Update on the Driving…

… I hate it! I hate it not so much because I have to go from driving an automatic car to a manual one, but because driving in Mumbai is not a pleasure at all. I previously mentioned how different it is driving in Mumbai when compared to San Francisco, because it had more to do with the way people drive and the lack of road discipline and blah, blah, blah. But as I have completed my 4th driving class, I am realizing that my irritation with driving in Mumbai is not so much to do with how things wok on the roads and with the cars, but with how many people and things you have to dodge when driving in this city!

For one, most pedestrians insist on walking on the roads instead of using the foot path or sidewalks. It’s like a disease. Although we do not have the best footpaths in Mumbai, because there are almost always cracks or crap on them, we still have good enough foot paths for people to utilize. Why people insist on walking on the roads is anybody’s guess. Actually, that is not entirely true. I suspect that the denizens of Mumbai walk on the roads, where cars are meant to be (than on the footpath), is because we have the hawkers who have taken over the sidewalks of Mumbai. And I am not kidding when I say that, because in most parts of Mumbai, the hawkers are like little cockroaches that have bred (and continue breeding), so that anywhere you turn or any sidewalk you are on, you will see them there. They could be selling anything from vegetables to flowers to bed sheets and underwear. You name it, they have it! I can’t say that I am innocent in all this, because I am also one of the gazillion people in Mumbai that depend on these hawkers, especially for my weekly veggies. But come on, can there be another, better way to have them carry out their operations? Can there be a more efficient, smarter way for hawkers to sell their stuff without inconveniencing pedestrians? I do not believe I will live to see that day.

In any case, it could be said that because people are used to walking on the roads instead of the sidewalks due to the hawkers, it has become a perpetual habit for them to now walk on the roads, irrespective if the footpaths are empty or not. So can you imagine trying to drive on the roads and in the by-lanes with people all around you? It is incredible how casually they walk on the fringes of the road, and yet they are in your bloody way, their arms flailing about, people on their cellular, as if they were having a stroll in the park. It frightens me every time I drive because I think I am going to knock someone down. Apart from pedestrians on the road, there are cyclists and motor cyclists that zoom in like meteor showers and it’s so hard to anticipate which side they are coming from, especially when you are too busy managing your time changing gears! Gosh, this driving is killing me and will be the number one cause of my death, I promise you!

In addition to this mayhem, there are men with hand carts and bullock carts that also own the streets and you have to compete with them as well, when trying to drive safely. There are also cats that randomly cross the street, and dogs that just park themselves where they shouldn’t and you have to be careful to not run into any of these creatures either.

I think the worst part of it all, is that I am becoming like, or at least it seems, that kind of driver who I never want to be: the one who always honks! Trust me, I have been and still am so critical and irritated by people who honk. But with every day I am in the driver’s seat, I am becoming more aware of the necessity to honk than anything else. People mostly honk to let people know they need to get out of the freakin way!! I have started doing this myself and it actually gives me great joy, because it is more a catharsis, to honk at them in the hopes that it will scare the living day lights out of them. But who am I kidding? They continue to merrily stroll, and if they move, it will be half an inch and you find yourself back where you started – muttering obscenities to yourself because most pedestrians do not have a brain!

Just this afternoon, as I was driving, some of the neighborhood kids took over half a lane to play India’s favorite sport, India’s most treasured past time – cricket. So I honk and the kids stop playing and make way for the car. A pedestrian is standing on the left corner of the street gazing at the kids and probably very involved in the game. I am about to turn left and almost into him, and so I honk. The man does not move, does not bat an eye, and continues to be enthralled in the game. So there I am making adjustments so that I do not knock him down (even though I so wish I could!).

I do not know. I am just going with it and trying to be patient with this whole “driving in Mumbai’ business. The only thing I can say is, “God help me!”

On a more positive note, I am so enjoying the pleasant and cool weather in Mumbai. Granted, it is not cold like how a “winter” should be, but this is enjoyable and loveable weather all the same. I continue to be amazed at how I can be in a room, hours on end, without the fan, let alone the air conditioner. I know these days are numbered and in the next month the heat will be so bad, it would feel like I was being charred with every bleeding moment. But until then, I thank my lucky starts that my first winter in Mumbai is a benevolent one.


My first driving lesson in Mumbai

Yes, my friends, I have “voluntarily” committed myself to 21 days of driving classes in Mumbai. Today was my first day and I HATE driving a manual car. After driving an automatic in the USA for about 6 years, where driving was a breeze, I feel like I am in the pre-historic era, trying to drive a car that operates on 5 gears, that has a clutch, an accelerator, and a break! I cant’ say that I ever enjoyed driving. I am one of those creatures that have always had some kind of aversion toward driving. While sitting behind the wheel brings great joy and pleasure to most folks I know, it induces a state of anxiety (and sometimes even comatose) in me every time I have to drive. A past life thing?

Anyhoo, I think I did OK for my first lesson in driving. For someone who is used to obeying traffic rules, giving way to pedestrians, and taking the law really seriously, driving in Mumbai is like driving in a zoo! The concept of “road discipline” does not exist and I was barraged by cars from all sides of the road and it was non-stop. I had a rude awakening today on two occasions: First, when I was approaching a main junction where there were no traffic lights, I asked the instructor if I should slow down and see if there were other cars that were already at the junction that were ready to cross. To my great surprise, I was told that there was no need to stop and I should just continue going and if there was traffic from the other side, they would stop. This made no sense to me and sounded like an unsafe practice. But hey, I figured when in Rome, do as the Romans do, even if you have to die!

