Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Day at the Races

You’d be forgiven, stumbling blearily out of the airport, for thinking you’d walked onto the set of Bugsy Malone. The streets of Mumbai teem with tiny cars, as if you’d just put your garden fork into an ants’ nest. Remember the Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, vehicle of choice for every discerning play-grouper? I give you its black and yellow Indian cousin, the autorickshaw. Most of them are black, with a yellow stripe. Sometimes, the ribbed roof is yellow too. In nature, black and yellow are angry colours of warning, but don’t think wasps and hornets, think bees.
I look under the front end of one, expecting to see the driver’s feet furiously pedalling, but I’m disappointed. Smaller than a milk-float, larger than a golf-cart, these flat-fronted three-wheelers dominate the roads here. They can turn on a rupee, and do, arguing with buses and lorries, thumbing their snub-noses at unwieldy taxis. Every journey’s like a ride in a bumper-car, except, unaccountably, the rickshaws never touch. The one behind you pulls up so close in traffic, you’d have a job sliding a chapatti between your screen and and his, you can practically see whether the driver’s brushed his teeth or not – but no contact. The rolling boil of traffic moves like a flock of birds, individuals synchronised into one organic entity.
On the street, the rickshaws come kerb-crawling by, touting for business. The drivers obviously think I don’t look like I should be out and about on foot, and, if you could see my ankles, you’d understand why. (A propos ankles, I have THREE mosquito bites on ONE ankle – I have to admire the precision bombing, even as I slap on the retro-active Mosi-Guard.) I put “Rickshaw Ride” next to “Market Barter” on my To Do List, and wave them away with a sigh, soldiering on through the dust and rubble which pass for a pavement.
Vans and lorries have the quaint instruction “Horn – OK – Please” painted in wobbly letters on their back bumper, which must make American tourists look twice. Drivers need no second bidding, though, and the symphony of car-horns plays all through the day and night. In England, a blaring horn (or in my case, very often, a good blast of the windscreen-wipers...) indicates anger or frustration, a shot over the bows. In India, it couldn’t be more pacific. No stress, no irritation, no worries. A beep of the horn just says, “I’m here!” - more than necessary, when the tiny rickshaws nestle up close to the trucks, then take a perpendicular swerve in front of them. In a gridlocked traffic jam in the evening, I look around me. Every horn is tooting. Every face is calm.
The roads in India are truly democratic, every single vehicle and pedestrian has an equal right to be there. When you shrug off your western ways, and stop having an apoplectic fit every four yards, it is quite heart-warming. The only requirement is to let every other road-user know you are there, then it’s a free-for-all. Whoever put white lines on the roads of Mumbai, should have let the paint stay in the tin. You can no more control the flow of traffic, than you can control the path of raindrops running down a window-pane.
It shouldn’t work, it’s mayhem, but it does. Highway Code, do I hear you mutter? That’s for sissies.