Winston Fletcher describes driving to the Taj Mahal on an Indian dual carriagewayby Winston Fletcher / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
In most parts of the world motorists share simple human characteristics: aggression, self-righteousness, bad temper and malevolence-characteristics determined by natural selection to be essential for highway survival. Indian drivers, however, are special. They make Italian drivers seem cautious dullards. And in India, the reputation of the Delhi-Agra road is even more special. Agra being the home of the Taj Mahal, this road is constantly crowded with tourist and commercial traffic.
Leaving Delhi, the road starts as a dual carriageway or “double-road” as the locals charmingly call it. One begins to relax. Dual carriageways, one believes, are comparatively safe: they obviate head-on collisions. Wrong. The nomenclature “double-road” is deadly accurate. To Indian drivers, a dual carriageway is just two roads, side by side. This means that you can drive either way down either side. Playfully, Indian drivers like to cross the central barrier whenever possible and hurtle down the other side-what we would unimaginatively call the wrong side-weaving in and out of oncoming traffic. “If they are caught,” said our helpful young guide, frowning, “they may possibly be fined.” How reassuring.
Sometimes their lane-hopping is evidence of thoughtful long-term planning. They intend turning right in the future, maybe 15 or 20 miles down the road, and it is obviously sensible to be prepared. It would be ticklish to have to change lanes at the last moment. Sometimes they have more urgent reasons for crossing the carriageway. Elephants, water buffalo, or camels.
Indian highways jumble together a heady combination of reckless automotive and serene animal traffic. You may never have given it much attention-I thoughtlessly had not-but it takes a while for a slightly faster elephant to overtake a slightly slower elephant. So when a queue of juggernauts finds itself trailing behind two large grey trotting bums and spots the opportunity to whiz past, albeit on the other side of the double-road, it seems the only logical thing to do. “If they are not doing this,” the young guide explained, “they are never getting anywhere.”
And since the lorry drivers need to drive their rattletraps like the clappers in order to achieve their schedules and earn their bonuses, they do not have time to hang around for elephants. Nor can they afford to restrict their driving to daylight hours. This raises its own complications because many Indian vehicles, both engine and creature propelled, lack lights. In the case of animal drawn vehicles this may be forgiven-evolution having neglected to develop camels and water buffalo with either mainbeams or built-in dynamos. But in the case of motor vehicles, driving in the dark is another example of thoughtful long-term planning. If the drivers switched on their lights, the bulbs would eventually wear out. Then they would have to drive without lights. By not switching them on they ensure the bulbs never wear out. Obvious, really. Keeping your lights off, however, is no excuse for sticking to the right side of the double-road.
To cope with these headaches, our guide explained, many drivers prefer to drive drunk. This seems understandable, although one hopes the Indian traffic police do not take the view that to understand is to forgive. Not that the police can spare much time to chase sozzled miscreants when so much is spent dealing with smash-ups. Driving to Agra in the early morning I counted five newly crashed lorries and may have missed a few.
We made the journey in a taxi. Naturally, it did not gleam spick and span like a London taxi. In fact, the coachwork was held together with rust, the running boards were falling off, the brakes made a whinnying noise which appeared to be recognised as a mating cry by many of the animals we flew past, and the suspension was as non-existent as the seat-belts. It needed to stop for water and/or oil every 30 miles.
Because the taxi conked out, twice, we ended up travelling back to Delhi at night. In accordance with local tradition, the driver showed great reluctance to switch on his lights. I showed an equal reluctance to continue the journey unless he did so. Then all was revealed. He switched on and the beams pointed upwards, roaming the sky like searchlights. Had any low-flying aircraft appeared we would have spotted them.
Forced to stop for water or oil, or both, the driver took the opportunity to kick his headlights, fiercely, downward. For the rest of the journey they illuminated the road surface a couple of metres ahead. We narrowly escaped smashing into several oxcarts, innumerable oncoming lorries, a tall, dark, handsome camel and more lightless bicycles than I knew existed outside China. As one travels, white-knuckled, one keeps thinking the risks are ridiculously high, the odds of survival ridiculously low. But what is to be done? Get out on the highway? In the darkness? And try to hitch a lift?
An Agra-Delhi motorway is under construction. It won’t be so much fun. Oh, and the Taj Mahal? Worth every missed heart beat and fingernail scarred palm.