-car are EVERYWHERE. They seem to be exempt from traffic laws (not like there really are any for anyone) and have no problem staring death in the eye multiple times a minute. Also, most, if not all, rickshaw drivers will at some point lean over and spit out a large amount of brownish red tinged liquid, which I used to think was something between blood, bile and general grime - this is actually the juice left of the paan they chew.

Now, a very simple rule: rickshaw drivers are the enemy. They want to take you the shortest distance for the most money. But, having a meter that they are forced to use, it somehow becomes your fault if and when they cannot trick you.

So let's say you are on any given main road and need to get to the other side of town. If you aren't on the side of traffic that's the most logical direction for you to go, the rickshaw driver will not take you, but will tell you to cross the street. So what you do is use little tricks, like getting in like it's nobody's business, and telling them to go straight - and then at the next opportunity for a u-turn you go "u-turn" and they do it. Also, if you do need to go to the other side of town, it's better not to tell the driver that before you get in, because chances are he will not want to take you. You just get in and tell him to start going and then once you're on your way you drop the "other side of town" bomb. This will mostly work, but sometimes, he will nod and seem very enthusiastic about the whole thing (a dead giveaway) and then at the next corner stop and tell you a great little tale about he ran out of gas or whatever and sadly, sadly, just cannot take you. Then the moment you get out, off he goes with no shame.

But if all goes well, there you are in a black and yellow aluminum tin, with wildly varied styles and quality of comfort and décor - ranging from a metal bench with screws sticking out of it to ones with really unpleasant mood lighting and a furry rug for your feet, and, sometimes, if you're especially lucky, a pocket radio duct taped to the roof blasting current Hindi pop hits.

As you whizz by countless trucks you will notice that most, if not all, feature intricately painted messages to other drivers, the most common one being HORN OK PLEASE, because while everywhere in the world honking is a seldom necessary evil used in emergencies, Indians revel in it. Which brings us to:


Honking is an Indian art form, a lifestyle, the drum to the symphony of Mumbai life. To start to understand, and maybe someday even learn this complex craft, first you need to ask yourself the question: when should I honk? And understand that the answer to this is: always.

So the situations could be: someone is trying to get where you already are - you honk; you are trying to get somewhere someone is - you honk; the light turns red - you honk; the light turns green - you honk; someone is going slower/faster/in a different direction than you - you honk; pedestrians - you honk; and god forbid, in the worst case scenario, when the end is nigh, and traffic stops for reasons beyond your control, you don't just honk, you lay on that horn as hard as you can, and do not stop until traffic gets moving again.

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