In the jam at Bangalore

I am not long back from a car journey here in Bangalore and I think I must journal this before I forget the impact (almost literally) of car travel within India.

280px-Hindustan_AmbassadorI was picked up this morning in a beautiful blue Indian ambassador car – the type they use for taxis here. (The photo here is not mine. It is taken from Wikipedia adn shows the normal white colour of the taxis). When the car pulled up, I had to blink twice, because these cars are based on the old Morris Oxford cars – one of which we had when I was young –  a grey colour…ah nostalgia….

The car this morning was a beautiful example, with striped black and gold seats and golden cushions in  the rear. No seatbelts in the rear. It had aircon and new horn buttons set into the steering wheel (an absolute necessity in India) and indicators (Why? Nobody bothers to use them!!). This was a beautiful car, though I did notice when it started up for the return journey home, the amount of blue smoke it blew out the exhaust system (mostly into my face….)

First of all, let me say that I have not travelled throughout all of India, but I can’t remember seeing a Give Way or a Stop sign anywhere. I doubt they exist.  The rule of the road appears to be that “If I get my car there slightly before you, I have the right of way”…the same concept applies at traffic islands as well

Also there is not any true concept of lanes on the road. Yes there are lanes marked, but the average driver seems impervious to whatever meaning they might have. The idea seems to be that people inch and crawl their way to put their car centimetres in front of the neighbouring car or cars and then proceed to take the right of way and cut them off or find another small hole in the traffic into which to push part of their car’s anatomy. Most main road s have at least one or more lanes of traffic on them than marked on the road. Outside my hotel there are two lanes marked on the road, but it is rare to see fewer than four actual lanes of traffic.

Traffic lights!! Now I notice this as well when I am walking back to the hotel. Red lights here do not seem to mean STOP. They appear to mean that you should speed up to see if you can get your car through at least part of the intersection before an opposing car or pedestrian claims their right to the road. This should be accompanied by a blare on the car horn. On the other hand, people who come up to the lights once traffic has finally stopped, burrow their way as near to the intersection as possible – including motorbikes and tuk-tuks, who are infinitely more aggressive than in New Zealand ready to take off BEFORE the lights turn green. Many intersections have seconds counting down to make this even more exciting as about 5 seconds or so before they are due to go, drivers are already gunning their engines ready to take off in a cloud of rubber smoke!…or moving off…

Off they go – with horns sounding from behind by those people silly enough to think that they can make quick progress in downtown Bangalore traffic. As they make for the opposite side of the intersection there is a competition for lanes and space – any space which again can have part of your car in front of neighbouring cars (see above). People literally weave their way – hands sitting on the horn button with the largest or most indestructible generally winning the battle for position.

Having survived the intersection, then the driver decides that he wants to turn right from the left lane (having already crossed a lane or two to get into the left lane because it gets the car about a metre closer than the lane he was already in). This is one of the busiest intersections in Bangalore. Without any apparent thought of an indicator (Maybe they are only used to light up the car for Diwali in a couple of weeks), he then proceeds to cut across not ONE lane of traffic but FOUR lanes of traffic to the tune of car horns – his and the others – before driving off into the wilderness of MG Road with far less traffic and therefore cars parked behind already parked cars in the left hand lane of the road.

Oh did I mention potholes?……..they have taken on a new meaning in India. You can get lost in the potholes here! Careful though not to walk in them as you never know what might be lurking in them – or where they came from…They are of course dangerous to cars – especially old Ambassador cars, which give you bone shattering rides at the best of times. So of course there is no need to slow down for potholes, you merely drive round them. Never mind the vehicle right beside you. If your bonnet is in front of theirs, they will merely sound their horn from mere millimetres away and you carry on without a care in the world – apart from looking for the best way forward of course. If you look at the photo of the Ambassador above you will notice there are no useful side mirrors, only a very small rear view mirror and two small objects that LOOK like mirrors towards the front of the car, but they are so small as to be virtually unusable…and we all know that ‘objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are’ – so go on like a ‘Bat out of Hell’ and don’t look back….

One last small thing….the rule about turning right….there isn’t one ….? Well not that I can see. as far as I can make out. The car going straight ahead at an intersection has to apply brakes (sometimes very squeakily hard) while the car travelling towards you and turning right in front of you proceeds to go ahead with sometimes flashing headlights (they have to be useful for something!) or even better, does a complete U-turn in front of you causing the traffic behind and around you to hastily push ahead of you and then proceed to cut you off.

This was a phenomenon I remember from Chennai. When we pulled out of the hotel, we had to do a U-turn at the opposite end of the bridge from the hotel. I think in nine weeks there, the driver only stopped once. Every morning, the driver would simply do the U-turn and proceed onwards having sounded the horn to warn everybody that he considered he had the right of way and then to answer those that sounded their horns back at him. After about a week there – by which time I was becoming used to taking my life in my hands every morning –  a new examiner arrived and I suggested he sit in the front as I had been there for a week and had seen the sights. When we arrived at the centre (5 minutes?), he alighted from the car looking a pasty white colour and said to me “Bastard!” I used to walk home…and still am able to in Bangalore.

Anyway such is life in the jam of Bangalore…..


About David Adlam

I am a conductor, composer, clarinettist and examiner for Trinity Guildhall working in Auckland, New Zealand and overseas
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