This past week I spent at least two hours a day driving across Rajasthan, Haryana, and Delhi states. While driving is a universal task, there are three things I find distinctive about driving in India:
First and most evident: the traffic conventions are unique. There is speedy passing and minimal regard to lanes. It’s not unusual to dodge an oncoming truck, even on a divided highway when you might assume they’d be on the opposite side of the barrier. There are plenty of slow-moving objects (e.g., donkeys, tractors, horses, cows, bicycles) on the highway. And horns punctuate the majority of driving maneuvers.
Because of these conventions, driving in India takes distinct skill. I’ve always had a driver when I’ve come to the country (daring to drive only once in Calcutta – and then for maybe a block). This means that I’m almost always in the passive passenger role instead of the active driver role.
And finally, there just seems to be a lot of driving. Over the past week, I’ve spent over a day of it (yep, twenty-four hours) in the car. Four and a half hours here. Three hours there. Thirty minutes that was supposed to be five minutes, but we got caught behind a gaggle of schoolkids drumming and then had a run-in with a camel.
Collectively, this makes driving in India quite different from the States. There is simply a lot of time in a car, over which you have minimal control, and you may feel explicitly out-of-control when your driver makes the Nth harrowing dodge-and-weave move around a formidable truck.
In reaction to this difference, I’ve heard every possible reaction: Some visitors complain “Ugh, the traffic is awful! It took us six hours to get to Agra!” Others comment: “I loved all our visits, but my favorite part was just watching the world go by in the car.”
I’m no exception; my own experience of driving this week ranged from:
- “Hurrah for driving! What a wonderful way for me to reintegrate back into India. I’ll watch the world go by, read the Times of India, and get my head back into being here.”
- “Driving is the worst. I don’t want to make small talk with anyone and think my head is going to explode.” Note: We stopped halfway through this drive for me to throw up. Great times.
- “Hurrah for driving! I’ll sit next to my new friend and work on learning the Hindi alphabet so I can read the signs!”
- “How lovely to have this time to discuss – to debrief, to digest, to talk about things that really matter.”
- “Driving is the worst. I’m so done with this. Get the f’ out of the way of the bus. I will personally get out and push the cow off the road if that’s what needs to happen here.”
- “Why are we stopped? . . . No, seriously, why are we stopped?”
It’s crazy: When I hate driving, I really hate driving. I am viscerally tied up in my frustration and annoyance. And when I love driving, I really love driving. I am compelled by the country, happy to chat with a friend, and completely at ease about how long everything takes. The bad is objectively bad, and the good is objectively good.
Yet, in reality, driving in India is neither good nor bad. It just is. And my experience of it is simply what I decide to bring to the situation. My reaction to the blaring horns and gridlocked cars is just the result of the experiences I’ve had, the opinions I’ve formed, and the reality I decide to buy into at any given time.
The same is true with every experience in life: traffic, changes of plans, a promotion, death, the breakfast menu, that music blaring, the room I’m assigned at the hotel, illness. We often buy into broad assumptions of good or bad (i.e., getting upgraded at the hotel yesterday is good, getting a migraine the other day is bad). Ultimately, though, none of these assessments are objectively true. (For example, my upgraded room creeped me out because it was so big and old and I slept with the lights on. The migraine, on the other hand, made me really conscious about how I was engaging with other people and ensured I was fully present when I recovered.)
Nothing is good or bad. It just is.
So thank you, India, for reminding me of this truth and giving me the choice of what to bring. I prepare for yet more driving tomorrow, I’m going to let myself believe that all that car time can be a blessing.