"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–Driving in India

My first Third World car was an Indian Ambassador, a virtual model of the Morris Oxford III which went into production in 1948 and has had few changes since then.  The thing I liked most about it was the canted steering wheel, set on an angle so that the driver didn’t sit facing directly front, but listing to the side.  That way you could jam more people in the front seat.

The car had three gears, but such tight gear ratios that no one ever bothered with first. The engine ratcheted up to full  RPMs after about 5MPH, so why bother?  I remember driving with a young Indian woman who, when I asked why she never used first, she replied, “You mean there is a first?” Ambassadors broke down all the time, but because of the amazingly simple design – I was told by an Indian that it was even simpler than a lawn mower, but what did he know since grass in India was “mown” by goats and water buffalo.  In any case, when they broke down, they could be fixed in a jiffy.  Patch a wire here, scrape the sparkplug (the way the car poked and rattled to get up to even 20MPH it couldn’t have had more than a couple), jiggle, toggle, and bang, and the car started up again.

I always wondered why taxi drivers always turned their engines off at grade crossings or traffic jams.  The gas savings, particularly at the highly subsidized price at the pump, could in no way be more than fixing or replacing the starter motor.  Wrong.  Supply and demand.  It was far cheaper to have your unemployed brother-in-law fix it.  He spent most of his day sleeping on his charpoi anyway; and if for some reason he wasn’t there when you needed him, then there were always the herds of taxi-wallah brethren also sleeping on their charpois who could easily rewind it with second- or third-hand wire bought from Rajasthani scavengers who came by the taxi stands for just this reason.

The rearview mirror was put up as an afterthought – in case you needed to comb your hair – but, like first gear, never used for driving; nor were there turn signals.  Indian drivers had developed a simple but effective system of signaling. If you were going to do something…anything….like turning, stopping, passing, you stuck your arm out the window (it was usually out there anyway because of the canted steering wheel) and floated it up and down.  It was up to the driver behind to wait and see what you would do and take appropriate evasive, slowing, or stopping action.  “Watch out”, said the floating hand, “I’m going to do something”.   So no need for rear view mirrors or signal lights.

I shouldn’t be too critical of Indian driving (and I know that with the construction of a number of four-lane superhighways, things have to have improved); because there were two things about French driving which were as perplexing as anything I saw in India.  First was the famous priorite a droite – any vehicle entering from the right has the right-of-way whether from a road of equal importance or an alley.  On my first trip to France I became a very jumpy driver.  Anyone could pop out of driveway or lane and dive ahead of me.  After time in India, however, where there was no priorite at all, and cars dived in and out at will from any direction, I reassessed my evaluation of France.

The same was true about the second perplexing fact of French driving – there are no rules within traffic circles.  You entered at your own peril, maneuvered, intimidated, threatened and finally made your way out.  The most famous was the Etoile, the huge roundabout around the Arc de Triomphe.  I drove with a young woman who had lived in Paris for a while, and who avoided the Etoile because of its chaos; but I distracted her, and there we were entering from the Champs Elysees.  She froze.  Every car in the circle edged in front of her, and those behind blared their horns, swore, and gave her the French finger.  I didn’t blame her.  When I tried it, I had the same fear and paralysis.  Until India.  Thanks to the British there were loads of roundabouts, and not only were there no rules, like Paris, there was every kind of vehicle possible in the circle – cycle rickshaws, motor rickshaws, bullock carts, taxis, trucks, cycles, pedestrians picking their way across. Navigating the Etoile was a piece of cake after this.

Believe it or not, the traffic circles were not the worst part of Indian driving; that honor was held by the grade crossings.  In my day in the late 60s and early 70s there were no flyovers (overpasses) in the whole country; and you had to wait for these incredibly long and slow freight trains to pass.  The wait itself was bad enough, particularly in an Ambassador whose other feature was no firewall, so that the heat from the engine plus the beating heat of a Delhi summer made the upholstery of the car, such as it was, curl and peel; but the worst part was the jockeying for position.  Why use just one side of the road when the crossing was blocked and therefore no oncoming traffic.  Use both lanes.  Which also meant both lanes on both sides of the crossing; so when the gates finally did go up, all the Ambassadors, scooters, Tata trucks, and Delhi busses fired up their engines, hit their horns, and fought a pitched battle on the tracks.  At night this was a vision from hell – dense, putrid smoke; the pop-pop of the two-cycle engines; the belching of the exhaust of diesel busses and trucks right into the driver side window.

