The horn melam on the roads

A huge bus blocks your view as you approach the traffic lights and you get jittery. How, you wonder, would you know the light has turned green? Not to worry. The incessant honking that bursts forth all around you the microsecond this happens will give you the clue, of course. And the cue to join the gang and honk as you try to surge ahead.

It’s a crazy, raucous orchestra out there, with its discordant blasts resonating with the same impatient message, ‘Get a move on, will you?’ What do these testy drivers expect anyway, that the vehicles in front of them will take giant leaps over the others lying ahead? They wait irritably, one hand on the horn and the other gripping the steering expectantly, an annoyed foot on the brake while the other rests eagerly on the accelerator, keeping their eyes peeled for the green signal that would give them the licence to honk and bully everyone forward. Do they really think the other vehicles are staying put just to enjoy the view?

Whoever harbours the misconception that one of the defining Indian virtues is patience only needs to come to a busy junction to have that myth blasted. Woe betide the driver whose car or auto perversely refuses to start when the light changes! The roaring lion who had been furiously alternating bass with soprano turns into a rueful lamb, meekly soaking up the sound blasts, colourful words, dirty looks and even crude gestures as he nervously tries to get his vehicle going. And double woe if the driver is a lady for she has to listen to offensive sexist remarks too.

It’s not just at traffic lights that vehicles sound their grating horns. Some drivers do it all the time, whether they are speeding maniacally as if involved in a Formula 1 race or crawling sulkily along at peak traffic time. It makes no difference to such a driver that he is outside a hospital or driving in the wee hours of the morning. He has scant respect for quiet zones and ‘No Horn’ signs. The ‘Sound Horn’ sign at the back of some lorries and buses appears to be his inspiration. A few seem to enjoy honking so much you get the feeling they haven’t outgrown their schoolboy games of playing at driving cars, while for some it is a means of expressing their feelings – an impatient blast when angry, a short gentle hoot when happy, a series of cooing toots when in love and a discordant, plaintively tapering gulp when hurt.

Government vehicles believe they have every right to cut their way arrogantly through the traffic using flashing lights, official boards and of course the ear-splitting horn. Transport buses love to declare their superior might with their imperious honking and speed while the less said about the reckless private buses, the better. My son Amar made a telling comment when I once told him not to board a private bus if he can help it. ‘It’s safer to be inside the private bus than outside it,’ he said, spot on.

A friend, who recently visited the United States (U.S.) where it is considered offensive to use the horn, said she had heard it only once during her month’s stay there. It can be legitimately used only in an emergency.

Tell this to our drivers and they will immediately counter it by saying it is easy in the U.S. where rules are followed by all, but in India, they face an emergency situation every time they are on the road. Chaos reigns supreme here with vehicles from bicycles, bullock carts and rickshaws to sports cars and luxury buses choking the roads. The number of vehicles keeps increasing, the roads remain narrow, people don’t care and rules are flouted by all, even at traffic lights. So the driver is forced to use the horn liberally– to warn, to announce, to question, to request, to threaten, to play and to give in.

If the horn speaks the language of survival on our roads, then surely the group that is the most vulnerable, the cyclists, ought to use it too? The 24th Road Safety Week was observed recently and Kerala has been honoured with yet another dubious distinction – it is “the third highest road-accident risk place” in India. Among the measures planned to reduce accidents was the proposal to give reflectors to cyclists.

I think they should be give horns too, preferably with a distinctive beep, so that they can honk their way to safety. Why should they alone be left out? If you can’t beat them, join them. Praaaaaap!


(A fortnightly column by the city-based writer, academician and author of the Butterfingers series)