One day, perhaps quite a long time ago, Bhaisab, a rather clever Mumbai driver with a curled up moustache decided that really it was quite inefficient to have to come to a complete stop at a junction before entering the road. He had what could be considered a brainwave. If he could find a way to alert other drivers of his impending arrival, he wouldn’t need to stop at all, but could just carry on and they would simply rearrange their driving trajectory to accommodate him. He was very pleased with himself. At first. But what sort of gadget could he invent that would do such a magical thing. As he sat in his car on the side of the road, oiled up head cradled in slightly sweaty hand, mimicking the thinking pose, his mind started wandering. In the middle of a reverie about golden fried, hot crispy jalebis with insides that melted the way he wished his wife’s would she saw him, he shifted his elbow to get more comfortable and just like that…. Beeeeeeeeeeeep! That’s it. He got it. If only he just hooted to let people know he was coming, it would eliminate the need to stop or indicate or even brake!
Bhaisab pleased with himself, twisted the ends of his moustache between the tips of his fingers in glee at the thought of arriving back to his wife earlier each day. Indeed it was a splendid idea and worked just as Bhaisaab had planned for many weeks. Until one Friday evening in a fit of gloating spurred on by more Kingfisher beers than his temperament was used to, he boasted to his colleagues about this marvellous invention. The response was as he had hoped; a thoughtful sea of bobbing heads, in consensus at the ingenuity of the idea. They vowed to try it for themselves. And so on Monday morning, six more drivers put foot to pedal and hand to horn as they navigated the Mumbai roads. More loose lips brought on by more Kingfishers spread this cult of honking and before long the mooing cows trawling the roadside were drowned out by persistent hooting. Bhaisab had not forseen this, and had no idea that he would be responsible for changing the soundtrack of Mumbai forever.
This is my theory behind what led to the ‘Horn Ok Please’ phenomenon that has drowned out Mumbai.
Now, many years later, nobody looks before they enter a junction. Nobody stops. Nobody indicates to show they are changing lanes. Everybody just honks. All the time. For everything. And anything in the way is expected to move itself. Mind boggingly it seems to work. Even if it means that Mumbai as a general populace records the highest hearing loss of any city. Ok, I made that last part up, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
My sister told me about a very interesting conversation she had with a professor at Mumbai who had visited Kenya several years ago. In his opinion, equity of wealth distribution can be evidenced by a variety of wheelers. Kenya was far behind India at that time. We had only four wheelers and two wheelers while India boasted two, three, four and multiple wheelers. So perhaps the recent proliferation of different wheelers on our roads is a positive sign.
Whilst in Mumbai, three wheelers have been my transport of choice. Rickshaws (Tuks Tuks) are the easiest way to get around a lot of the city; being so nifty they squeeze into spaces that defy the laws of physics. But they are also undoubtedly the most unnerving of transport choices. With unbelievable turning circles which they utilise to great effect, performing impromptu U-turns on multi-lane highways, they pay no heed to the huge buses hurtling along at breakneck speeds. At times like those that I wish I carried my own helmet. I have had many a pondering during Rickshaw rides about what a skull hitting the pavement sounds like. Would it be a clean cut like breaking open a coconut. Or would it fragment like when you crack an egg. Is it a dull drawn out thud sound. Or more of a clean short snap.
My favourite part of riding in a Rickshaw is the ability to experience the city in a way that you just can’t in the confines of a car. Life bustles its way into your space and you become a part of this heaving breathing monster that is the city. Red lipsticked Hijras (transvestites) poke their heads through the doorway and threaten to lift up their heavy saris to give you a peek of their package if you don’t part with a reasonable sum of money. To show they are serious, they clap their hands together, their fingers splayed apart and palms smacking together. Passengers in neighbouring rickshaws, close enough to reach out and touch, suss you out with indiscreet side eyes. Smells seep in; the heady thick fragrance of ripe mangoes, the eye watering smell of spices being fried, the sharp odor of sewage that has been sitting around for many days, the occasional delicate jasmine floating its way into your nostrils.
Then there are the Rickshaw drivers. Clad in brown, they wear stoic expressions in even the most hair rising situations, seemingly unmoved by the constant proximity to death. With left legs folded underneath them in a half lotus position, they make matatu drivers look like Sunday School bus drivers. These men are unflappable. I suspect at Rickshaw driving school, there is a module on ‘Developing Balls Of Steel: A Practical Course’. They probably have to go through a boot camp where they are put through a series of tests where their flinch/sweat level is assessed. Staring contests with Tigers. Bungee jumping from Everest. Spending an entire week with their Mother in Laws.
Even as they seemingly flaunt all the rules, there does seem to be an invisible code of conduct. One afternoon, our Rickshaw driver perturbed by another driver who was driving perilously close to us, leaned out and said to the man ‘Come on Man. You know what you are doing is wrong. Why would you still do that?’ His tone was not agressive. It wasn’t even angry. It was the kind of tone you use to tell a child that they have to go to sleep before midnight on a school day. This after we had just scraped the side of another car. It struck me as so odd. This almost brotherly guidance and nod to an invisible set of rules.
I wonder how much the traffic behavior of a city reveals the temperament of its peoples.
In Phnom Penh in Cambodia which was just as busy as Mumbai, the traffic had a peaceful fluidity. To cross the street, you went against every Nairobian instinct, and stepped out onto the busy road, walking very very slowly, taking baby steps and not making any sudden moves. The vehicles would then calmly work their way around you. It echoed the gentleness that I found so remarkable in Cambodians, the sense of adjusting yourself in consideration of others around. The philosophy that space is shared and all the lifestyle implications that come with that.
Mumbai with all its madness had an unlikely easy going nature about it. I rarely saw any aggression and it was never personal. Even the honking was less about a middle finger and more about exclaiming that you were there. In a space that is jostling with so many people, I can somewhat understand the need to assert your existence. To say here I am. In among the throng of millions. I exist. Of course, crossing the road in Mumbai requires you to cast away any attachment you have to living, channel your inner Rudisha and high tail it across the road. Or you could just find a cow and wait by its side until it decides to cross the road.
What do you think Nairobi roads say about us as a people?