A Delhi state of mind

Photo by Carl Densem.

Beneath the surface of New Delhi traffic lies acceptance. One might easily miss it amid the cacophonous honks, the strain of overworked engines and the veil of smog, but it is persistent. You find it on the face of every driver who is cut off (and honks) or crosses on red (while honking) or slices between a lorry and concrete barrier (honking frantically).

It is not the face you would expect in these situations. No, the Delhiites’ countenance is inappropriately passive, far removed from the grinding, masochistic anguish of navigating a city of 25 million people.

First-timers, thrown into this heady mix, find their senses overwhelmed. Visually, Delhi’s road are bracketed by sidewalks and demarcated by lanes, but these are soon found to be only decoration. From above, the flow of traffic resembles darting schools of fish – tightly gathered but jockeying – except that livestock, bicycles and wedding processions gum up what flow there is. Beyond the diversity of locomotion, one finds along the edge of each lane an unabashed corridor of opposition merrily making its way upstream and into hard-to-reach driveways.

Not to be outdone, the auditory experience crowds out and distorts the other senses. With careful practice, one can begin to distinguish the beeping horns from the truck bass from the rowdy bells. As it so often happens, after a day or two, you’ll think you’ve heard it all. Then, from behind, comes an emergency vehicle siren and nobody budges. It goes by and you find you’re the only one in disbelief that it’s just an emergency-less sedan. “But, what if…” and flashbacks of Jack crying “Wolf!” are eventually suppressed.

Weddings are worthy of a case study in and of themselves. They meander along – drums in tow so deafening that one’s chest bursts in synchronous pops – while launching full-scale fireworks aimlessly by hand. Around them, either to complement the ruckus or simply by habit, vehicles step up their already feverish honks and taxis find space to drop off additional troops who are immediately bustled to the frontlines by the Bhangra rhythm. To have heard a procession is simply a well-understood figure of speech; they are, and must be, felt.

Average annual levels of pollution in Delhi surpass Beijing – an easily confronted fact when one notices that lingering ring of smog never lifts. But drivers, being at once minor culprits and ongoing victims, wear no masks and, beyond newspaper forecasts and over-the-top exposés, are blissfully unaware if today is a respiratory onslaught or mild peppering. To this base of fumes is added the frequent culinary delights vended at roadside and sewerage, all brought to a pungent stew by the trapped heat.

Perhaps acceptance is borne of this sensory plunge. Stretched every which way, a mind must adapt and, amid the stubborn liveliness, find a narrower bandwidth from which to take it all in. The very real, immediate threat of serious harm, if not death, to both pedestrians – in a Frogger nightmare – and drivers is no doubt an obstinate incentive.

Karma, possibly, has a role to play in placating would-be road rage and perfectly level-headed panic: a shared belief that our actions, and what we intend, make an indelible difference in how our future pans out. Being cut off and forced to make space for a fellow rickshaw would not put a damper on the day, but rather divine some slither of space in a coming bind.

In a communal society like India, one begins to imagine that even the stress has been socialized. As if small, manageable dollops have been meted out to everyone instead of the imposing command of “I mustn’t be late” and “You’re in my lane.”

Whether any, all or none of these explain the acceptance found in New Delhi traffic is irrelevant. A newcomer is soon soothed by it, willed along if one so chooses, and finds irresistible pleasure in the deeper calm on offer.