Zen and the art of laying off the horn

I am not generally prone to road rage. I wouldn’t say I exist in a state of Zen behind the wheel, but it takes something quite extraordinary to provoke me even to the point of using my horn, let alone doing anything more radical than that. This attitude often flummoxes The Companion, who is more easily stirred than I am to paroxysms of abuse (and is admirably creative into the bargain). What’s a horn for, he demands to know, if not to let someone know they’ve been a damn fool? I once took to the road in Mumbai, the city in India that is home to some 20 million people (officially, but perhaps as many as 25 million unofficially). On the day I was there every single one of them seemed to be out in their car and converging on the same roundabout. Chaos does not even begin to describe the scene.

About the best I can say about it is that at least everyone had agreed (even if for this day only) that the traffic should circle this roundabout in a clockwise direction. There were other places in the city not far from here where even this basic compact seemed to be in dispute.

It was noisy, hot, and hazy with exhaust fumes. Cars moved forward inches at a time, progress into the roundabout checked against the traffic coming from the right, itself inching forward into the gaps that were left by the cars in front moving inches forward into the gaps left by – well, you get the picture. It was like a giant version of that game where you have to slide vehicles of varying lengths around on a grid to clear a path to allow your car to exit the car park.

“It suddenly seems pathetically small and petty to honk another driver just because they missed the green light by half a second, changed lanes without indicating, or (and this is particularly pointless) because you’re stuck in a traffic jam.”

Despite the potential for carnage, I didn’t hit another car and no other car hit me. And as far as I could tell, no other cars hit each other, either. How this happened was a minor miracle, but also reflects an approach to using the horn that I hadn’t truly appreciated before then.

Horns and lights are as integral a part of driving in Mumbai as an accelerator and a brake. Unlike in almost any city or town in Australia, where horns are used usually in anger, in Mumbai they’re used more as a way of letting the car or motorbike or truck or rickshaw or bicycle or pedestrian or specimen of livestock know where you are. I never heard music being played in any other car – every driver listens to the messages tooted by other drivers, navigating by sound like bats use sonar.

By these means, traffic flows like motorised water down a bitumen riverbed. It finds a way. It flows around obstacles. It cascades and tumbles and it has eddies and currents, and it has blockages that take time to clear. But comparing it to a river is not quite right because that suggests constant movement, perhaps even a torrent. The pace of Mumbai traffic is more like a glacier, and it moves with the inevitability and irresistibility of a glacier through the channels of the city.

It’s an object lesson in why getting angry behind the wheel is a waste of time. Apart from the practical fact that a horn tooted in anger would be functionally indistinguishable from the cacophony of horns tooted as navigational instruments, nothing on earth is going to make the traffic move more quickly, nor make its way through the city in a less tumultuous manner. No two vehicles in Mumbai are ever really going in the same direction, even if they’re heading to the same place, from the same place, at the same time. Every driver recognises this fact and so there’s a resignation, a sort of surrendering of oneself to the god of traffic (doubtless there is one, and possibly there are many).

The traffic even in Australia’s biggest cities will never approach Mumbai standards of bedlam, so it suddenly seems pathetically small and petty to honk another driver just because they missed the green light by half a second, changed lanes without indicating, or (and this is particularly pointless) because you’re stuck in a traffic jam.

So, it’s not really a state of Zen, more an acceptance that road rage is a futile emotion and in any case, with some foresight and some practice, you can avoid most situations where it might occur. But let me tell you, it’s sometimes handy to have The Companion in the passenger seat for those moments when other people’s road rage boils over. Have you ever seen a driver chased down the road by a maniac wielding an unopened (and perfectly chilled) bottle of Boërl & Kroff?

I have. Totally worth it.

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