… and the right, in the middle, on the hard shoulder and in the opposite direction — even on dual carriageways and motorways but for some perverse reason, it all seems to work. India is not a country where you simply hire a car to get around. You hire a car and a driver because only Indians have the steel nerves, 360-degree panoramic vision, built-in radar and the reaction times of the domestic house fly that are needed to navigate the mesmeric chaos that are Indian highways.
It’s one of the many aspects of the country that collectively define the ‘Indian experience’, along with the cuisine, its wonderfully friendly and helpful people and the stupendously rich holy trinity of culture, history and architecture.
I was in India recently for what could be termed a ‘flying visit’ when I undertook the classic ‘Golden Triangle’ tour that covers New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra in just four days. I had last been in India in 2013 when I spent a week touring around Kerala and it had been my first introduction to what appeared to be the national pastime of ‘chicken’ when our driver routinely used to double-overtake other vehicles on hairpin bends on roads that wouldn’t have looked out of place in West Cork! That guy was a cross between Ayrton Senna and Tommi Makinen and his driving skills were truly a sight to behold — although my stressed-out travelling companion didn’t think so at the time. The nature of our itinerary on that occasion was such that it necessitated several 6 and 7-hour journeys by roads little larger (and no less windy) than boreens, so both breakfast and lunch intakes were kept to a minimum each day. Thankfully, after repeated and prolonged exposure to many life-defining moments, one became increasingly inured to the videogame-like spectacle that assaulted our senses from the back seat of a Suzuki Swift with its doily covered headrests to the point where it eventually faded into the general background — just like the fuzzy vegetation that passed our field of vision outside the car as it hurled confidently along the natural roller coaster that is the Indian rural road network.
Fast forward to my most recent experience and they were like chalk and cheese. For starters; the road system between Delhi and Jaipur and particularly between Agra and Delhi was infinitely superior — both in terms of scale and quality. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Expressway (for that is what they call them) between Agra and Delhi was qualitatively better than any road that existed in Ireland, prior to the building of the current motorway network 10 years ago. There are still aberrations of course and this being India, chaos erupts from time to time but, as previously mentioned, it all seems to work. Indeed, it is probably the only way it CAN work in a country that stretches 4,273 kilometres from North to South and is home to 5.6 million kilometres of paved roads — second only to the United States which has 6.5M. Let’s not forget either that those highways are used by a significant proportion of India’s vast 1.324 BILLION population! (China, by comparison, a country that is nearly three times the size of India, has a population just marginally larger as per the 2016 census at 1.379 BILLION).
In short, driving (or more accurately, ‘being driven’) in India can be an exhilarating experience and — lets’ be honest here — ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, it’s not!