Wear a helmet!, my friend warned me as I left her house. And switch on the headlight, followed another command on the heels of the first. It was dusk, with an overcast sky threatening to rain any minute, a time when I don’t really like driving.
I ran to my parked scooter, fumbled with the keys unfamiliar as yet with the mechanism. These new-fangled scooters have an in-built lock mechanism which meant that I had to struggle a bit till I could get the lock undone. I, of course, had no helmet. Just a huge scarf, stored under the scooter seat which is the norm in India, and some night-time driving goggles which came from the builders’ merchants in the UK.
Wrapping my face and head securely with this long, black scarf and slipping my night-vision goggles on, I looked like I was about to raid a bank – not just drive back home. Starting the scooter, I remembered my friend’s advice to switch the headlight on. Could I find it? I toggled all the available switches, rode a few metres without the light, thinking it would come on on its own, swept my hand in front of the headlight where there should be a beam of light lighting my way in the swirling traffic – de nada, zilch, nyet, non! Nothing was happening.
I stopped the scooter and fiddled some more and suddenly – there was light! I had no idea which switch was needed to flick the lights on, but suddenly giddy with excitement and some trepidation, I eased myself into the traffic.
Streetlights were now being turned on, all vehicles in India drive with their headlights on full beam. So being blinded is part of the course. And the Indian traffic has a very organic way of driving. At any given time you can expect pedestrians, cyclists, rickshaws (tuk-tuks), two-wheelers (scooters, bikes etc.) and four-wheelers (cars, lorries, buses etc.) among other things criss-crossing the road in an almost drunken manner.
So I geared myself to ride my two-wheeler (scooter) amidst all this mayhem. Not being used to driving like this anymore (not for at least the past 20 years), all my driving instincts strained at overtaking a huge bus from the left. But that was the only way I had of slowly inching forward towards the traffic lights. And my reasoning – everybody else was doing it! So I felt the body take a deep breath (it definitely was not conscious!), and taking my life in my hands, I shot forward to the top of the queue. And only then I found my body slowly expelling the inbreath it had taken a few seconds before.
My friends who I had gone to visit that afternoon were shocked and aghast that I had been foolhardy enough to ride my scooter to their house. It was a good 15 kms away. They were non-plussed as Uber is very common in the urban areas as well as the ubiquitous Indian rickshaws. Though nowadays they run more silently as they are being converted to CNG – a cleaner fuel.
Traffic swirled around me. Each vehicle on high beam even though the streets were very well lit. Horns honked, vehicles braked, overtaking from the right and the left. Most of the time, you drive in the middle of the road. This, I believe, is because this gives the driver maximum maneuverability to turn right or left when needed. Usually my thinking brain tells me that when a right indicator is blinking, the vehicle in front of me is turning right. But that is not always the case in India. It can turn right, turn left or continue merrily straight on without a care in the world blinking on – off – on – off all the time.
Driving on Indian roads at the best of times is a challenge. At night it becomes even more so. Eyes strain, shoulders hunch up to the ears, back muscles bunch up, stomach muscles cramp, breath is held and brows furrow.
But it can also be a dance. A graceful dance as you cannot really speed in such dense traffic. The most I found myself doing was 40 km/ph. At that speed nothing much is really going to happen. So I tootled along merrily, zig-zagging my way through the traffic, overtaking from whichever side I found a way to get through.
Arriving home, I let out a huge sign of relief that I had managed to drive home without killing myself or killing another driver on the road! And as to whatever happened to witnessing and meditation? Well it just went out for a hell of a ride, didn’t it?