Friday, November 2, 2012

Repost: A Kolkata Odyssey...

This is repost of a post written on September 23, 2009, in my now-almost-defunct blog under a different nom de blog.

Four weeks in the city of my birth, Kolkata, and circumstantial necessity put me squarely behind the wheels of a Maruti 800 belonging to my father-in-law. I drove in this city after some 10-odd years. And can anything ever beat that experience? A confident, resounding ‘No’.

Delhi streets are mean, New York City streets are full of vicious cabbies, Portland streets are forced to a crawl by a multitude of octogenarians walking or driving, San Francisco streets – some extremely tortuous - are replete with jay-walkers and busy traffic, Baltimore streets are… just weird, let’s put it that way. However, Kolkata streets can take the stuffing out of any goddamned driver. Yet, hundreds of thousands of vehicles, large and small, ply the streets of this city every single day, driven by the good, the bad and the ugly, reckless driver.

I present herein a few snippets of sights and sounds I encountered this time, stuff of legend that has been forever etched in my memory.

A mêlée of vehicles!

Can haz wheels? Hallelujah! It is a vehicle! - and therefore, as deserving of a piece of the road, and not bothering with mundane concepts like the rules, responsibilities and common courtesies of traffic movement, as everyone else. Be it a hand-drawn cart on two or four wheels, a cycle, a cycle-van (a quaint cage-like contraption ferrying local school children), cycle-rickshaws, two-wheeler scooters or motor-cycles, three wheeler auto-rickshaws, four-wheeler passenger cars of various sizes and lengths, and taxies and buses as well – the city roads are a mêlée of moving vehicles of all descriptions. You find almost all of them at all places, from the narrowest of alleys to the wide main streets, equally vying for space and control of the piece of road they stand or move on. For the geared vehicles, the gear shifts continuously between two and three – the left foot having to rest on the clutch, and the right foot alternates between flooring the accelerator and slamming the brakes at such a dizzying frequency that it makes the outlines of the leg look fuzzy.

Lane, lane, wherefore art thou, lane?

Kolkata drivers don’t believe in lanes. Period. The fact that on most streets there are no lanes marked is just convenient. Having to drive in an organized manner following a lane is not virile and exciting enough for the Kolkata driver. After all, if one cannot change sides of the road at will and slash through the oncoming traffic like the Bond in his Aston Martin, what is the point in driving? Of course, when the bus moving like a juggernaut in front suddenly stops in the middle of the road to pick up passengers, all lane-transgressions are fair. It's a war out there!

The microsecond that you hope to gain by wedging your car at a weird angle into a small gap created between the side of a bus in front and the nose of a taxi that was inching ahead to fill in that void may be crucial in negotiating the next traffic light (or may not… Who the hell knows? Let’s do it all the same). And whenever larger vehicles - cars and buses - are standing in parallel lines at a traffic light, it is a field day for cycles and motorcycles. With the panache of the motocross riders negotiating sharp bends and turns without toppling over, on a grand prix circuit, they ride through the small gaps left between parallel rows of vehicles, sometimes even executing awe-inspiring right angle turns between the rear- and front-ends of tightly packed cars, adroitly dodging the metal edges of the bodies of the buses and jutting out side-view mirrors from cars – the occasional damage to the said mirrors as well as loss of life and limbs in such pursuits are taken rather philosophically, with the bovine pragmatism and a nod of the head, and life goes on.

Changing of lanes on busy roads is done at will, of course. In order to do so, you simply start veering towards one side or the other. Lane changing signals, blinkers? Those are for wimps. Besides, why bother? Because even if you veer to one side successfully, there will always be that one more motorcycle, or auto-rickshaw, or a cycle that will attempt to squeeze through nevertheless.

Let there be Red Light, and there was... who the fuck cares?

What is that changing light with the arrow signs? What do they mean, the red and the green? Who cares! If you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. Never mind if it leads to impossible traffic snarl-ups at the intersections. Only idiots in private cars stop at red lights, ha ha! (Unless, of course, there is a stern police sergeant in uniform looking right at you… Hmm! You wonder… Would he settle for one ten-rupee note or two? May be a fifty – he is a sergeant, after all.)

For the rest of us - the motorcycles, the cycles, the rickshaws, the auto-rickshaws, the cycle vans and hand-pulled carts, not to mention, pedestrians - what red light? We go as we please. With the stream, against the stream, parallel, perpendicular, bolding strutting or snaking our way in – exhortations and verbal abuses flowing freely in equal measure. We believe we are immortals, put here on earth to alleviate the sufferings of puny human beings - only that nobody taught us the meaning of the word 'alleviate', so we just paraphrased the rest of the idea and rained untold misery on other creatures sharing the road, like the drivers of the said private cars.

