C Y Gopinath: Mumbai lives each day in road rage
It's not just when he drives his Mercedes; in daily life too, the Mumbaikar is quick to anger and quick to act on it
My first international traffic violation happened in Nairobi, Kenya. I was in a lane waiting to turn in to the four-lane Ngong Road, when an oncoming car flashed its headlights at me. Two flashes.
In Mumbai, I've learned that when a car flashes twice, it's the driver warning you that he's in a hurry and has no plans to stop for you or anyone else. So, I stayed put, little realising that in the more civilized Nairobi, two flashes was the equivalent of, "You go first, after you." So, the oncoming car braked for me but I stayed where I was, while the car behind me jerked forward and crashed into mine.
This is my 12th year in Thailand, and I am yet to see anything remotely close to anger on the streets. Drivers don't roll down their windows and abuse the mothers and sisters of pedestrians or fellow drivers. When two vehicles collide, their owners don't go batshit crazy and start shouting. They stand around quietly, taking photographs of the damage done for insurance, exchange calling cards, and wait for the police. They seem to get it: anger is unnecessary and will change nothing.
To be sure, I've met a few very angry Thais behind the wheel. But, in a city that carries over 12 million vehicles on roads built for 1.5 million, the average Thai driver is astonishingly even-tempered and disciplined. People drive in their lanes, don't crosscut each other, stop at signals — and most civilized of all, treat pedestrians with dignity and respect.
For example, being Mumbai-trained, I frequently try to step into Bangkok's streaming traffic and daredevil my way between zipping cars. Indians are very good at this, having won their colours in cities where no one drives in lanes and where Toyotas, noisy three-wheelers, motorcycles, cycles, cows, dogs, bullock carts, trucks and pedestrians are all equal, and believe the road belongs to their father.
In Mumbai, drivers would have lowered their windows and abused my ancestry and posterity while I, laughing roguishly, would have danced between hurtling traffic, cheating death at every step. In Thailand, I now expect cars to pause and wait deferentially while I cross, without anger or abuse. I tell myself they probably go home and break the crockery, but I doubt even that is true. Thais just seem to be better brought up than we are.
The road rage of Mumbai's drivers is legendary. They tolerate nothing that slows them down, impedes them, diverts them or inconveniences them. Mumbai, with well over three million cars on the road, topped India in road accidents in 2016 with 24,639 incidents in which 467 died.
Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic, says the words 'road rage' lend "a clinical legitimacy to what might simply be termed as boorish behaviour elsewhere". He suggests 'traffic tantrums' instead, nicely underscoring the raw childishness of aggressive driving. Drivers are essentially mute when driving, limited to a set of basic signals with basic meanings. Honking is the only recourse 'language' at the driver's disposal, and in Mumbai, it is used indiscriminately. The main messages communicated seem to be: Out of my way!! and F**k you!!
In recent trips to Mumbai, I've noticed that those attitudes permeate daily transactions unrelated to traffic. Mumbaikars get feisty if they can't get their way; hate anyone who delays them even a little; are intolerant of errors; and respond to small inconveniences with anger and outrage.
I'd say that the Mumbaikar lives daily life in a state of road rage. Nowhere is that intense, intolerant, vicious and self-absorbed killer instinct more evident that at Churchgate or CSMT at peak hour. A boiling mass of humans, hell bent on somehow getting in will trample on and manhandle each other to get into the train. You could blame the poor railway network, the population, the lack of service or not enough compartments, but similar crowds in Bangkok don't go into deprivation-frenzy.
Neither do the so-called New World army ants (Eciton burchellii), focus of much study by traffic scientists. A single nest can contain over three million ants, more than Mumbai's cars combined, but when they leave to forage for food, they will move in three lanes, two outer ones for outgoing ants and the inner one for ants bringing food back. At crossroads, each focuses on helping others move, so everyone moves.
Perhaps this is what Mumbai has lost: the instinct to cooperate and be a community, gaining a deep selfishness instead. Unlike ants and swarms of locusts, which never have traffic jams and live happily ever after, we seem to have devolved into selfishness, with each one looking out for himself in life and in traffic. And, forgetting that when we help others move, we move, too.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Send your feedback to email@example.com
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Video: mid-day photographer puts bumpy Mumbai roads to test