The author covers her ears amidst the honking and listens to herself think.
A few months ago, I attended a seven-year-old’s birthday party. There were, needless to say, quite a few other seven-year-olds around. And everyone was handed a little…bugle. At least that’s what I think those shiny contraptions that you could blow into and produce a deafening roar were. You don’t call weapons like that mere whistles. In under a minute, I think my ears began to weep. There was relentless bugling and giggling and shouting. I’m almost certain that every single one of these kids went back slightly deaf and very happy.
But it was a kids’ party, and grown ups with sensitive ears had no business there anyway.
Why am I reminiscing about this slightly bemusing experience? Because this weekend on the road, caught in the traffic and wedged between cycle-rickshaws, buses and cars, my ears took a little trip back in time. I knew I was stuck in Nehru Place, waiting for the green light, but my poor ears thought that I’d dragged them to another insanely loud party where they didn’t belong.
What does it say about us, this crazy, relentless honking? Most of us behind the wheel aren’t seven (hopefully); there is no party, no cakes or balloons. But we’ve been handed a deadly little toy, this horn that we must keep our hands on all the time, because pressing it is free, easy and cathartic. We use it like a buzzer in a quick-fire round. We don’t need a reason. A red light will do. A lazy bovine will do. A group of schoolchildren crossing the road will do. Anything will do.
Once, during a ride through a specially congested AIIMS to India Gate ride, I remember my auto driver honking incessantly, unthinkingly, at stationary traffic. No one was paying him any attention, not even a lorry that as good as requested him to honk (Horn OK Please). Some dirty glares is all he, and by some twisted association, I, got. While handing him the money, I asked him why he honked so much and he gave me a blank, pitying stare, the kind that you might remember getting from a teacher when you asked her for the third time to “please ma’am, could you explain again?” So I changed tactic. I asked him how many times in a day he honked, you know, a ball park figure. He said “sau, paanch sau baar” (a hundred, five hundred times), barked out a laugh and roared away on his magic machine. I didn’t take him seriously, then. Now, with No Honking Days declared and Foundations taking up the cause of curbing the capital’s honking habits, I’m beginning to reconsider.
The capital is often called a loud, boisterous place, fondly of course. Movies showcasing Delhi almost always have at least one loud, hearty character embodying the spirit of this city. And if that’s indeed our spirit, then the horn fits right in. Sitting inside our cars, stuck in the jam you didn’t expect and getting late for that meeting you needed to attend, there are two options — You roll down your window and start shouting; or you use the horn as an extended voice box. The third option, of sitting tight and calming yourself down silently and noiselessly, isn’t really an option at all.
What does Delhi honk at? Why does Delhi honk? There are the usual reasons — the bad, chaotic traffic. Here the horn is your friend. You want to overtake? You want to change lanes, you need that Maruti 800 in front of you to either speed up or get out of the way? You honk your horn. In a city that doesn’t really follow lane driving, doesn’t move at a consistent pace and doesn’t really care, you need your car to shout a bit.
Then there is the other, deeper, more human reason. Delhi is a bit angry. All the time. You are getting late? You had a bad breakfast and now you feel hungry? You don’t like the look of that man crossing the road? There’s your saviour, the horn that will bear the weight of your sorrows.
The noise pollution on the road is reaching a dizzying level. The signs telling you that there is a school or a hospital ahead are as good as invisible. The city feels restless, noisy, and frenzied. You don’t have long peaceful drives anymore. You just get from point A to point C while honking all the way through point B.
People come back from other, quieter countries and expound in wonder about the silent roads. We can’t go that way. Our traffic needs a bit of honking. We are a heady, noisy, loud city and that’s all right. But we could reach a compromise, couldn’t we? We could quieten down a little bit, enough to make sure that the noise wasn’t driving away any other thought in people’s heads. Enough to know that if Chandigarh decided to fall silent for maybe a few minutes, it couldn’t actually hear us driving.