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January 2006
Lighter Side

Anything Goes On Chennai Roads

Poor ignorant me. I used to think New York City was the ultimate test of a driver's skills, that once you had labored down one of those snarled streets, you could handle traffic anywhere. But I've just experienced traffic in Chennai, one of India's biggest cities, and let me tell you this: New York City is child's play. Take a Chennai taxi driver to the Big Apple and he'd glide through traffic during rush hour, blindfolded with one arm tied behind his back and the gear stuck in reverse.

"How did it go, Ramaswamy?" you'd ask him.

"What, sir," he'd say with a perplexed expression, "is today a holiday or something?"

"No, Ramaswamy, it's the busiest day of the year. The city is hosting a championship parade for its baseball team, not to mention the annual convention of the Larry King Ex-Wives Association. So what are your impressions?"

"New York drivers are so nice, sir. Kind and nice. Such polite people. I am also impressed with all the pavements here. Very smooth to drive on. So much space. And no one is sleeping on them."

"Any other thoughts, Ramaswamy?"

"I like all the one-way streets, sir, because I have to worry only about oncoming traffic. No one is trying to get past me. And the pedestrians, they are so few here. I had to swerve around only six or seven."

"But what about the rules, Ramaswamy? Don't you follow them?"

"Rules? Hahaha! In Chennai, we have only one rule: Don't give the police more than you have to."

Anything goes on Chennai roads, not just cars, trucks and buses. I've seen such an array of vehicles ? bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, auto-rickshaws, vans, carts ? that I would barely raise an eyebrow if I spotted an airplane weaving through traffic. "It costs too much to park it at the airport," the pilot would say. "So I've decided to drive it from home. Those are my relatives sitting on the wings."

Now and then, you may also see a stray cow in the middle of the road. But most animals, thankfully, are smart enough to stay away from the madness. Humans, on the other hand, aren't just trying to travel down the road ? many are actually trying to walk across it. This requires good reflexes and agility, for you never know where a vehicle will appear from. Indeed, Indians would be guaranteed a gold medal if "traffic dodging" ever becomes an Olympic event.

At the busiest times, it's hard to find space between vehicles. What Americans call "tailgating," Indians call "good driving." If you leave the slightest gap between your car and the next, someone will try to squeeze into it. And you'd better put your foot on the brake, otherwise you may run over the encroaching party, perhaps a cyclist transporting bags of groceries or a motorcyclist carrying his family of 12.

If brakes are overworked in Chennai, so are horns, warning everyone of a vehicle's approach. The incessant beeping is the chief contributor to noise pollution, other than local politicians. Some drivers, worried about straining their fingers, have programmed their horns to blare every three seconds. That's why, if you ask a hotel clerk for a wake up call, he'll smile and say, "Don't worry. You'll be up at dawn. It's a great benefit of the city."

What amazes me most about Chennai traffic is the apparent lack of concern for personal safety. Few motorcyclists wear helmets, few drivers wear seat belts. But many motorists do have pictures of gods in their vehicles, so there's at least some much-needed praying going on.


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