Imagine, if you are able, the following: Srinagar, a city of one million inhabitants and about half as many motorized vehicles, does not have a stoplight. Nowhere in this maze of miles of paved and gravelly roads do timed, colored lights regulate the to and froing, the come and going. Oh, wait, that’s not completely true. They do actually have a few of them, on M.A. Road and at Jehangir Chowk, for example, but they stand sheathed and unblinking, commissioned and built but never used, having apparently offended some circulatory sensitivity just prior to their debut. Nor are there curbs, per se, or shoulders, barriers, lane markings, speed limits, or traffic signs of any sort. Nor, finally, do policeman keep an eye out for traffic violators; with an insurgency going on, they have bigger concerns. So it is that the pedestrians, stray animals, motorcycles, bikes, trucks, army convoys, cars, and narrow streets present a seething, chaotic mass of danger and mayhem, right?
Perhaps, yet there is little in my rather hermetic life here in Kashmir that I enjoy as much as the nightly ride home with Abid, my editor Sajjad’s driver, weaving through the untold moving and immobile obstacles, buoyant Bollywood songs bouncing from the stereo in rhyme with the scenery whizzing past. Bus in the way? Just lean on the horn and it will slide subtly to the left to give us room to pass. Sheep at 1 o’clock? Whip right and the coast is clear, for a second.
Abid is leaning on the horn again as we zip around a corner at about 60 kms/hr and there is a dog smack dab in the middle of the street, which is hemmed in by pedestrians on our left. We neither slow down nor budge from our path and at the last moment the dog lurches a foot or so to the left and we miss him by inches. Further along, on a relatively straight part of a boulevard divided by a two-foot wide median, a jawan – Indian security officer – is loading or unloading something from a large white truck on the left hand side of our lane. A black and white cow is standing on the median but leaning his great girth some three feet over the short railing and out into the street. Between the officer and the bovine there is less than a meter, yet we barrel onward, undaunted, joyous music spurring us on as a damsel gleefully hits those high notes, up and away she goes, urging us on, within twenty yards now as Abid leans on the horn again. Without looking at our fast-closing vehicle, the jawan presses his body up against the truck and the cow swings his head, neck, and body back over the median – the two synchronized movements providing the necessary additional three feet and we zoom through unimpeded. Similar seemingly choreographed moments happen every few seconds, and I would often see my life rushing before my eyes if they weren’t so effortlessly beautiful, as if all the people, horses, goats, sheep, dogs, chickens and cows had from birth been inscribed with the movements of this dance, knew exactly when a vehicle of a precisely defined width was approaching, and at what speed, and knew the minimal adjustments to make without breaking from their conversation or duty at hand. Or as if precisely the opposite, that all subcontinenters are astounding physical improvisationalists, capable of shifting up, down, left, right, contortioning and manipulating vehicles and carts and children into impossible positions in a fraction of a second at the slightest alarm and whilst continuing about their task. I imagine the hundred similar instances of near mayhem occurring at the same time at any one moment throughout the city, throughout all of India, even, and sense that this inexplicable, impossible dance of the dodge is another Indian wonder to behold.
Sure, occasionally someone misses a beat, but accidents just might be more impressive. Years ago in Jammu I was on a bus that nudged a parked car’s bumper as it was coming to a stop at a tea shop. As we passengers unloaded a small crowd of men gathered and began to take the matter in hand. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but I got the gist. At first the car owner was upset, his car being visibly damaged, but the subdued tones of the discussion soon calmed him down. Then the men who had witnessed the accident began speaking in turn, pointing at the car, the bumper of the bus, and the other available spaces of the mostly empty lot, as the bus driver and car owner listened, nodding occasionally. Soon enough a settlement, in which the car owner clearly got his due, had been reached, the bus driver and car owner shook hands, and all went into the tiny café. Not fifteen minutes after the accident occurred, justice (and chai) had been served, and so resumed the great improvisation.
A few days after I arrived in India I had just gotten into the car with Sajjad, my editor, and told him that I would like to get my own transportation.
“But you don’t need it – Abid can give you rides.”
“Yes, but I like to be able to go where and when I need to, to cover a breaking story, for example, or visit a friend.”
“Yeah, yeah, I see,” he responded, as he often did when trying to think of a good counter-argument. “Well perhaps you should have a bike.”
“A bicycle, well I guess that wouldn’t be terrib…”
“No, no, a motorcycle,” he corrected. “Something like that,” and he pointed out the window to a chap riding a Honda next to us.
“Oh, right, well maybe I could do that. Wonder if I could get a used one.”
“Perhaps, but the bigger issue would be learning how to drive on these roads,” he said, turning to me and smiling.
“Yeah,” I laughed, “there are not many rules.”
“Not many?” he looked at me. “There aren’t any.”
And as we zoomed the wrong way down Residency Road, a main downtown artery analogous to Sixth Avenue in New York, and co-mingled with all variety of pedestrians and honking vehicles around a traffic circle and onto Polo View, I could only agree.