This post is part of a series of posts on my Delhi trip last year.
“No Honking! Kutte Bhi Bina Vajah Nahin Bhonkte!”
Even dogs don’t bark without a reason!
If you’re not used to Indian city streets and the incessant honking that is their soundtrack, you’ll probably laugh when you see such signs posted outside the gates of colonies (residential areas) in South Delhi.
Depending on your bent of mind—or your mood at that moment—you might think something like: “At least someone has some civic sense in this country.” Or, more charitably, “Yes, this honking is a problem and it’s good that people are aware of it.” Which pretty much amounts to the same thing.
Around this time last year, I had been in India for a little over a month, and I too was firmly ensconsed in this sort of mindset, along with the neighborhood “welfare association” which had authorized such signs.
At least in terms of their content. I had a problem with the metaphor being used, revealing a deep classism and snobbery in comparing drivers with dogs. I also wondered whether the makers of the sign actually lived in Delhi, since the local community of street dogs often howled for absolutely no reason outside our windows in the middle of the night.
Still, such signs made me smile because they seemed to resist the dominant politics of cars in Delhi: the wealthier the family, the bigger the car; the bigger the car, the louder the horn, and the less regard for the many other vehicles and pedestrians populating the road, which was itself usually too narrow to accommodate these new, monstrous goodies of globalization.
The neighborhood we lived in is a case in point. Built in the 1970s or so, Gulmohar Park is much less swanky than other South Delhi colonies, like Sunder Nagar, Nizamuddin East, Vasant Vihar, etc., which are themselves a far cry from the flat cities in Gurgoan. Yet, GP is chock full of journalists, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen who have redone their houses, often renting them out, and have jumped headlong into the new consumer market. This also means getting bigger and bigger cars—despite the fact that the roads are (in my view) far too small for them.
Owners driving the cars themselves are often much worse than folks hired as drivers. But to some extent the arrogance goes with the car itself. I’ve seen drivers who have very little—living and sleeping in shacks, sending most of what they make to their families in Bihar or Haryana—turn into manics behind the wheel of an Innova or Pajero, bearing down on elites in their jogging suits, out for their evening walks.
So in the early months I kept getting into angry spats with drivers who got too close to me. Standing out in the middle of the road and refusing to move. Yelling at people and pointing to the kid they almost hit. People thought I was crazy, and I was a bit.
But like everything else, I later got used to the state of things regarding cars. Pretty soon, I’d have no problem walking about calmly as cars whizzed by a few inches from my feet. Some of this had to do with a general acceptance of my shrinking physical space—on lines for recharging the mobile, in the metro, on the bus, on the street.
And a lot had to do with learning how to inhabit a different space, with learning how to move with the flow of the traffic, even as a pedestrian. By the end of my visit I was able to cross major roads (like Aurobindo Marg) at any point, and at any time, whether or not it was packed with vehicles. You learn how to do things—use rickshaws as blockers, recognize how various vehicles are moving at different speeds, realize that the fact that most vehicle are stick and not automatic means they can switch gears in a heartbeat, and slow down when needed.
I also got used to the idea that honking was a language, and often used strategically by the better drivers in the absence of street signs and traffic signals. Some of the best drivers I’ve seen–one Ramavtar comes to mind—could inflect their honking incredibly well, with appropriate variations to convey anything from “I’m at the T and taking a turn” to “Please recognize that I’m passing you,” to “Get me three pakoras and a chai; I’ll be back in three minutes” (ok, strike the last line).
Look, I had a cousin of mine killed in a traffic accident in Gujarat, ten years ago now, and I would never take the question of car safety lightly. I saw several accidents while in India, at least two of them within the few minutes of their occurrence, with the corpses of victims twisted in unimaginable shapes. They haunt my memory as I write this. They take the romance away from some of the incredibly dangerous situations I sometimes found myself in, like the completely crowded rickshaw taxi a friend and I took between Jhansi and Orccha. It’s fine as long as it’s going; if it got hit by a truck, forget it.
So there are many things that could be better as far as traffic rules, etc. But the longer I lived there, the more I realized that you can’t just blame individuals who are looking for a way of a situation that is less than ideal. It’s not about drivers honking and being reckless, it’s about the proliferation of cars without necessary infrastructure, and the power hierarchy represented by car owners.
It’s not without reason that so many South Asian texts use the car as the site for power but also isolation, and the violence of cars as a sign of class disparity. From Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger; from Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines to Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography; cars and the violence they cause are signs of a reckless globalization that tramples non-elites underfoot.