Driving in Mumbai: All our Problems, Manifested

Driving in Mumbai tells you a lot about this city’s problems.

The first category: the physical problems. Real. Tangible. Mangled roads, and not enough of them.  Problems of population, of infrastructure, of too many vehicles competing for potholed tarmac. The fundamental problem of crumbling supply and infinite demand.

The second category: the cultural problems. These are attitudinal.

If you’re reading this, you’re like me. You probably grew up in a city. You definitely grew up in a place where you learned the rules of the road.

If you’re reading this, you probably spent hundreds of hours, between the ages of 0 and 18, being chauffeured by someone else in a personal vehicle.

I believe the people who aren’t reading this, that people who have never spent significant time in personal vehicles don’t know how stressful driving one can be. I write this not in anger but in feeble exhaustion.

The people who aren’t reading this know that darting across a busy street is dangerous. But they may not, I posit, understand that every time they endanger their lives on the streets, they cause the drivers who must avoid, they cause me, a little bit ofpain.

Is it their fault? No. Are they to blame? Absolutely not.

I’ve only been to a handful of Indian villages (I’ll define village as ‘those human settlements in which the spaces between houses, the ‘streets’, are better suited to humans and livestock than vehicles’).

Some of those villages are right here, tucked beneath the skyscrapers. Others are hundreds of miles away, on endless fields, verdant hills, and tortuous deserts.

All of those villages were beautiful, in their own way. I loved visiting each and every one of them. Yet I can’t think of one reason why any rational, ambitious adult in a capitalist economy would prefer to live in a village instead of here in Mumbai.

Here’s the thing: as villagers claim the streets, the streets become more like villages. Which is bad news if you’re driving a car that’s also a deadly weapon.

The third category: the metaphysical problems. These, perhaps, exist only in my head. They are theories.

There are two metaphysical problems.

The first kind of metaphysical problem: on Mumbai’s streets, the man who breaks the rules, whether he’s a ruthless asshole or benevolent fool, is the winner. 

He who defies the social contract gets ahead, and disappears into the distance. The rest of us stew in the traffic jam he leaves behind.

This is why people break red lights, drive on the wrong side of the road, and overtake from the left. Theoretically, these actions are high-risk, high-reward. Those who undertake them are endangering their lives by pursuing illegal means to their ends.

But these choices are actually no-risk, high-reward. Because every sane, rational driver will do everything in her or his power to avoid killing another human being. Even if that human being is hurtling towards her or him at 100 miles an hour, on the wrong side of the road.

These ‘aggressors,’ if I can call them that, are in no real danger, but stand to gain exponentially from their limited risks.

The second kind of metaphysical problem: that traffic jam he leaves behind is  a seething a maelstrom of unbearable self-interest. At least to me. 

It’s a war. Me ahead of the other. It is unbridled selfishness, manifested in every driver’s desire to elevate his own personal space through and away from the social sphere.

The vicious ego, even the hurt ego, will honk, shove, nudge, or force its way through this mess. It doesn’t care how undignified it looks, as long as it just gets to where it needs to be.

It is greedy for space, thirsty for time, and utterly apathetic to the others in its way.

I know the feeling, because driving in Mumbai has turned me into a callous, impatient prick.

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