Tuesday, December 22, 2009

TUSGIR (The Unofficial Survival Guide to Indian Roads) Part 1: Introduction

I learned to ride a bicycle when I was around 10; and was promoted to an active cyclist by 12 when my father bought me a blue BSA SLR on the eve of Easter 1992 – my first public ride on it was to attend the Easter mass at our parish church.

The only ‘rules on the road’ I knew that day, were:

  • Ride on the left side of the road (courtesy my father)

  • Look both sides before you cross (courtesy my mother)

Simpler times, they were… and I did pretty well.

Later that year, one of my teachers at school posted a GK question: “How many of you know road rules?”
I shot my right hand up, beaming.
”Yes, Tedy”
”Miss, drive on the left side of the road, walk on the right side”
”Eh!?” I was flabbergasted!
”Who told you all this?”
I kept quiet, and put up a ‘sad puppy’ face
”Alright, listen – you can walk on any side of the road – not just the right” (she pointed a not-as-this-idiot-says finger at me) “…and, you have to drive on the middle of the road!”
My jaw dropped, and eyes popped!

Life was great on the road - traffic lights were fantasies, seen only in movies, and it was an urban legend that the traffic policeman’s ‘dance’ was applicable only for motorists. We cyclists, impervious to rules, ruled the road. Some of us picked up many tricks, including ‘frightening’ the drivers of “KSRTC Superfast” buses on the NH 47.

Four more years later, at 16, I took the driver’s license test for under-50cc auto-transmission two wheelers, which are the only MVs permitted to be driven by 16 & 17 year olds in India. (No motor vehicles under 16; manual transmission LMVs from 18). It was then, I got a gist of what rules of the road could be, and I looked back at all those years I used the road with just two rules, and the rest based on a curious phrase called ‘common sense’.

But alas, the enlightenment didn't leave a lasting impact, as there was little opportunity to put them in practice. Since the rules were not really "enforced", the need to concur seldom arose; and moreover, if one took an initiative on himself to practice them no matter what, he never made it to the destination on time and in shape. Well, that's one item where karmic laws didn't really seem to apply :-) The law of large numbers too didn't make sense, as daily commutes never really add up to one long journey, but rather are individual entities with own goals.

At 21, I earned my license to drive manual transmission two wheelers and LMVs. And, to acquire it, interestingly, I took the test on an auto-transmission two wheeler (Kinetic Honda), and demonstrated a pathetic 15 seconds’ jerky ride on an ‘Ambassador’, where I stalled four times while shifting from 1st gear to 2nd, after which the next candidate was asked to drive. Thanks to the colorful world of bribes, my driving school instructors got me the license as was guaranteed when I enrolled with them. I learned no rules of the road during my entire training there – well, I didn’t learn to drive either!!! :-)

I learned to ride a manual transmission motorbike by myself, on the roads of Bhubaneshwar, when I was 22. A good friend’s battered Suzuki Samurai did the honor. Later that year, I bought my first motorbike, and soared the streets of Chennai. Still, not many rules! The only rules were, be alive, stop at a red signal if interested, and keep safe from the police. Chennai also taught tricks on how to handle policemen who solicited bribes with minimum drain from your wallet.

A big break was in the U.S.A, at 24, when I at last learned to drive an LMV. And with a sad heart, I realized that my common sense alone was not going to help much there, and that there indeed were rules, that they indeed were followed, that you indeed were expected to follow them, that they were enforced quite efficiently, and that bribes doesn't work on a policeman who spots your on a violation! A few years later, the U.K. too would confirm similar facts.

It is with such a realization that I hit the Indian roads again, on my Hyundai Santro, and began observing items that were taken for granted during the time I didn’t know of a world outside. And, with a big grin, I realized that we have a traffic world here – one of its own kind… of adventure, fantasy, comedy and drama!

Thus was born, The Unofficial Survival Guide to Indian Roads!


  1. Hehe fun post.
    But why did your teacher tell you one could ride in the middle and walk anywhere!!!
    Was she talking about the "followed" rules too?

  2. The only rules were, be alive, stop at a red signal if interested--- I loved this one , where do get these whacky oneliners

  3. aha back with a bang, are you:) waiting for chapter 1!

  4. Yeah, rite, still waiting for Chapter 1 :)
    BTW, no posts in 2010?

  5. You may end up strolling a ton more than you need to, so your survival kit ought to have an agreeable however solid match of boots. bushcraft