Anyone who’s spent any time on the roads there will know that traffic in India is an absolute nightmare. Road discipline is patchy at best and the application of basic common sense breathtakingly absent; vehicles hurtle into blind bends or career towards each other in hoards down the centre of bumpy, narrow and fragmenting roads before lurching aside only to avoid a collision. For the remainder of the time they are, well, anywhere on the road but most frequently in the oncoming lane. Drivers continually sound their horns while ignoring road signs, line markings and speed limits; more worryingly, received knowledge is that any obstacles in the way – be they cows, people, cycles, carts or other vehicles – must be either ignored or passed, depending on what speed they are moving at. Crowds of pedestrians spill out into the roads due to badly parked vehicles and rubble-strewn verges, vying for space with innumerable ‘two-wheelers’ and seemingly suicidal truck and bus drivers – especially those ferrying pilgrims.
And most numerous of all, the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws – ‘tuk-tuks’ – weave in and out of the traffic trailing clouds of blue smoke and constantly tooting their horns to generate a of noise and chaos. Put simply; it’s bedlam. There are rules, of course, but as they are ignored with single-minded thoroughness by everyone, including the police, foreigners require a car and driver if they aren’t up for any of the public transport options that the sub-continent offers. And anyway, my days of sitting three to a seat with people that don’t use underwear were over years ago.
In Kerala this week we left the relative safety [and luxury] of the delightful and highly recommended surroundings of the Raviz for a few days in the forests of the Western Ghats, a mountainous region away from the humid coastal plain. Our driver, supplied by the genuinely helpful people at the hotel, was selected, I’m guessing, for his command of English rather than his ability to coordinate hand and eye movements but we didn’t know that at the time. Smiling and positive in the hotel coffee lounge where we were introduced, he readily agreed that our journey of some 160km would be a benign but wondrous adventure, punctuated with invaluable local knowledge, pearls of cultural insight and occasional roadside stops for fresh pineapple juice or opportunities to snap shimmering vistas. To each of my questions he smilingly replied, ‘no problem, Sir! I should have known better.
As we set off I asked him if he was clear about the journey, the route we’d take and so on – the kind of amiable banter that one enters into in order to bond with someone who will, after all, be an enforced travel companion for the next four or five hours. His response was to gaze serenely into the middle distance, raise a finger in assertion, and, with a gentle shake of his head, reply, ‘God will take us there’. That, I believe, and the accompanying whimsical smile, was meant to reassure us but my faith in divine intervention, frail at the best of times, had evaporated with the fumbling gear changes and sudden braking. A brief shadow of alarm passed over Mission Control’s face and, as our little car meandered erratically across the tarmac I was advised in the most unambiguous terms that I was expected to wrestle control of the vehicle from him in the event of a confrontation with a truck, overloaded two-wheeler or washed-out road.
From previous experience I know that driving in India can be somewhat eccentric and I’m not a nervous passenger but I was already fighting the urge to grab the wheel and drag the car back onto our side of the road, especially after a bus full of shrieking worshippers avoided us by so narrow a margin that the car was filled with an intoxicating aroma of incense, garlic and body-odour. Interspersed with changes in velocity and sudden lurches, our progress became increasingly hesitant and he clearly sensed something in my tone when I asked if he actually knew the way, especially after he’d stopped and engaged in animated conversations with several taxi drivers, a shopkeeper and, at one point, a cyclist who pointed back in the direction we’d come.
At that point the road was climbing through 2000m on hairpin bends alongside precipitous drops into forested ravines. We should have been about 15km from our destination and less than an hour from the hotel but we passed a road sign that informed us we still had over 60km to go – two hours at least. Rather than invoke a spiritual solution in the face of my polite irritation our driver, clear now that my patience had gone the way of the setting sun, merely refused to answer me when I asked where the hell we were and when the hell we’d reach the hotel. I clearly wouldn’t take silence for an answer and my persistence eventually elicited a slow, deep breath and the adoption of an appropriately formal tone before he replied with dignified resignation, ‘I have no absolutely no idea, sir.’ This was surprisingly disarming and took us both aback as this is the last thing you’d expect your driver to say when you are high in the mountains of a foreign land with darkness closing in and an unknown distance still to cover. After all, that was the only reason he was there.
Well, we eventually arrived and it was dark, some two hours later than planned and a mysteriously unaccounted-for 75km extra on the journey.
The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in India tells us in its latest statistical report [for 2011] that 140000 people were killed in road accidents during the year [cows, dogs and elephants are not mentioned] as the consequence of ‘one road accident every minute, and one road accident death in less than four minutes’. It also lists the causes of fatal accidents and, while acknowledging that the majority of these are due to the fault of the driver, a significant number – I calculate that to be around 20% – is due to other related causes that include issues with passengers.
I can’t find the data but I suspect a great many of these involve the driver being murdered.