Travel and Travail in India

From Spook by Mary Roach


From Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach, 2005, WW Norton, pp 31-32

The traffic jam has dissolved, leaving our driver free to proceed in the manner he enjoys. This entails driving as fast as possible until the rear end of the car in front is practically in his mouth, then laying on the horn until the car pulls into the other lane. If the other car won't move over, he veers into the path of oncoming traffic-for sheer drama, an approaching semi truck is best-and then back, at the last possible instant. Livestock and crater-sized potholes materialize out of nowhere, prompting sudden James-Bond-style swervings and brakings. It's like living inside a video game.

"Why doesn't he just get into the fast lane and stay there?"

"There isn't a fast lane, as such," says Dr. Rawat. He gazes calmly out his window, as goats and a billboard for "Relaxo" footwear flash past. "The lanes are both the same. Whoever is slower pulls over." He speaks in a neutral, narrative tone, as though describing a safe and civilized code of the road. Aggressive honking and light-flashing is considered good manners: You're simply alerting the driver ahead of your presence. (Rearview mirrors are apparently for checking your hairdo. Likewise, the driver's-side mirror currently registers a clear and unobstructed view of the dashboard.) Exhortations to BLOW HORN PLEASE and USE DIPPER are painted on the backs of most trucks, so that even the most laid-back driver goes along honking and flashing his lights like his team has just won the World Cup. I am finding it hard to "relaxo".

In India, everywhere you look, people are calmly comporting themselves in a manner that we in the States would consider a terrible risk, a beseeching of death with signal flare and megaphone. Women in saris perch sidesaddle, unhelmeted, on the backs of freeway-fast Vespas. Bicyclists weave through clots of city traffic, breathing diesel fumes. Passengers sit atop truck cabs and hang off the sides like those acrobat troupes that pile onto a single bicycle. Trucks overladen with bulbous muffin-top loads threaten to topple and bury nearby motorists under illegal tonnages of cauliflower and potatoes. (ACCIDENT PRONE AREA, the signs say, as though the area itself were somehow responsible for the carnage.) People don't seem to approach life with the same terrified, risk-aversive tenacity that we do. I'm beginning to understand why, religious doctrine aside, the concept of reincarnation might be so popular here. Rural India seems like a place where life is taken away too easily -- accidents, childhood diseases, poverty, murder. If you'll be back for another go, why get too worked up about the leaving?



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