Flexibility, hierarchy, politics, non-aggression and horns -- India reveals itself on the road. Of course street life is the lowest hanging fruit for an outsider of a society to witness, but after talking to all kinds of Indians for two weeks, these observations can be certified as higher-grade than your average tourist fodder. The rule of the road here, and of much else, is flexibility: if the road is 30 feet wide, that means it is either 20 bicycles wide, 12 motorcycles wide, 8 autorickshaws wide, 4 cars wide, or 2 buses wide -- or any combination thereof, sorted by a improvised dance that is adjusted second by second like the schooling of fish. They pack in so tight at stoplights that you can lean out the side of an autorickshaw without letting your ass leave the bench and touch three or four vehicles.
Lanes are totally irrelevant, in the rare occasion that they are painted. Stoplights too, though these are even more rare. Flexibility and improvisation is key in a developing country with this many people, and this is on display in a major way on the road. The second rule, which sometimes comes in conflict with the first, is that the road is very hierarchical, just like life itself -- SUVs and luxury sedans are deferred to, if only because nobody wants to pay the bill for scratching them up. So "flexibility" means if you are lower down the food chain, get out of the way when I'm coming. But enterprising motorcyclists and autorickshaw drivers are nimbler and smaller than the luxury vehicles, so they can often move faster and sneak up ahead in the stream of traffic, just like the broader Horatio Alger hopes of the poor.
Bicycles are at the bottom of the totem pole, but they can weave through tighter spaces that even motos can't reach. Pedestrians don't even count in this game (crossing the street on foot is like that old videogame Frogger -- on the hardest level). And of course, the bullock carts actually get a preferential treatment, because who wants to bully a bullock? But as in politics here, a display of power or wealth like an SUV is still not enough to stop the people-power of populist propulsion: the bus. The bus still reigns on the road, and causes luxury vehicles to move aside, for obvious reasons; so do the well-organized political groups of the poor like the communists in Kerala or the Dalits in Uttar Pradesh. And while we're on the topic of politics, India has never been a bully, as a country, and drivers also seem to carry this attitude on the road.
Sure, they honk their horns every 30 seconds, and they drive very assertively -- but somehow it's not aggressive. It doesn't have the menace of the American East Coast drivers, who are constantly on the verge of a fistfight over who stole a parking space or who is tailgating whom. The honking does deserve more attention, because at first to an outside it does feel like aggression. But then you realize that's not it at all. About half of all four (and three) wheeled vehicles in Bangalore have this message painted on the back: "Sound OK Horn" -- or some variation (OK Sound Horn, Sound Horn OK, Please Sound Horn, etc.)
These instructions are dutifully followed. If there is a stray dog in the street, honk. If you are passing someone, honk. If there is a pedestrian and it looks like they might be about to cross, honk. Friendly taps, long urgent blasts, anything goes. It's just the way driving is done here. When you walk out of the doors at Bangalore's shiny new airport this is the only thing that seems different from dozens of shiny modern airports around the world -- the constant din of horns. I was told the smell of India would be the first thing to hit me, but in fact it was the sound. The sound of horns. Like the millions of argumentative (yet usually civil) voices of Indians themselves.
The naming conventions for roads is maddening for an outsider, because basically a 6 or 7 block radius will be named after one single road, but then it will have "crosses" and "mains": so an address will be "Jaymahal Extension" (which is itself an offshoot of Jaymahal road) "second cross". Sometimes the crosses will include "4a" and "4b" sometimes. Mahatma Gandhi road is always the "Main Street" or "Broadway" of every city or town, and there are some other fun major road names like "The Nice Road" and "Serious Road".
And of course, we can't complete the dramatization of road rules / real rules in India without remarking on who gets totally left out: those who don't have wheels at all, who are destitute and using the sidewalks as a campground. In Delhi they sleep by the dozens just about anywhere, surely getting bitten by bugs (or worse) and woken up by the rain or sun, whichever comes first. They are sleeping on piles of construction bricks, in wheelbarrows, sitting up in lawnchairs. And yet still, some of them say, it's better than the village they came from. Perhaps their children will have a shot at something better, they say. - Paul