A number of years later I was in Dhaka when the first flyover in the country was opened.  I had suffered the grade crossing it was meant to alleviate for months, and this would certainly be a welcome change and a delight.  If at all possible, Dhaka traffic was even more chaotic and demonic than anything in India.  We glided onto the flyover, four lanes and beautiful, increased our speed for about two or three minutes, and then stopped dead in a stalled line of traffic stretching from halfway over the bridge to the end.  Although the flyover itself was modern and fluid, no one had sorted out the bottom end, and traffic ended in a snarl of cars, busses, trucks and everything else trying to go every which way after leaving the bridge.  A nightmare. So be careful what you wish for.

All this, however, was just aggravation.  The killing went on when you left the city and headed out on the Trunk Roads, the major (but still two-lane) highways that connected major urban areas.  After the congestion of the city, one could understand the temptation to floor it and get a little fresh air blowing in; but if there were no rules of the road in town, there were none outside either; but at what seemed to be the rocketing speeds of overloaded trucks, and the swaying and listing of busses that had no springs to speak of, and the impatience to pass, pass, pass, it was no wonder that the sides of the road were littered with the broken carcasses, twisted metal, and shorn tires of these vehicles.

I drove the Ambassador in Delhi for about a year when I broke my arm in a stupid sports accident – my left arm which was fortunate for most things, but not for driving, since the shift lever was on the left of the steering column.  So with my heavy cast and sling incapacitating that side, I had to reach across the steering wheel and yank the car up the gears.  This would have been hard enough in a car with fluid shifting; but the Ambassador must have had some failsafe mechanism built in to deliberately keep you from shifting quickly or easily.  Even with my good arm, it often took two or three tries to shift, and that not without protest – grinding, screeching, and banging; but with the awkwardness of the right, almost impossible.  All this is without mentioned the Ambassador’s steering.  It was worse than a truck.  Slight women had trouble pulling the wheel enough to turn the car.  Sharp turns were impossible, just slow, lumbering, and dangerous ones.  So as I got the car up a gear with my only serviceable arm, the car drifted to the right or left, so I then had to pull on the steering wheel to right the car.  I was worn out after even a short trip.

Now you might think that at least one of my office colleagues would have offered to drive my car for the few weeks that it would take for me to get the cast off.  Wrong.  No one would give up their Italian Fiats or Volkswagen Wagons.  I don’t think it ever even occurred to them.  So as my left arm withered from no use and scaled and turned color under the cast, my right arm and shoulder strengthened as I heaved and struggled with the shifting and steering.

I finally got one of the new Volkswagen hatchbacks, and it was a dream.  Shifting was smooth and buttery, turns were as graceful as a butterfly.  It had power, flexibility, and reliability.  The hatchback had one additional advantage – the engine was in the back so that when you stepped hard on the brakes, the much lighter front dipped.  That feature saved the life of an errant cyclist whom I clipped as he appeared out of nowhere on a smoky road and tried to cross the busy road.  Brakes, dip, and the cyclist and cycle went up and over the side.  The car had become one great cow-catcher and had lifted and dumped the rider and his bike in a great arc, landing them both in the field on the side of the road.  I assumed I had killed the cyclist, so, following instructions not to stop if you are in an accident (the bystanders would attack you, or so the mythology went), I went to the office close by, got one of the senior officers and went back to the scene.  The happiest sight I had ever had was the cyclist sitting up and rubbing his ass.  The cow-catcher had worked, the ground was soft, and all ended well.

I did have another car, an Indian-made Fiat which was perfect for Bombay traffic – much more agile than the Ambassador, with more pep and pick up.  It was amazing, however that each and every time I drove from Bombay to Poona, up the ghats, the car broke down at exactly the same spot.  Broken water pump.  This breakdown was so common that there were at least four pop-up mechanics at the very spot when the Fiats would sputter and cough and finally roll to a stop. 

All in all, no complaints.  It was all part of India.  Very important to take the whole and not get too pissed off at individual parts.  My perspective and equanimity was not shared by all my American colleagues.  One day I was driving with our Administrator in Hyderabad.  There was no one more stoic, solid, and unflappable.  He practiced yoga and had unbelievable feats of strength.  He could hold his arm up for hours (OK, stoned, but still, just the ability to do that let alone the desire), slept on the water tank instead of a bed, ate simply, and more than anyone else, went about his business.  We came to a funnel of traffic, and a car cut him off, a very, very ordinary circumstance; but Roy snapped.  All the years of frustrating, impenetrable, incongruous, and impossible traffic got to him.  He pursued the cutter, tailgating him, half-passing him with inches to spare on the driver’s side, cutting him off, stopping abruptly.  Gone.  Beyond repair.  He left the country not long after that.

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