Headlamp bravado

A weird custom in Kolkata - possibly non-existent in the rest of the world - dictates that the vehicles switch off their headlamps even while driving in the evening or night. The headlamps are to be turned on directly before there is a car in front coming from the opposite direction. At that point, the lights are switched on at full beam, directly boring into the retina of the driver of the oncoming vehicle. Most of the drivers take great pride in the fact that they drive with the headlamp on at full beam, and calling them on it usually invites a few rounds of choicest abuses.

Occasionally, a new, rookie driver - not yet so conversant with the ways of the road - would politely flash the headlamp a few times before passing the vehicle in front by wildly careening into the opposite traffic lane. Once he gets enough street cred though, no more flashing - just careen and go, lanes and traffic be damned.

All roads lead to... potholes

Imagine, you are driving on a road in the top gear. Everything is moving smoothly, you are negotiating the humps and bruises on the road with practiced ease, and suddenly... there is a deep chasm in the middle of the road, running perpendicular to your direction of motion. This is a very popular way of guarding against the onslaught of speeding vehicles - large and small. A hump (called a 'bump' here) can be flown over at high speed, but a gash that deep on the road absolutely needs the vehicle to slow down to a crawl and roll over it. Gaping potholes that suddenly spring up in the middle of the road are another common feature of Kolkata roads. To be fair to the administration, they do employ people for the repairs at regular intervals. The engineers and suppliers and the entire gang of people involved in this lucrative business have brought the repairs down to a precision art form. The materials and techniques that they use somehow ensure that the same holes appear in the same place after a few months, requiring another round of repairs - thereby providing employment to many workers, and filling the coffers of the firm responsible for the civil engineering work.

Human Enterprise

Are you human? You sure? Ah, well... just that when you are walking on the street, you own it. The hallowed ground you deign to step on has been bequeathed to you by your ancestors. Which is why you boldly walk where no sane person would walk to. Like, in front of a moving vehicle, be it a rickshaw or a motorcycle or a car. You know that since you own the road, all you need to do is pull up your arm in an imperious gesture indicating "stop, for the emperor of the universe, the sun and the moon are like whose marbles, is crossing the street." And stop the car will. Otherwise, if it as much as blows a bit of air onto your august person, even the heavens would not be able to save the driver from getting thrashed by an increasingly violence-happy, sadistic 'public'.

Honk if you love... Holy hell!

What price the New York minute? Meh! The Kolkata minute is even better, because it works on prescience! The clairvoyant, omniscient drivers behind the first line of vehicles at a red light would start honking a few seconds before the lights actually turn green. There is a honk-honk here and a honk-honk there... there is a honk-honk everywhere on Kolkata streets. It is customary to announce your presence by honking, otherwise you’d go unnoticed.

Too often, you cannot even move if you don’t honk. People loitering on the streets or striding purposefully towards some directions, rickshaws plying through the middle of the road, odd motorcycles and cycles dashing in to fill in the infinitesimal void, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws converging upon the barest minimum of gaps with a speed and zig-zag movement that would seem suicidal in a saner environment – in order to negotiate through all these wonderful distractions, your only option is to go honkety-honk. And why not? Birds do it (read ‘concentrated, screechy buzz-horns of auto-rickshaws’), bees do it (read ‘irritating electrical air-horns of motor-cycles’), even educated fleas do it (read ‘bells and rubber-blub horns of cycles and cycle-rickshaws’) – it is a veritable potpourri of sounds, a symphony of cacophony, never mind the oxymoron. Trust me, it happens.

The sheer onslaught on the eardrums of the everyday person has brought about unforeseen consequences as well. There is a discernible level of hearing loss in regular pedestrians. The honking, often right behind their arses, fails to elicit any response – even the most basic flight-or-fight response. People on the streets are becoming immune to sounds, much to their detriment. Either that or they don’t bother any more. Life is cheap.

The road to hell is paved with… communications?

Or it may even be that scourge of modern technology, the cell phone. Everyone has one, and it is like a solidarity movement to display yours, since I have shown you mine. Not that you or I are doing it consciously, because we are too busy yakking into the phone. The slightly more hip has access to ear-bud type hands-free earphones, only that they are not really hands-free, because even with the earphones and mouthpiece, you are still firmly grabbing the phone when you talk and walk... and drive... and drive something that absolutely requires both your hands for proper steering, like a scooter or a motorcycle. In this case, the human ingenuity has once again triumphed - over reason. Your hands may be on the handlebar, deftly manipulating the clutch and the front brake, but your phone is cradled on your shoulder, and you tilt your head to the extent that your ear presses firmly against the phone… Ah! Conversation, communication, the world runs on it – never mind that at that moment, your world is at a strange angle in front of you, while you are inching your way through a pea-souper traffic!

