Amritsar Calling: When on the road, Ambarsaris like to play Russian Roulette

Vehicles jostling for action, invincible pedestrians, haughty teens, overflowing garbage trucks and scores of animals dot the streets of this city, and somehow everyone persistently continues to survive the mayhem.

Although chaos defined Ambarsari's traffic sense, our accident ratios were tolerable. (Express Photo by Rana Simranjit)

Years ago, a delightful German lady visited us. A couple of rides around town and she exclaimed, “Why does everyone on wheels and on foot aim for one another and swerve only at the last moment?”. All I could say was that we were experts in the art of deception and last-minute avoidance. Perhaps foolhardy as well. The guest, Frauke, was sure that despite the claims by the communists, the Russian Roulette was actually invented in Amritsar and played out on the roads every minute.

As we laughed at her observation, I reduced speed consciously, and secretly shared with her that God lived in India, mostly in this divine city. Therefore, although chaos defined our traffic sense, our accident ratios were tolerable. It took her three days to be able to sit back in her seat and not chew her nails while on the road. By that time, she was ready to depart with the conviction that providence did ensure our persistent existence against all odds.

The ‘maruta’

That was a few decades ago. Today the traffic is manifold, and we have graduated from roulette to playing PubG on the streets. The weapons are aplenty, two-wheeled bullets, three-tyred tuk-tuks, meandering cars as well as SUVs jostling for action. They are joined by cycle-rickshaws and the black raven auto taxis. Fancy a cartwheel? Well, we have a cart with a wheel instead. Called colloquially the maruta, the home-crafted, four-wheeled motor craft, has an engineered mind of its own and can be seen painting the town red, laden with bounties from the farm. And do not forget to notice the vegetable vendor with his old motorcycle extended into a makeshift mobile vegetable shop, equipped with a garden umbrella for shade & a speaker to hawk his wares.

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Scooterists come in manifold diversity too. Picture this one ridden by a kid drying her luscious tresses in the wind while her dupatta connects precariously with the rear wheel awaiting an execution, or the fat broker on two wheels, head tilted towards his mobile phone, busy cracking a deal mid-street while carrying his inventory of poky aluminium rods, deliverables to the house across the city. Each one of them can nose their way in whether there is space or not, and careen around like snakes in a pit. And of course, the Romeos and Juliets love the gheri, in flirtatious dances, bumper to bumper, romancing and freewheeling to impress.

Heavens forbid you are returning late from an evening with friends; be sure to encounter the racetrack, teenyboppers on a high, astride their papa’s three stars, Audis, or BMWs, scorching the tar like tornados chasing each other, mindless of the others in commute. And if you happen to engage, out pop the phones with political connects, cops on the take or resourceful wheeler dealers. This, after hurling the choicest invectives and laser stares as if to say lay off or else. Who the devil are you anyway to get in our way? You inevitably retreat as the wife tells you to be mature and forget it. Not worth it, she says.

The invincible pedestrian

The pedestrian is another story altogether. We just believe that it is the duty of the motorised to hold their proverbial horses while on the move. We are indeed kings of the roads and can cross at any point, walk at leisure mid-traffic, even take selfies as we casually hop off the dividers bang in front of the oncoming motorcade. The invincible pedestrian standing mid-street awaiting his opportunity to dash across is another disaster waiting to happen, but this is Amritsar meri jaan, we have Him by our side!

Zebra crossings? Never heard of them. Are they not found in the zoo bro?

The city does give out licences for drivers of all automobiles, but that does not certify that they are able. Most have been informally instructed by siblings in the craft of mobility, have never received refreshers or been tested for their skill. The older generation has just taken to the road and is mostly impervious to road etiquette. The NextGen is resourceful enough to get their papers delivered at home without moving a muscle.

To top it all, everyone wants to have phone conversations, send out the odd SMS and address the compulsion of looking for that particular song. All this while driving. So, when you are walking and see a car heading for you, get into a tizzy and run for it, for the eye is not on the road but on a screen. And don’t be surprised if you see a toddler trying his skills on the steering while on the lap of a proud father. Worse still, most kids are unshackled while their mothers are careening around traffic. God forbid the kiddo decides to throw a tantrum, mom will turn her head around, throw up a shindy on the child, all in good motion. This happens, so no surprises here.

