South India. Mid-November. The busride to Allepuzha.
Standing, swaying, terrified, the windshield a mere 36 inches away from my face, I hear and feel the metal framework of the bus crepitating ominously as we swing around an overladen oxcart into the kaleidoscopic violence of the oncoming lane. Only in India, I reflect, is life this cheap, safety so casually disregarded. It is only India, in which everything comes delivered in parodic extremes, that could encompass a form of recklessness so complete, an imprudence so boutique and exquisite, as that of the Indian public bus driver.
It should be noted at this point that I am no stranger to developing-world buses, no mere tyro of ground transportation – passing on blind curves, uphill; vertiginous un-guardrailed drops; landslides on twisty mountain roads; animals tied in sacks on the top of the bus – all the staples of kamikaze 3rd-world driving are pedestrian fare to me. But swaying there at the bus’s front on the way to Allepuzha, paralyzed with fear at the constantly unfolding threat of spectacular, violent and untimely death, I realize: somehow this is different. There is a kind of special character embodied in the Indian driver himself, a kind of willful, immense and implacable hostility brought to the act of driving, that raises it almost to the level of fine art; as if someone, somewhere, is instructing them in this. My eyes peeled wide by the constant hourlong spectacle of imminent near-disaster, I practice the psychological coping strategy of committed distraction, compiling a list of rules that I imagine are given to all Indian Road Transport drivers on their first day of work:
“Dear Indian Public Bus Driver [the memo in my head reads]: You made it! To ensure a smooth and comfortable driving experience while on the roads of Bharat Mata, Our India, please remember: the default place to drive is in the oncoming lane. While others would advise against travel in a lane containing speeding traffic that threatens to collide with your vehicle head-on, they are, simply, wrong. Instead, please remain in the oncoming lane with your horn permanently fixed in the ‘ON’ position. This is the signal for all smaller vehicles – scooters, autorickshaws, bicycles, and cars – to veer off sharply onto the shoulder at the last second. This is your solemn right and duty.
As such, you should remember to always use your horn. Use it because you’re passing. Use it because they’re passing. Use it to signal to other drivers that you have a horn, resounding like a great ecstatic war yelp to all the endless heavens. And use it, most importantly, because you’re angry.
Remember: always drive angry! While this runs contrary to Bill Murray’s instructions to the groundhog, on the roads of Our India, anger is the best medicine. Always be angry. Operate your vehicle with the unvarying vindictiveness of an Old Testament God. At the slightest provocation, real or imagined, immediately act to revenge yourself upon the people around you by cutting them off, following at a distance of approximately 18 inches, and forcing their moped roughly onto the shoulder. This is your legal and moral right as a driver of Indian public transport.
Lastly, remember that you should always be trying to pass. Even if you are already in a lane occupied by oncoming traffic. Even if the vehicle in front of you is itself trying to pass, or moving at the same or greater speed than you are. Even if you are in far too high a gear and the engine is plaintively struggling to maintain the RPMs necessary to avoid a stall. Even if, God help us, the vehicle that you are passing is another public bus of the exact same make going to the exact same place you are. ALWAYS. TRY. TO. PASS. The only time in which passing is contraindicated is in the few seconds directly preceding a head-on collision with a vehicle (lorry, dumptruck, etc.) larger than your own. At that point you may, at the last second, swerve violently back into your lane… but ONLY for the brief moment that it would have killed you. Then calmly resume trying to pass.”
An hour later, stepping off the bus at Allepuzha with rubbery legs, I cast a quick glance at the driver, pulling smoke into his mouth from the tight tobacco spiral of a beedi. The bus is still idling; he revs the accelerator a little, a lazy look on his face like a veteran soldier in a lull in combat, and I swear to myself that from now on I will only sit at the very back of the bus. The same way a condemned man, in his last instants, seeks a blindfold.
photo supplied by Matthew Crompton