My first experience on a roadway in Delhi was on an expressway of chaos in a glorified golf cart, a tin can on wheels.
I was in a taxi on my way from the airport to the hotel. It was midnight, but the road was one giant herd of cars, most of them bigger than ours.
The cars buzzed right then left then right again, the tightest crack an invitation to keep pushing forward without fear, until the wall of cars became so impenetrable there was no choice but to come to a jolting stop. It felt more like burrowing to a destination than driving. Over and over, several cars at once tried to lay claim to the same asphalt, and then all came to a halt, huddled nose to nose like suckling pigs. The soundtrack to this video game was a symphony of horns.
‘India is not rule is follow,’ my driver explained.
Five hours later, an hour before dawn, I got into another car to go Agra to see the Taj Mahal. We drove through the peaceful darkness on an almost empty expressway. A fog had settled into the wheat and mustard fields next to us. It looked like a blanket of snow.
People appeared on the road up ahead and my driver Amar said they were waiting for the bus, which makes stops on the expressway.
Smokestacks, one after another, stood as silhouettes, their long, silent streaks of black smoke reaching toward the horizon. These were little factories where bricks are formed by hand then cooked, Amar said. The smell of pollution hung with us the entire drive.
Soon, the sun eeked into view, a terra cotta orb rising, mysterious and beautiful, through the scrim of fog and smoke, before blossoming into the color of shimmering butter.
Finally, in full daylight, we turned off the highway and plunged into Agra. The road was now engorged. Cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles and buses came at us head on until one party relented at the last. Monkeys sat perched on the backs of motorcycles. Two-year-old children were perched on the front. Bikes were dwarfed by loads of mattresses and rugs, like worker ants. Trucks were stuffed with chickens. Cows lay in the road.
Later, we headed back to Delhi. The expressway was now full. Chaos reigned again, only this time at high speeds.
I grabbed my phone and Googled, ‘Delhi road deaths per year.’ I saw an article that said there are 17 road deaths every hour in India. Delhi topped the list.
An electronic sign over the highway read: ‘KEEP SAFE DISTANCE’ AND ‘NORMAL SPEED MEETS EVERY NEED.’
The messages were oblivious to the reality: Either you constantly took risks, or you went nowhere.
At one point, Amar pulled off a particularly impressive maneuver. In the middle of what was a semblance of three ‘lanes,’ he sped up and dashed left, past the car in front of him. He then saw an opening, and swerved all the way back the other way, to the far right lane. When he got there, he suddenly slowed to squeeze between a car and a homeless man who’d appeared like an apparition next to the median, where he had lit a fire and was seemingly cooking something.
Amar does this every day. ‘India, horn, brake — and driver very careful’ is how he described his technique.
Later, he tried to gun past a car, going partially on the shoulder. But at the last second, he slammed on his brakes and stopped to avoid hitting three men.
One of them looked at our car, inches away, and yawned.