The other day a horse-drawn tonga clobbered my car bonnet. He simply backed into me. Red-eyed with fury, I confronted the devil at the reins. Amused and showcasing his brown teeth he simply laughed my theatrics off. He has no brakes, he stated matter-of-factly, and since my vehicle had them, I should in future keep fair distance from animal-driven carriages and use my foot in time to halt. Now who can counter that argument? Chastised, I retreated behind the wheel to call in for insurance and the haulers to undo the damage.

The garbage collection system in the city is semi-privatised, so if you are tailing one of the open trucks carrying refuse to the dump, you perhaps ought to leave your sensibilities as well as your sense of smell home. They potter along, dropping headloads of stink along the road. I am serious when I say I even saw a bloated body hanging precariously, one that had been recovered from a sewage drain by the bypass. Makes you wonder, as you dodge the next heap that slithered onto the road ahead of you, whether this was any better than the earlier garbage carts called Viceroy di gaddi? These were driven by white oxen and would always maintain bang centre, much as the English Viceroy who had right of way against Indian commoners. That was the time the English also ran a garbage train along the periphery of the walled city. Neat indeed.

While on garbage, you may well watch out for the missiles that emit from window panes of cars. After all, the disposables have to be disposed of the moment the food is consumed while on a drive from one eatery to the next, and definitely before you hit home. Try and stop the guy to reprimand him, for throwing the soiled food tray and plastic spoons that flew onto your windshield, and the baseball bat is sure to emerge to hammer you with, a call made to trigger-happy cronies, and the constable cousin thrice removed.

The cacophony

Oh yes, we just love to play our tunes. One-two, cha-cha-cha for the pretty damsel who you wish would turn and look at you, the-lean-on-it when you want someone to give you way regardless of the fact that you are all in the same jam, the siren just because your friend’s uncle is a politician, the fire-engine blast since you own the street on your new Thar with shining alloys and big tyres. Well, what can you say, it’s a cacophony out there and the decibel levels beyond compare!

Frankly one has nothing against the biker or the car owner for coming down the wrong way of the street or the highway. He is obviously troubled both by the persistent hikes in fuel prices, as well as the wrath of his wife, who wanted the vegetables yesterday. Not to mention the poor sod who on a two-wheeler is balancing an empty gas cylinder on his pillion and a kid in front of him.

Governments are also so very demanding on their personnel. Look at the electricity repairman who races on his motorbike with his assistant on the pillion who, in turn, is holding onto a 24-foot wooden ladder scraping the tar and surprising the lady driving her car while admiring her newly coiffured hairdo in the rear-view mirror. Or the garbage collector who has a six-foot broom contraption attached to his bike looking like a witch on wheels with a broom attachment for flying. Picture this.

Not to mention the guy who comes to your left, awaits the signal to go green, and as you accelerate to head straight, cuts you in, in an effort to take the right turn. Indicator lights, what the devil are they for? Traffic cops are of course there to catch the sun, have their cuppa delivered free from the tea stall close by, and ignore the traffic jam as well as the disorder. Blind eyes do not see. But they go rapt attention the moment they hear an official siren, slipping back into leisure the moment it passes.

And have we forgotten the other species? All the other animals are on our streets as well. Hundreds of canines, families of live pork, emaciated cattle and horny bulls, even the odd rooster or two. The other day, there was this poor, flustered horse which galloped the metalled road in peak traffic while its owners, a pair of Nihangs, chased it on motorcycles, much as those Texans would lasso stallions in Texan movies.

In this disorder and mayhem, we keep adding scores of vehicles by the day. And the bigger the better. Everyone seems to be graduating to MUVs & SUVs, would rather drive to the nearby store than walk a mile, care not for cyclist or pedestrian passerby, weave in and out from any which way. We drive the night with blinding headlights, striving to get the strongest beams to have a blinding competition on the highways. Stunning that these are the same drivers who obey all traffic rules the moment they step into the limits of the state capital, Chandigarh.

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