New Delhi’s Language of Horns, India

{Written after a manual car driving lesson in New Delhi, India}

Three motorcycles squeeze in front of my car from either sides as I steer to dodge a fruit seller on a donkey-pulled cart, as well as rickshaw peddling adjacent to me, only to find a Pajero SUV – nearly as wide as the red dirt alley itself – hurtling towards us all. The driving instructor doesn’t bat an eye as he tells me to shift into second gear, even though we are clearly sandwiched in the narrow space between the red ruins of a fortress-like mosque built in 1505 and tin-roofed butcher, vegetable and barber stores. Pedestrians in saris, jeans, and laborer’s white turbans meanwhile zigzag through the cacophonic exchange of vehicles. A chorus of car, rickshaw, motorcycles, and bike horns resound in the chaotic clamor behind Masjid Modh, as the wheels stir clouds of red dust spiraling towards the fortress past which my car carves a path through the din.

“Why do you never use the horn?” despairs my driving instructor, before he repeats his golden rule for driving in New Delhi for the hundredth time this week, “Aap Dilli meh chalai hi nahin sakte horn ke bina.” You just cannot drive in Delhi without using your horn.

Today marks the fourth day that I have ever driven a manual car on the wilder side of life: the left side of the road. I’m learning to navigate the notoriously lawless – yet oddly liberating – streets of New Delhi. The madness of the traffic is something that everyone can socially agree on, unlike the intense divergence of current public opinion on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Hindu Party’s lotus emblem posters line the streets of the capital city where the government’s rivalry locks horns against opposition state government leader, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party.

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Back of a Truck (PC: Media Cache)

But in this moment I’m far from the gleaming white Ambassadors ferrying the minds of Rashtrapati Bhavan’s parliamentarians. Instead, my car lurches into a pothole before it sputters forward into first gear, narrowly emerging onto the road just as an auto-rickshaw honks, cuts, and bobs away yellow and green through the ghij-pij (crazy mess) of the marketplace in Gautam Nagar.

“Anyone can speed down an open highway. The real test of driving skill is getting through chaotic alleys like this without breaking your car or knocking down someone else,” says my driving instructor, just before he shakes his head at me for slamming on the brakes before engaging the clutch as we stop before a priest clad in saffron robes and brown beads bowing before a cow garlanded with flowers, standing in the middle of the twisted and congested alleyway.

“Put the car in neutral, this might take a few minutes,” he suggests. More reverent shopkeepers and pedestrians, including scooter and rickshaw drivers, fold their hands in Namaste as the frenzied marketplace traffic pauses briefly to acknowledge the holy animal.

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“Horn Please” (PC: TheGridSoup)

But trouble arises for a rookie driver like me the moment the sadhu priest motions to end the religious scene to the crowd. Riotous honks, bells, and yells of bicycle, auto-rickshaw, car, and horse-drawn cart drivers echo off the market alleyway’s bricks, and the mad frenzy messes up my precarious relationship with my clutch and accelerator. As I hurriedly attempt to restart my stalled car, I learn the third language necessary to become a true Delhiite: a fluency in the language of horns.

While a gentle beep beep to my right is a motorcyclist’s polite way of communicating his presence on the pavement shared by market-goers, a lengthy beeeeeeeeeeep from a Mercedes trying to edge out from behind me is sufficient insult to illicit muttered insults from both my instructor and the coconut seller standing at a stall close enough to my car window in the cramped space for me to feel concerned about the pieces flying off his broad carving knife.

Painted Lorry
Painted Lorry (PC: PhotoLibra)

“You have to unlearn everything you learnt about driving in America. It’s not rude to honk here. On the contrary, it shows that you value human life on the roads,” he explains, as we finally exit the chaos of Gautam Nagar in favor of the peaceful residential streets of Gulmohar Park, carpeted by the fallen yellow petals of their area’s namesake trees that line the way. As we drive past legendary Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan’s house, I am taught to honk – in varying level of politeness – at various pedestrians and cars. It’s not long before I discover the necessity of using my car’s horn on Delhi roads: people literally chat on the road with neighborhood friends until your car sends a third (rude beep) horn along with an aggressively assertive accelerator vroom.

Delhiites’ ability to coexist and adjust for one another in a landscape of daily chaos – there are no lanes and buses even travel against traffic when they want – never ceases to amaze me. Moving to the driver’s seat this past week has only further highlighted this amusingly admirable characteristic of India’s capital city. From the passengers riding on the roof of the interstate buses, to the pedestrians sharing their elevated pavements with motorbikes on monsoon flooded roads, and to a family of five riding on a single scooter, Delhi’s citizens truly keep to their unofficial motto: thorda adjust kar leh jiye. (Please adjust a little.) As I turn into my street I honk loudly before my house’s gate, communicating the passcode to the housekeepers that I made it through the wild “Horn OK” streets once again.

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The fact that the back of trucks wish you luck to drive says it all ! (PC: LonelyPlanet.in)

 

 

 

 

Author: Nikita Taimni

A Dubai-based blogger, I write about travel, theatre and lifestyle in the cities I explore around the world. Follow me on Instagram @nikitalyfe and follow via email if you enjoy reading my posts!

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