It is 6.30pm on a Friday evening on the outskirts of Chennai. That means it is rush hour, which is a bit ironic in any language but especially here because it is anything BUT a rush. The streets are so full of absolutely anything that can move: buses, auto-rickshaws, and scooters but also bullock-wagons, hand-pushed carts, the occasional suicidal bicycle driver and inevitably a few cows. I am squished with half my body hanging out into the back of a rickshaw. Originally meant to seat three, this three-wheeler has a total of 11 people (plus driver and 1 child). 2 are hanging out the sides in the front, almost sitting on the drivers lap and the 9 of us are somehow crammed in 3 rows in the back. Getting into the Rickshaw was an even funnier story.
First one has to understand the traffic rules here which are pretty easy as there seems to only be one: “Might is Right” which means Buses and Trucks will blare their horns and travel at a fairly consistent speed, scooters, rickshaws, people, dogs, goats frantically jumping out of their way (they will, however, stop for cows). In between the buses you have the large SUV’s and cars and in between those the auto rickshaws weasel and snake their way around. The scooters, while definitely losing out in terms of size (a shocking 80% of all fatal road deaths are scooter riders), use their small size to their benefit and manage to squeeze with incredible agility through tiny gaps, road shoulders, pavements and the opposite roadside to the front. When the light does finally change, you have a line of scooters, several rows thick that shoot off, eventually overtaken by the larger buses and cars and then the whole thing starts again at the next stop. The “Might is Right” rule gets really interesting when you throw elephants into the equation which, unfortunately for me but fortunate for everyone else, have disappeared largely from the cities.
In all seriousness though traffic here is actually quite okay compared to elsewhere in India. That essentially means that on large roads people tend to stick to their side of the road and they obey for the most part traffic lights. Right hand turns (the Euro-American equivalent of left hand turns) are quite an adventure here on any 3 or 2 wheeler vehicle. 50 meters before the turn the driver will generally veer off onto oncoming traffic, forcing and wiggling his way to the very opposite side of the road, horn blaring all the while. He will then proceeds to turn right (still on the wrong side of the road) and drive for another 50 or so meters before employing the same horn-blaring, stop-and-go tactic to get to the left side of the road. Why they don’t just wait for the turn signal still completely evades me but it is quite an amusing, if somewhat terrifying feat.
However back to me being squished into a rickshaw. So the buses in India are “somewhat” irregular and during rush-hour if they show up are generally crammed to the point that you literally have people hanging out of the windows. Generally the next option is to take a taxi or a rickshaw but finding an empty one is quite impossible. My work colleague who has been designated to take me home, is already a bit anxious about travelling alone(Indians do not travel much and after spending an hour and a half to travel what turned out to be about 15km I understand why).
Usually I would have just walked, minus the dirt and pollution and relative danger of being a pedestrian—in the “might is right” rule you are right there just below cows and just above dogs and goats—I love walking in India. It is both interesting and exciting, there is something invigorating about jumping out of the way of racing scooters and rickshaws, dodging the rogue cows (and the rogue cow dung ), jumping over the potholes in the street. And best off all, there are people selling just about everything you ever need on the street so if you get hungry or thirsty, if your sandal breaks or you feel the need to pray to a foreign god, it’s all right there! However as a young, unmarried, white woman I am treated like the precious fragile gem that I am and whenever I am out with Indians they will always make sure I come home safely, often accompanying me to my very door. But back to my original story…
So when a rickshaw pulls up, my collegue grabs my hand and we sprint to the auto which is rapidly getting crammed full. She literally dives head first into it, pulling me behind her and I am tumbled into a smelly tangle of laps and arms and faces and armpits. I am repelled backwards as the auto speeds of and luckily the tangle of legs hold me from falling back onto the street. With half of my behind falling out the side I have a perfect view of the absolute chaos in front of me. Nevertheless there is something oddly relaxing about my cramped and squished position. I am forced, for one of the first of many times in India, to do absolutely nothing. Amidst the spluttering, horn-blaring, revving engines, the spitting, cursing drivers, the noise and pollution I have found a piece of what I consider authentic Indian tranquility.