Second, I was making a turn into the left lane and as I was getting into the lane, I saw some pedestrians crossing half way through. I told the instructor that I should wait until the pedestrians cross before I completely turn into the left lane. And I almost jumped out of my seat when I heard, “Why should we stop and let the pedestrians cross? Can’t they see there is a car coming? You just keep going. They will stop.” Granted, the pedestrians did stop  crossing half way through the street, even though I swear I was so close to running them over because of my instructor’s insistence to get in their way.

This whole driving lesson situation that I am in will last for another 20 days. My next lesson is on Monday. On a funny note, well, maybe not so funny, in the first 10 minutes of my driving, the instructor asked me if I was living in “America.” When I said yes, he said, “Makes sense. You keep wanting to drive onto the wrong side of the road.” Yes, indeed. I found myself driving on to incoming traffic a couple of times. Lucky me, I wasn’t driving during peak hours!

I guess it would be safe to say that, if you do not hear from me in about 4-5 days, you can be sure I was driving on the wrong side of the road.

Musings of a Mumbaikar in the making

As I embark on my 5th month in Mumbai, it is becoming more evident to me that I am here to stay; that I am in the process of going from a San Franciscan to a Mumbaikar. While there are times that I do feel I am resisting this major change in national and cultural identity, I am becoming more open to embracing this new identity. I have been thinking about what distinguishes Mumbaikars from other peoples of this country. There are many things that are endemic to this city and the following are mere observations of this city and my take on what life in Mumbai means for me:

1. “This thing” or “That one” – Gosh! How I laugh to myself as I am writing about this. Every Mumbaikar, and I mean, every Mumbaikar, will expect you to be a mind reader. When in a conversation, be it in most situations or circumstances, the person I am talking to will substitute a person’s name or a thing/object with “this thing” or “that one.” The best part is, they expect you to understand what they are talking about! For instance, if I am talking to my aunt about a shop that I want to visit and ask her for directions, she’ll say, “Take a right on Linking Road, and then keep going straight, and you will pass “this thing” on your left and keep going till you see a big brown building at the end.” Or, if I am asking my grand mother about a family member I met for the first time, she explains that X is “that one’s” daughter, and many seconds later, cares to elaborate on who “that one” is. In a day, I will hear “this thing” or “this” or “that one” at least 5 times with the expectation that I know exactly what the person is referring to. Since I have lived in Mumbai for 4 years, I am much better at decoding what people are referring to. But, it drives my husband out of his mind because he sure as hell does not get it. He wished people in Mumbai spoke English rather than some form of English where every 5th word has to be decoded. I, on the other hand, find it amusing and I am always kept guessing when I am talking to someone in Mumbai.

2. Throwing things out of the vehicle – It’s probably across all of India that people find it OK to use the streets, roads, and railway tracks as their public bins. But, it’s hard for me to deal with the fact that people in Mumbai, and I am guessing a lot of them are educated people, do not bat an eye when they throw their trash out of their vehicle, be it from a train, a car, or a rickshaw. I have even seen people throwing their trash from their windows at home! What is up with that?? I have always known that in India, in general, we lack a civic sense. We find it more important to keep our homes clean, but will not hesitate in keeping out backyards and compounds and streets unkempt. I guess the positive side to it is that it gives the public Street Sweepers a job to do!

3. “Paan” / Spit Stains – This is something that I really find disgusting not only because it is gross, but also because it is extremely unhealthy. Paan is a food item, unique to India and other parts of Asia, which consists of areca nut, slaked lime paste, and other condiments (such as tobacco, sugar, candy fruits, fennel seeds) all wrapped up in a betel leaf.

Sweet Paan

It was originally used as a digestive or a mouth freshener by the royal families. Now, it is accessible to the commoner. I have had paan occasionally and can’t say that I particularly enjoy it. But this city contains millions of people, especially men, who relish paan.  While I have nothing against paan per se, I am disgusted by the fact that most people who eat it, have no qualms in spitting out the remains of the paan, on walls or on the streets. Paan contains a red colored substance, so when a person spits it out, the stain is colored brick-red. Here are several images of how walls, stair cases, and even trains are dotted with paan stains:

On the columns of a public building

On the columns of a public building

On public stair cases

On public stair cases

Similar to paan, a lot of taxi drivers in Mumbai chew a certain kind of tobacco and are constantly spitting out of their taxi windows. The irony of it all is that their taxis display huge signs that state, “Spitting is Injurious to Health” or “Do not Spit! It is the number one cause of TB.” There may be a cure for TB, but I fear there is no a cure for this disease – the disease of spitting in public!

4. Punctual Trains – If there is one thing I love about this monstrous city, it is the fact that local trains are punctual. I know I have mentioned this before and I probably will keep harping about it till my dying day…but you can get from anywhere in this city via the trains, and you can definitely get to your destination on time.  There may come a time where everything in Mumbai may come to a stand still, but I can bet my life that the strains will still be punctual and on the dot!

5. Pedestrians do not have the right of way – No, they do not! God knows how many times I have almost seen death’s countenance thinking that, as a pedestrian, I would have the right of way when crossing the road. Silly me for extending my expectations of “road sense” from San Francisco to Mumbai, where in SF, pedestrians have the right of way and drivers can be fined if they do not adhere to this law. Be it crossing a main road or a tiny alley, the drivers in Mumbai will zoom by you (and sometimes even into you) if you are so silly as to try to cross the road. How dare you! In Mumbai, apparently, it only makes sense that drivers get to go first and then the pedestrians.

So, here it is. Month 5 and I am allowing myself to become more accustomed to the Mumbai way of life: the good, bad, and the ugly.