Twenty Four Hours of Driving Across India

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:

From above

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?”

traffic inside

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.


Judgey McJudgerson

San Francisco, CA

“I wonder if you know what it means to be aware of something? Most of us are not aware because we have become so accustomed to condemning, judging, evaluating, identifying, choosing. Choice obviously prevents awareness because choice is always made as a result of conflict. To be aware … just to see it, to be aware of it all without any sense of judgment.”  -Jiddu Krishnamurti

I’ve been very much in the mode of judging lately.  I don’t mean that I’ve been judgmental from a moral perspective: gossiping about people, failing to be compassionate, or struggling with empathy.  Instead, I’ve been doing a lot of the innocent form of judging that we do every day.  I’ve been looking at things and saying:  This is good, that is bad.  I like this, I don’t like that.  I will take this one, I don’t want that one.  Or, at a higher level, my assessments start to look more like plans and ambitions with judgments hidden inside them:  I want more of this, I want less of that.  We are on-track, we are off-track.

It seems to be an easy (and fairly non-controversial) thing to make these assessments.

Aren’t they obvious?  (Of course breaking your leg is bad.)

Aren’t they generally agreed up?  (Everyone hates getting stuck in traffic.)

And, importantly, aren’t they useful?  (I don’t like getting burnt, so I will stay in the shade.)

From a pragmatic perspective, judgment is necessary.  We wouldn’t function in the world unless we were willing to make assessments and take action.  But from a broader perspective, there are three issues with judgment that I sometimes forget:

First, as Krishnamurti points out above, sometimes we lack awareness because we are so quick to judge.  We don’t take the moment of presence without judgment before we determine if a rose is beautiful or ugly.  When we decide how we feel about it so quickly, we miss the opportunity to just be aware of a situation.

Second, when we judge without that window of awareness, we forget that we are judging at all.  We go so quickly from seeing the world to asserting our judgments of it.  It’s not that we saw a rose and judged it to be ugly; we simply saw an ugly rose.  We lose consciousness that judgment happens at all.

And third, when we move straight to judgment, those judgments often become capital-T Truths to us.  In reality, all of our assessments are fungible.  None are necessarily right; almost all are, in some cases, wrong.  They look correct from some angles and wrong from other angles.  The rose that is ugly in a bouquet of lively blooms could be poignantly beautiful in a memento mori setting.  Time, place, and situation all play a role in determining the “correctness” of our assessment.  There is an old Taoist fable that illustrates this point:

There was an old farmer who lived on a farm with his family, his crops and his horse.  One day, his horse ran away.  Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.

“Ahh, what bad luck!” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next day, the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.  Again, the neighbors came to visit.

“Ahh, what good luck!” they exclaimed.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The day after, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the untamed horses.  He was thrown from the horse and broke his leg.  Again, the neighbors came to visit.

“Ah, what bad luck!” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The following day, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army.  As the son’s leg was broken, they passed by him.  The neighbors came again to visit.

“Ahh, what good luck!” they exclaimed.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

Bringing it back to my little, less rural world:  Is my line up of conference calls today good or bad?  Is it positive or negative that my friend cancelled dinner tomorrow?  Is it good or bad that the dog puked on the carpet last night?

I’m trying to remind myself that there’s no judgment inherent in any of it.  It all just is.  And the judgment I apply to it is entirely my own creation.