Traffic in Mumbai

There is method in this madness

The traffic in Mumbai is a language in itself. Every morning I set out on an adventure of sorts—a grinding, repetitive, smog-filled and completely uninvited adventure. Somewhere, although nobody has seen them, is a conductor (possibly dressed in a black tailcoat or shimmering pencil skirt) swinging their arms wildly, unaware of the cacophony they are leading their musicians to perform. I am one of the musicians. I look everywhere as I sound my horn, mentally charting my course through an unsystematic, unpredictable mess of machines rolling lethargically down the road. If everyone wants to get where they are going so hurriedly, how ironic is it that we are the very people causing a traffic jam?

To my left a path opens up. The rickshaw in my mirror and I both realise only one of us will make it through. And it will be me.

Manoeuvring my 500cc hunk of metal inches away from the pavement, I proceed to the head of the queue, closer to the traffic lights. The light shines red yet nobody is waiting. In Mumbai, traffic lights are merely suggestions. The red tells you someone else may have a green so you need to look before you unheedingly cross the intersection anyway. But if everyone is jumping the signal, why is the traffic behind them not moving any faster?

As I reach the next signal—the second of about ten on my way to work every day—the same routine repeats. Cars stack up to the right making way for two-wheelers on the left. The three-wheeled auto rickshaws continue to lament their identity crisis: do I belong with the cars or do I belong with the two-wheelers? And then a sliver of empty road bares itself, turning the rickshaw driver’s lament into an opportunistic scowl: I am whatever is convenient for me to be.

I watch with distaste as he proceeds to occupy a spot too small for him to go through yet wide enough for me and two-dozen others on two-wheelers, all of whom could have gone ahead had this chap been a bit more decent.

In Mumbai, traffic lights are merely suggestions.

At the next signal the show repeats; but some of us have now learnt our lesson. The auto rickshaw hesitates in switching gears when the traffic light turns green and in the blink of an eye he is left behind as two-wheelers pass him by in droves. In step with this dance is the sound of discordant honking. This opera is symbolic of life in Mumbai: somehow fast-paced yet nobody knows why. If you pause to question it, you get left behind.

Mumbai needs to slow down. Mumbai needs to think, to let her mind wander, to juice up her creative strengths. We could start doing that right now but someone behind us reminds us there is no time for that. The ugly, shrill sound of a horn pierces the air. Move. Persuaded and emboldened by the first honk, a few more blare just for good measure. Move.

At the next intersection those of us on two-wheelers have snaked to the left. A slow pattern starts to emerge catalysed by the monotony. This traffic is madness but there is method in it. If you accidentally block someone off, you wave in apology. And if you are accidentally blocked off yourself, you let it go. Of course nobody expects you to keep driving after a collision, but even with nobody telling you, you learn that the little things are worth letting go of. Forgiveness is a potion that enriches life. Either that or you have no time to carry it around with you. If I look hard enough, will the traffic in Mumbai teach me something? Or do we see what we want to see? I shrug off the thought: here I am looking at hundreds of vehicles even though I would be happy to not see them.

A good forty-five minutes later I have moved a mere eight kilometres. In any other city I could have gone almost five times as far. Fast-paced Mumbai is ironically exhausting my precious time. Fast-paced Mumbai is infuriatingly slow.

By the time I finally reach work, I eagerly wait to tip off my helmet for the rest of the day and let my bike rest too. In several hours we will sing this song and dance this dance again together. This time under the moonlight.


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