Nair on the highway – driving with confidence in Britain

I acquired my first driving license in India at the age of 18. Like every other teenager my age, it required teaming up with a driving school instructor who may or may not have had some nefarious dealings with the RTO officer. Sure, I drove the car in straight lines, curved lines, reversed it, parked it and changed a few gears, but none of those manoeuvres were executed under the pressure of real life consequences. I mostly drove around in a pristine dust field ringed by coconut trees, where the maximum damage you could do was to run the car into a mud bank. This suited the RTO driving inspector very well, since his primary concern was his own well-being, and mud banks are infinitely more pleasant obstacles to run into than other vehicles.

After they granted me the laminated 2×4 inch keycard to automotive freedom, I promptly forgot all about driving. Not out of a lack of interest, you see, but out of lack of opportunity. I never got a chance to drive a car for the next 10 years while I wandered all over India and Asia for study and work.

And then I came to the UK. The land where left side driving originated. Here’s a funny fact for you. When the erstwhile British empire started colonizing large parts of the subcontinent, they decided to teach the natives how to drive. It was more out of necessity than altruism; they could not afford to have their brand new Morris Minors crashing into bullock carts all the time. Lloyd’s insurance didn’t cover that. So they decided to teach all the Indians to drive on the left side of the road. Which worked well, until they realised that in order to complete the job, they would have to teach the bullocks as well. At which point they gave up, packed up and went home, leaving the Indians free to drive on whichever side of the road they fancied.

Contrary to popular belief, these guys won India her independence

Anyway, back to yours truly. After landing in the UK I realized that a car was an indispensable necessity in this country where trains can stop running on any given day without so much as a by your leave.  But after 10 years, I was quite sure I was rusty at driving. That put me in a rather uncomfortable position where the only way to meet the challenge was to dive headlong into it. Perhaps not the most apt analogy for re-learning driving, but you get the point.

I called up a driving instructor and asked him to help me out. After about 3 hours under his supervision, my latent driving skills surfaced and my confidence on the roads surged. I effortlessly increased my top speed from 10 mph to 20 mph. The instructor was not very impressed however, and gently pointed out that I was holding up an entire string of cars behind me. I refused to let it dampen my enthusiasm, letting him know in turn that a 100% improvement on anything is a stupendous performance.

After about 10 hours of training, my instructor felt confident enough to take his foot off the training brakes occasionally. By then I had cottoned onto the differences between driving in India and driving in the UK.

A comparative analysis (sort of) of the differences between driving in the UK and India

Karma rules

Indian driving relies less on proper signalling and car control and more on the basic principles of karma. You do the best you can, and never worry about the results. If for instance, you started out in the morning from Bannerghatta bound for your office in Whitefield, do not be appalled if you find yourself in Hebbal at the end of your drive. You were meant to be in Hebbal. Call in sick.

Karmic rules apply at all levels of driving. If you treated your dog well yesterday, that lorry driver will spare your life tomorrow. If you tipped the waiter 2 weeks ago, that cow will get up off the road and wander off, leaving you free to move forward. Just point the car in the right direction, start the engine, and pray. There are no atheists on Indian roads.

Trust your karma

Treatment of Traffic lights

Traffic lights demand unquestioned obedience in the UK, whereas in India, they are more like gentle suggestions. All UK drivers approach traffic lights gingerly. Violations add to your points and eventually, can result in your license being suspended. On the other hand, Indian drivers find the idea of traffic lights amusing at best. Unless they are accompanied by a traffic cop, they are treated as mere suggestions of vehicular propriety, to be observed only if your mother in law happens to be in the same car as you.

But beware if he happens to be on duty that day

Slowing down when approaching by-lanes

I used to slow down for every by-lane in my path, until my driving instructor told me it would be seen as a minor infraction in the UK. Apparently you are supposed to believe that any driver wishing to join the road would be equally aware of the rules, and would concede right of way to oncoming traffic. Hence, if you have right of way and still slow down, you are essentially impeding the traffic behind you. Fancy that. I, on the other hand, was all too aware that back in India, any by-lane was just an ambush point where anything from a hand cart piled high with vegetables to an errant football followed by a distracted child could jump out at you. Slowing down is not just a prudent precaution, it is an absolute necessity.

On tooting horns

Horns are considered to be bad taste and to be used only in an emergency in the UK. In fact, there is a section in the driving theory test booklet in the UK (oh yes, they have those) where the powers that be talk about the conditions under which a horn can be used. And that’s pretty much under no circumstances, except in an emergency to let someone know of your presence. The operative word here is ‘emergency’. In India too, the horn is used to let others know of your presence. But the word ‘emergency’ is glossed over. Creative uses of the horn can convey any message from ‘Look where you are going, you nincompoop,’ to ‘Hey Matthaikutty, I’m over here!! Fancy us pulling up at the same red light at the same time! What are the odds of that! Did your eldest son Sunnykutty get married?’. Other acceptable uses of the horn in India are as below, shown by context and intent:

Context

Intent

When you want to pass someone

Here I am. This is me. I will pass you now. Thanks.

When someone passes you

I see you. You little jerk. How dare you pass me?

When you think someone might be thinking of passing you

I know what you are thinking. You little jerk. How dare you think of passing me?

When you want the car in front of you to go faster

Hey, you there. You do realize Volvo saw fit to give you an accelerator pedal for a reason, right? Use it.

When a pedestrian tries to cross the road in front of you

‘Ghar pe batake aaye ho na?’ Loosely translated, it means, ‘may you become a toad in your next life. I can help accelerate the transition if you want’

When you feel sleepy while driving at 60 mph down the highway into oncoming traffic

Oh shit.

Lane (in)discipline

Lane discipline means a lot to the drivers in the UK, and errant drivers are immediately brought to censure by fellow drivers. Changing lanes is a complex process involving looking all round your car including up through the sun roof to ensure there is no one nearby, putting on the right indicators at the right time without surprising anyone, and then gently sliding across the lane apologetically. It’s a dance, to be executed with grace, precision and a touch of piousness. Whereas in India, anyone who insists on following all these rules to change lanes to catch an exit would be forced to drive in more or less a straight line from Kanyakumari to Kashmir without success.

Lane discipline in India. The key is to avoid eye contact.

Tough conditions foster greater skills

The only redeeming feature of Indian system of driving is that the controlled chaos that exists on most roads ensure that most of the drivers who graduate from this school of driving are much more trained and skilled than your average British driver, who has grown soft due to complacency. For instance, my driving instructor candidly admitted to me that he could never drive on Indian roads. I felt a strong surge of patriotism as I heard those words. For all its faults, Indian traffic teaches drivers defensive driving skills normally reserved for Special Forces training in most other parts of the world.

All this knowledge did not, however, help me much with improving my skills beyond a point. I seemed destined to be one of those drivers who see a car as simply a mechanical instrument to transport you from point A to point B, with perhaps, an occasional breakdown near midway point C. Complex technical manoeuvres did not come easily to me. Neither did simple ones, for that matter. My instructor was a nervous wreck by the time he presented me to the driving inspector on the day of my test.  To cut a long story short, I did manage to pass the test and earn a UK driving license. It was a long and arduous 45 minutes of test driving, by the end of which all the three parties involved – my instructor, the driving inspector and I were all thoroughly exhausted. My driving inspector told me that he was taking the rest of the day off to recover. My instructor started sobbing silently and rocked gently back and forth in the passenger seat. They seemed to have used up all their stored good karma.

Anyway, I am now the proud holder of dual driving licenses. All I need to do now is obey the traffic lights, and buy a good horn.

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