Sitting in the traffic jams I endure to and from work, the air conditioning too cold but the air outside too polluted to open the window, I fantasize about driving outside of Delhi. I imagine breathing freely and relaxing my neck muscles from their constant vigilance against stop-and-go whiplash. I yearn for the casual drives of youth in suburbia: picking a road out of town, following it to its conclusion, and encountering no other cars along the way.
Such drives aren’t found in India. Here, the rural roads are terrifying.
Not in the way roads outside of Denver were terrifying, where teenagers on a high school joyride scared each other with urban legends of a Third Bridge haunted by dead cheerleaders and massacred (American) Indians and where sheer supernatural panic set in when, on one perfectly cloudless and starry night, I swear to God it suddenly started snowing just as we crossed that infamous span. No, in rural India, the terror is of the fear-for-your-life, look-out-for-that-buffalo! sort caused by the sight of overburdened, hand-painted, snub-faced Ashok Leyland goods haulers barreling down on you, bouncing erratically on oil-encrusted struts, Kali’s tongue growing huge in your windshield as she cackles at your imminent demise, the high-pitched yowls of their unnaturally loud horns echoing in your skull until your driver nonchalantly pulls slightly left, opening up a gap that’s exactly wide enough for a speeding truck to pass through without killing anyone.
It’s not that the composition of traffic inside and outside cities is very different. In both cases you dodge vehicles and animals and funeral processions while men repairing scooters hang their rears into oncoming traffic and trucks park wherever they please. While the countryside does add a few variations — reducing the number of sedans and adding villagers who spread raw grain on the road so traffic can save them the trouble of crushing it — the difference is in attitude.
Everyone wants to get there first. So everyone is endlessly accelerating ahead of everyone else, shifting into the opposite lane to jump the vehicle in front of them. This turns every two-lane road into a four-lane road: two lanes coming, two lanes going, both on the same two lanes.
It’s vertical Frogger.
Cars are passing trucks, trucks are passing busses, busses are passing carts. If you’re not braking in panic then you’re flooring it in impatience. You’re either swinging into the opposite lane to get ahead of one bus or plunging back into the proper lane to dodge another.
Drivers are both terrifyingly reckless and shockingly precise: you avoid death by a consistent six foot margin each time.
And even if your driver is staying in the proper lane — if, somehow, your wide eyes and pathetic whimpers have convinced him, for the sake of your poor tourist hearts, to take it a little easier — oncoming traffic is not so considerate. Massive walls of unwashed metal grow in your windshield as they pass equally massive walls of unwashed metal on their left. Might makes right: they’re not slowing down, so you sure as hell better. Your driver stomps on the brakes and pulls to the left, and you are once again spared by six feet from becoming road paranthra.
No wonder India is such a religious country. On my trips outside of Delhi, I’ve found God every time.