As the taxi entered Mount Road from GN Chetty road, Mr Khalil said, “Indians are such wonderful drivers. The traffic is so disciplined.” You can imagine my reaction. I was just happy the taxi-driver was not listening. “Especially the auto rickshaws, those drivers have their vehicles under such control.” Actually he used word tuk-tuk, which is how most foreigners refer to autos. Extremely fortunate, because while I had a spasm run through my spinal cord, the taxi-driver did not understand tuk-tuk : if he had, his full body spasm would have resulted in our taxi crashing.
“They know every route, they never have any accidents, they drive in such thick traffic with such remarkable control,” he continued.
No this conversation is not a figment of my imagination –it happened in April 2012. Mr Khalil is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering from Cairo University, an air-conditioning expert – he is the man who cools the pyramids of Luxor. On my friend Balaji Dhandapani’s request, I was on the way to show Prof Khalil the monuments of Mamallapuram.
“Nobody in India thinks we drive well, least of all the auto drivers,” I suggested. “Indian traffic is chaotic.”
“Well, relative to the US or western countries, perhaps. But compared to Egypt this is excellent,” he continued, as several autos avoided us by inches. “You rarely see any accidents in India, do you? With this many vehicles there should normally be several more crashes. But people are careful, they may drive close but they drive carefully.”
“What kind of tuk-tuk drivers do you have in Egypt?” I asked. “Oh, it is terrible,” he said. “Mostly, 12 year old boys. They drive illegally with no driving licenses and they have no control; at that age, they will not have much control anyway; and they have all kinds of accidents; they mostly drive in poor parts of Cairo, where there is no other transport.”
Our taxi merged into the Brownian motion of buses, two wheelers near the Teynampet suggestion. A traffic light glowed red, suggestively, and after some consideration, some vehicles stopped.
“And the people of India are so hard-working and punctual,” he continued, continuing his psychological warfare, unaware of the grotesque contrast between expression and reality. “Which people?” I said – maybe he meant the staff at his five star hotel. “Your government employees, for example,” he continued in deadly earnest. “Is this also a case of Indo-Egyptian relativity,” I mused. “In Egypt they come to work between 9 and 10, work for an hour, have a cup of tea. Around 11.30, they prepare for the 12 o clock prayer, at the mosque. Then after the prayer, they have lunch, maybe until 2. Then they come back, and around 3, they are somewhat tired, and head back home.”
I recently visited Gujarat. In Ahmedabad, I saw several collisions at traffic intersections, mostly between autos and motorbikes : in just the two actual days I was spent travelling in the city. Statistically that may not be a valid sample size, but it occurred to me that Madras auto drivers are far better. This experience prompted this blog. Also, an article in Times of India, that some auto drivers conduct charity events, but it gains them no respect or recognition. It occurs to me, that in India, we drive by manodharma, not by law. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It is the law that has to adapt.