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The Roads of India

***Written by production manager, Jane Mellema***

When I was in college, I learned to drive stick shift. I was surprised how fun it was, compared to driving an automatic. The need to focus on when to shift kept me from turning off my mind. Of course, if I had continued to drive a manual, eventually it too would have become second nature.

A few months ago, I purchased a new eggplant colored Yamaha scooter. Though I had maneuvered through Indian roads by foot for three years, I was timid to begin driving. I figured that, though in appearance the traffic rules looked more like a game, in reality this was not a game. Accidents happen. People get hurt. 

Multiple arguments with drivers, raising petrol prices, and the need to travel many places of varying distances in a day finally drove me to bite the bullet and make my purchase.

I was afraid to start. On my first drive, I thought about how little there was between me and the tarmac. But in a short time, I was pleasantly taken aback. No matter what the circumstances were in the day, I enjoyed driving. The road in India is fascinating. You never know what you will encounter! It seems that the only thing predictable about the streets is their unpredictability. The mind must always be alert and ready for anything that may pop into your path. 

Santosh Desai, in his book “Mother Pious Lady,” describes a scene on the road in this way:  ”Several parallel universes descend on a narrow strip of road and conspire somehow not to collide, at least most of the time. Indian roads accommodate a staggering diversity of conveyances – overcrowded buses that stop as and where they like, overloaded trucks that rarely condescend to brake, let alone stop, cars that believe that they are supple acrobats and can twist themselves out of any jam, auto-rickshaws that are, in fact, supple acrobats that rotate greasily on their own axes, scooters and bikes that have foresworn any form of linearity, bullock carts that sedately lurch down the middle of the road, tractors that for some reason always travel down your side of the road, bicycles that make up in daring and agility what they lack in speed, pedestrians who jump out of bushes or behind buses to keep us honest and, of course, cows who do absolutely nothing in order to teach you some profound but as yet undetermined lesson (Desai, 128-129).”

I would add the camel cart, occasional wedding processions complete with elephants, marching bands and large lamps connected to portable generators on trucks, families of four squished onto one motorcycle, water tankers, carts piled fifteen feet with any variety of new items to be sold, men balancing huge panes of glass between them on bikes, and bicycle rickshaws with flag pole sized poles precariously balancing upright on their seat navigating the road. 

One piece of advice I was given before I began to drive was that the person turning out into oncoming traffic has the right of way. I found this to be true. My mom taught me it is good to try to be a defensive driver – to make sure you watch other drivers carefully. Who knows what they will really do? Will they stop? In India I have learned that if you hesitate and wait for others, you will never move. Everyone else will fill the space as soon as they see an opening – or even if there is no opening, they will force one. You must be aggressive. Desai states “Everyone drives focused on their own objectives, deigning to take the road if it falls in their way (Desai, 129).” 

I love the roads in India. I never cease to find surprises and things that cause me to either laugh or cringe. Yet one thing is for sure, I can never shut off my mind and just let things happen. Just like learning to drive the stick shift years ago, I have to be alert. I must always be ready to adjust my path to anything that may suddenly jump into my trajectory.  As Desai would say, “The one thing Indian traffic is guaranteed not to do is make us take anything for granted (Desai, 130).”


Desai, Santosh.  “Mother Pious Lady:  Making Sense of Life in Everyday India.”  Harper Collins India.  2010.

Photo credit: Sylvia King 

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