Helmet/Hell Mate? Seat-belt... wait, what?

To be fair, there is a law about wearing helmets for drivers of two-wheelers, and strapping the seat-belts on for the driver and the front-seat passenger of the four wheelers. But a law is only as good as it can be enforced. What with having the lowest police to public ratio in the entire country, it is difficult to enforce any thing these days. Why, the poor traffic constables can’t even stop the lorries (‘trucks’ for my American friends) and ask for bribes anymore; they know that if the lorry drivers come down upon them as a group, they wouldn’t even have time to call for back-up – which may never come anyway. Therefore, non-helmet wearing riders and non-seat-belt wearing drivers get a free pass. You see, accidents and injuries, even death, from traffic collisions are things that always happen to someone else. Besides, a helmet is one hell of an inconvenience when you are ‘communicating’ with others on your cellphone while – you know – doing the riding thing. The seat-belt doesn’t interfere with communications, you say? Well, it doesn’t, but that’s not the point, is it? You don’t wear it simply because it is there to be worn. See? Simple!

Occasionally, the said drivers may be pulled over and fined by an over-zealous, newly appointed traffic sergeant, eager to earn his stripes and display his traffic controlling abilities; but sooner or later, he, too, shall be sucked into the vortex of greed and corruption, a few rupee-notes would exchange hands, and life would – as life does, ever – go on.

(R)emission? Yeah... that!

Highest courts in the state and the country have ordered in unison the removal of vehicles more than 15 years old. This move has been indicated by experts as necessary to reduce the high levels of vehicular pollution in the country, since those old dinosaurs of vehicles do not (and in many cases, cannot, in their condition) have the contrivances required to reduce emissions to acceptable levels. This makes sense, you say? Of course it makes sense! Why else would the political parties in some of the states rouse the rabbles against this move?

For example, in the glorious state of West Bengal (now rechristened Pashchim Banga) - particularly in my city, Kolkata - old, decrepit, black exhaust-spewing buses, auto-rickshaws and taxis are still plying on the streets, in direct contravention of the Court orders. The state government should move to enforce the verdicts, you say? Ha, ha, and in case you missed it, ha. Or rather - as our political parties are showing us - nyah, nyah-nyah, nyah, nyah... The city’s air hangs heavy with suspended particles of automobile exhaust, from old and retireable vehicles. But wait just a precious minute!! Enforcement, you say? Look at that marked Police vehicle, the Jeep that just crossed my car, its black exhaust darkening my windscreen. Oh that I had my camera with me...

The Opposition needs to keep up its opposition - even if against all logic sometimes - to everything the state government does, in order to maintain its own position. On the flip side, whatever the state government does or does not do, it sure keeps up a steady volley of hearty rhetoric towards the Opposition, hoping that the Opposition would just buzz away like an irritating fly. Hence, viva le status quo! (Note: Since the time this was written, there has been a major change in the governance of the State. The erstwhile Opposition is now the Ruling Government, and vice versa. However, lamentably, nothing has changed in the final synthesis. For the common person, it's just old, soured wine in a new-ish bottle that is fast on its way to getting old.)

And here for your enjoyment, a few vignettes of Kolkata Traffic...
Kolkata Traffic Vignettes Across Time And Space
Courtesy Google Images; modified and size reduced from original sources - 1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9.

The reason I reposted this write-up: today I read a the account of a similar experience of blogger Meeta Sengupta in her blog, Antel Adda. Check it out; her essays are a pleasure to read.


  1. That's a comprehensive list. :) One more addition to the list is that Indian drivers have no notion of right-of-way. Instead, it's "me first". One more: no notion of "stop and go". Instead, it's "honk and go".

    It all just depresses me - the sheer senselessness and self-defeating nature of it. I don't enjoy driving here (Bangalore) at all because of it.

    1. Good point. That's one thing I forgot to mention: never on Kolkata streets do Ambulances get a pass to go forward through traffic, whether or not they are carrying a patient and the siren, as well as red or blue flasher, is on. It bugs me to no end.

  2. Puts things into perspective, doesn't it? An intriguing read, though I had expected a bit more about auto-rickshaws.

    1. The auto-rickshaws are ubiquitous and, in addition, I found that they easily fall under multiple headings. I didn't know how to describe them adequately. Sorry! I think I, as a driver, am slightly afraid of them.