By Abhishek Madan Jun. 20, 2017
There is consensus that driving in India is dangerous and stressful. But I promised myself that I would break this mould; I would shun the temptations of recklessness.
Like millions of other ’90s kids, I grew up watching my father steer our white Maruti 800 through the narrow, crowded streets of India. He wrestled the manual steering with his strong forearms and honked with his temper. From the back seat, I channelled beams of unadulterated awe in his direction. Driving was cool, and I learnt how to drive by simply staring at my father for years. Like some Bermuda-wearing, Chiclet-chewing, automotive Eklavya.
So when I bought my first car, a grey Maruti WagonR, in my late 20s, it felt like a coming of age. As a pedestrian and a cyclist, I had been constantly bullied by car drivers. Seated comfortably in their bubble of air conditioning and art leather, car drivers treat other motorists with the same derision as non-vegetarians treat Jain lasagna. As I gingerly pulled out of the dealership’s driveway, I promised myself that I’d be a nice driver. Gentle and magnanimous, a reservoir of patience.
Patience is a protected species on Indian roads, especially in Bangalore. Rarely sighted in the wild, there is consensus that driving in India is dangerous and stressful. There is also consensus that… fuck it, we’re keeping it that way.
But I promised myself that I would break this mould. Like the first accountant in a family of rock stars, I would shun the temptations of recklessness, and instead be disciplined and methodical.
In the driver’s seat, I was obstinately nice. When turning right, I waited for eye contact before cutting in front of a driver. When turning left, I tried to merge with the traffic smoothly. I used turn signals, an activity that is tied with foreplay for the title of “Least Likely to be Performed by Indian men”. I resisted the temptation to switch lanes whenever there was a hint of space.
The automobile is every man’s canvas, where he paints a picture of power. To tell the world why it shouldn’t fuck with him.
The result? Everyone shat on me like I was a litter box. I was cut off by idiots engrossed with their phones, forced off the road by SUV-driving uncles with delusions of grandeur, and side-swiped more often than a hot girl on Tinder. For thousands of kilometres, I was taken for granted and given a hard time. Opportunistic drivers fed off my affability like parasites, staining my good vibes with the guthka of their existence.
Then one day I snapped, like a KitKat finger in a TV commercial. My fellow drivers had broken my taillights and my spirit. As an upstanding citizen, who paid his taxes and smiled at strangers in the grocery store, I deserved better. I decided to fight back, protect my 50-square feet of tarmac as if it was my Promised Land. They wanted a war? I was ready.
Ok so… I wasn’t ready.
Let’s face it I was a migrant nerd in Bangalore with terrible myopia, who looked as intimidating as your average software engineer; one who could not even inherit his father’s impressive forearms. The automobile is every man’s canvas, where he paints a picture of power. To tell the world why it shouldn’t fuck with him. Sadly my canvas was as blank as the screen of a smartphone that just got dropped in the toilet.
I had no decals that declared my allegiance to any kind of authority. No ARMY or AIR FORCE lettering. No pictures of Hanuman on my rear windshield. No red beacon or flag that indicated my political affiliation. I felt like the only guy in a mosh pit with short hair and no tattoos.
To make matters worse, my car was an unimpressive budget hatchback. A grey WagonR. Many cars assert themselves through association. The Aston Martin has James Bond. The DeLorean has Marty. But the WagonRs? The best we have is Arvind Kejriwal, another migrant nerd who gets bullied constantly.
The WagonR may be a fantastic, practical car, but it belongs to an older school of automotive practicality, looked down on by today’s Elon Musk-quoting, hybrid-driving nouveau riche. To most, the WagonR is a juice box with wheels. Not only does it fail to exude wealth or power, but it also does something worse. It signifies a breed of boring prudence.
It became clear that I could not assert space through posturing. The only power I wielded was in the lenses of my thick, heavy spectacles. So I decided to become an asshole. Instead of trying to fix the toxicity on our roads, I embraced it. A regrettable but conscious choice.
Two years and 22,000 kilometres later, being a terrible driver comes naturally. It is as if I have never known any other way. I bully scooterists with 800 kilos of steel and brazen lunacy. I overtake other vehicles like my life depends on it. I absentmindedly switch lanes as if they are radio stations. Even in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I swerve and slither through gaps like a lizard. I shake my fist at drivers who hold me up by driving at the prescribed speed limit, especially happy families who are talking and laughing. This is the road, a battlefield, not a place for happiness.
I know what I have become. And deep down, I’m torn. I feel proud that I stood up to my bullies, and embarrassed that now I am one of them. I feel the need to confess my sins, but also the need to brag about my skills. I feel self-pity as I have become a victim of the system, but also self-loathing because now I am the system.
Abhishek spends his days pretending to be a product guy, and his nights pretending to be a writer. He lives in Bangalore with a cat, a dog, and a lifetime supply of lint rollers.