If you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere in the world,’ my father would say with remarkable authority for a man who had never set foot outside India’s shores.
When I moved to Singapore, I thought the broad, smooth roads looked easy to navigate. Then I noticed something peculiar: they were painted with colourful lines. The white ones were dashed or continuous, the yellow ones were single or double but some of them, instead of following the straight and narrow path, went zigzag, like my college friend Balasubramanium after a few drinks. Disconcerted by this display of geometry, I cornered a Singaporean colleague.
“What are these lines?” I asked, pointing to the road.
“Lanes?” he said. Feeling bad for the poor fellow’s hearing, I raised my voice.
“NOT LANES. LINES!”
“Don’t shout,” he said. “Those lines demarcate lanes. You have to drive within your lane.”
“I get my own lane?” I was impressed.
Shaking his head, he took me for a drive to educate me. Apparently I had to stay in the leftmost lane and use the indicator to switch lanes to overtake. So restrictive! In India, we drive on whichever part of the road we like and, if an opportunity for overtaking arises (as sometimes happens between 1am and 5am), we do it in any direction — right, left, up or down.
He continued: “On a lane with a continuous white line, you may not change lanes under any circumstances.”
With trademark cunning, I thought of a loophole: “What if I suddenly see a pothole in front?”
“What’s a pothole?”
“I’ll show you,” I said, pained by his ignorance, “Keep driving.” He did but, though I made him change lanes several times, I couldn’t show him a pothole. Finally I realised his ignorance was based on bliss: there are no potholes in Singapore.
He continued: “A single yellow line signals it’s the edge of the road; a double yellow means you can drop someone off but not park; a zigzag means you cannot even drop someone and a double zigzag…”
“Let me guess. You cannot even dream about thinking of stopping.”
“Don’t you have lanes in India?”
“While driving late at night, I have noticed a few lines on some Mumbai roads.”
Now he looked perplexed. “They draw the lines at night and wipe them off in the morning?”
“No, but they’re invisible during day because we drive all over them. The lines are only for fun.”
He graciously invited me to practice on his car. I found it easy enough to stay in my lane but soon came behind a car. I pressed the horn a few times.
“What are you doing?” my friend screamed.
“Sounding the horn,” I explained, honking a few more times.
He caught my hand. “Stop, please!”
I learnt that you don’t honk to tell the fellow that you’re behind him: he already knows it, having seen you in one of his side mirrors (the ones we tuck in carefully to prevent passing motorists from clipping them off).
Soon I learnt to drive in my lane, without honking. I carried that habit back when I visited India.
“Horn! Horn!” my mother screamed as I drove. I told her it’s rude to honk. Then I passed very close to a young man walking dreamily in the middle of a busy Chennai street; he jumped in panic, shouting: “Why don’t you horn, you idiot?”
In many ways I miss driving in India — on madly busy roads, where pedestrians, cycles, scooters, cars and buses jostle companionably for space. When traffic comes to a standstill, you can pass time by buying a vada pav or a book from mobile merchants always nearby. The road gives you moments of ecstasy that last. After a lousy day at work I would retire not thinking dark thoughts about my frustrating meeting, but reminiscing happily about my neat manoeuvre that morning when, in the split second before the signal turned green, I squeezed into the narrow space ahead of the Mercedes on my right and, horn blazing, raced ahead in triumph and glory.
Paddy Rangappa is a freelance writer based in Singapore. Read more on his blog: http://theflip-side.blogspot.com