We almost gave up waiting for our guest house driver at the Delhi airport – a short dark-skinned Indian man in his 20s, half-wet from the generous monsoon rain holding a dripping placard with our names, barely discernible. When he finally appeared, he was apologetic, "too much water on the road". We were about to find out exactly how much water Delhi had in store for us at the end of its monsoon season.
We hastily followed our wet driver's quick steps out of the airport onto slowly dribbling rain, past our first and indifferent cow, past a piece of shit of undetermined origin (later we learned to tell various kinds), past the huge puddles. The car was an old minivan with five to six layers of rubber sheets under our feet (I guess to protect us from the seas of water we were about to swim in). After we cautiously navigated out of the airport parking lot, the drive from hell started..
Everything around us was wet and grey. We went by hundreds of cars, Auto rickshaws, motorcycles. Many vehicles were stalled, blocking the traffic. People walked their stalled (because of rain and humidity) motorcycles and small Auto rickshaws under the rain.
The rules of the road were impossible to determine – cars, bikes and an occasional pedestrian – all moved in every possible direction simultaneously. Some intersections we miraculously negotiated looked as if an invisible hand had tossed cars at random as desperate gambling dice. In broken English our driver explained the obvious, "The traffic is very bad today". After he exhausted his limited English vocabulary, he switched on an Indian tune, and blasted it while holding the wheel with one hand, the other retrieving a pack of wet cigarettes from somewhere deep under his seat. The deafening tune coming from the radio was strangely befitting the madness of our ride; it kept the driver in sync with the demands of the road. Often he joined in, checking our paled faces in his rear mirror. He wanted his singing to reassure us.
Encouraged by the rhythmical beat of Indian drums, our driver squeezed into impossible small gaps, at full speed, constantly honking. On the dashboard, he had a small figurine of Siva, the Destroyer. He was nodding in blessing of this kamikaze stint. I mused clutching the rickety handle in my right hand, that it may have been better to appeal to Vishnu, the Preserver, but perhaps Siva had special skills needed to survive this drive. Just when I was beginning to relax, he decided we should take a different route. How? Simple. Turn sharply around, continue at full speed against oncoming traffic, honking crazily, encouraging thousands of honks in response. I wished I knew a few Hindu prayers. What was it that Mahatma Gandhi uttered when he was stabbed to death? Ram, ram, ram, ram.
As our one and a half hour drive (only 30 kilometers) continued, I began to realize that in this mess of cars, people and huge puddles, honking is the only organizing factor.
"Honk, honk-hoooooonk, honk-honk! Watch out, I am intending to go non-stop where I am going! I am not going to stop just to save your life!"
"Honk-honnnnnk, Honk-Hon! I see, you are on my tail, going non-stop where you are going. Aye, why do you rush so much?"
Honkkkkkk-honk-honk-honk-hooooonk! I am trying to kill myself and these two stupid foreigners."
"Honk-Honk. You must do what you must do."
And so it goes, non-stop, the music of Indian roads. We make a sharp left turn and with a brave acceleration, speed towards a very (and I mean VERY) narrow street of Maja-ka-Tilla (a small Tibetan quarter in Delhi). I am convinced we are going to kill a few people but no, despite our speed and incessant honking, a few pedestrians (many of them red robed monks) respond with a surprising sense of calm and trust. Trust in the driver? Trust in the inevitable? Divine intervention? Our mini-van barely misses; sometimes it actually brushes against their torsos. Only later do I learn that personal space is highly negligible in India: especially on the streets. Cars, cows, donkeys, motorcycles and people, all rub each other as they negotiate crowded streets and small spaces. Amazing, there are few accidents.
Finally we stopped, drowsy, spaced out, and happy to be alive, sensing the closeness of food and bed. From our guest house window, we could see, in the grey mist outside, the muddy waters of Yamuna River. A few huts huddled together, a group of women and children washed clothes and made fires. I am glad we are dry here, in this guest house.
Read more of Misha's narratives here.