We keep getting these rankings of cities. India’s top 10 cleanest cities, top 100 smartest cities, top 500 dumbest cities, etc. But there is one list I would really like to see: India’s toughest cities to drive in.
Given that this is a matter of great pride and known to trigger heated arguments that often end with someone punching someone in the face, I’m surprised there are no demands for the government to come up with official rankings so that the debate can be settled in a non-violent way. In the absence of official data, all we have to go by are objective impressions — that is to say, my impressions.
For the longest time, because I grew up listening to my father ranting about it, I thought Chennai was the toughest. Appa made it sound like driving in Chennai was more hazardous than stabbing yourself 32 times before jumping into a pool of overweight sharks trying out intermittent fasting — you may survive, but you are at the mercy of forces you do not control or understand.
He felt most aggravated by the bikers, who were both colour blind and blind as a bat, followed closely by the bus drivers who betrayed no awareness of the fact that the vehicle they were piloting was not a go-kart but a tin box too fat for our thin roads and too long for the turning radii on offer. But the worst of the lot, according to him, were the auto-rickshaw drivers, who had the road sense of a wild buffalo on ganja-charas.
But, where are the roads?
I had assumed my father’s take to be the gospel truth until I began to meet people from other Indian cities with roads and moving vehicles. I find Bengalureans the funniest. For some reason, not only do they have strong opinions on the matter, they seem to imagine that their opinions matter. I think it’s just blind pride which makes them forget that their beloved city doesn’t meet one of the two eligibility criteria for entering the competition: moving vehicles.
Mumbaikars are weird in their own way. They have this compulsion to engage in one-upmanship with Delhi on everything, which doesn’t help in this context because Mumbai, too, like Bengaluru, doesn’t meet the eligibility criteria: while it does have, I admit, moving vehicles, it has no roads.
Just get on a plane and fly over the city. All you will see are buildings, railway tracks and directions. Every part of the city comes equipped with its own directions — East and West — but that’s it. No roads. Okay, they do have one road: the Bandra-Worli sea link, which, it’s true, has had its fair share of accidents. But one road does not make a city a driver’s nightmare any more than one swallow makes a drunkard.
The ultimate challenge
There are unverified reports of there being both roads and moving vehicles in Kolkata, but I’d rather wait for reliable sources to confirm that the city has moved beyond hand-pulled rickshaws and pedestrians wielding a flag in one hand, umbrella in the other, and an opinion in the third.
This leaves us with Delhi. Shallow minds and jealous hearts that only see wide roads and fast-moving traffic typically miss the single most important factor that makes Delhi the ultimate challenge for drivers not just in India but anywhere in the world: passion. Delhiites drive with rage in their hearts and a gun in their glove compartment — not all of them, but enough of them for you to think twice before rolling down your window to point out that that red light means ‘stop’.
But I don’t wish to unfairly defame Delhi drivers, for they are by no means the deadliest element on the road. It is — no offence meant to any religion — the cows. You’ll understand what I’m saying if you’ve ever had your alertness tested by a black cow in the middle of an unlit road on a moonless night when your headlights aren’t working.
Or let’s say you are driving calmly at normal speed on a flyover. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a calf sprints to the middle of the road like Messi chasing an aerial ball to the penalty box. You have one-hundredth of a second to decide whose life you will save: yours or the baby cow’s, and what happens if you fail or succeed?
No other city offers the unique challenge of guns and cows that Delhi does. To my mind, this ought to settle the debate once and for all.
The author of this satire is Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu.