Traffic Terror

About 20 years ago, mentioning Bangalore would have elicited a response to the tune of, “Oh, the weather is lovely there.” Today, you’re much more likely to hear, “God, I hear the traffic is terrible.” It’s a sad reality that the Bangalore of today is very, very far from the one I remember fondly from when I used to visit my grandparents during school vacations, and one of the things that makes it so vastly different is the crazy, crazy increase in the number of people living and working here, and consequently, the traffic.

I’ve been lucky. When I first decided to move to Bangalore, I did so with the knowledge that I would be avoiding most traffic problems due to a very early morning shift at work, and a pick-up and drop-off service. If I had been made to deal with arranging my own transport during regular peak hours, I wouldn’t even have attended the job interview. I admit, my decade-long stint in Singapore made me complacent in many ways. Public transport could take you pretty much anywhere you wanted to, across the length and breadth of the city, and even though I didn’t live particularly close to the metro, the bus connectivity near my place was excellent. It never took me more than an hour to get to most places.

What I’m realising here is that an hour is not that short a time when it comes to travel. It probably felt that way because public transport was comfortable in Singapore – you were always in an air-conditioned vehicle, travelling on smooth roads. An hour in an air-conditioned car here, on the other hand, can feel like an eternity, because when you’re not bumping over terrible roads, you’re staying still in one place. I underestimated the rage that can build in a person sitting in an unmoving vehicle. That gentle (or not so gentle) rocking motion of movement is a stress-reliever, not dissimilar to the swinging of a hammock. Take that out, and you suddenly become hyper-aware of the fact that you’re sitting in a small metal box, surrounded by other shrieking small metal boxes, and claustrophobia comes a-calling.

That said, though, because of the aforementioned work timings and my general lack of getting out for anything other than work, traffic isn’t what bothers me the most here. No, it’s just the simple fact of being in a passenger seat with a local driver, whether that’s in my work cab or an Uber or an auto. You see, the local driver here drives with an over-reliance on brakes that frightens me to my core. The first day I was in Bangalore for my interview, within five minutes of getting into my Uber, I was about 80% sure that I was going to die in a horrible crash, just because the guy was driving at speeds that shouldn’t have been possible on those roads. I didn’t die, obviously, but reliably, the driver mowed over a dude on a bike about 100 metres from my destination. I hurriedly got out and walked the rest of the way while he got pulled over by traffic cops (who, I swear, materialised out of nowhere). As I was walking to my destination, another dude swerved too fast into the lane and went skidding along with his bike, inches from where I was on the sidewalk. (I say “sidewalk”, I mean “side of the road”.) Luckily, neither incident caused any major injuries, but you can imagine why all the stories about Bangalore and traffic had suddenly taken a very personal turn for me.

If I thought travelling in a personal vehicle to and from work during off-peak hours would be less terrifying, I thought wrong. The way we get picked up, I get the middle seat in a large jeep and, along with the discomfort, a clear view out the front windshield. For the first few weeks, my hands would be perpetually clutching the headrest of the two seats in front, and I would flinch and react to every vehicle that came too close, every vehicle that we got too close to, every turn taken too fast, every cow narrowly avoided, every pedestrian who leisurely crossed the road as if he was a cow and had divine luck on his side. True Bangaloreans do not worry about such inconsequential things as mortality, so neither the pedestrians nor the rest of my colleagues in the car bat an eye, leaving me to look like I’m just overreacting to mundane things.

So, I guess if you’re living in Bangalore, the question is this – would you rather lose your mind in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but be happy about your chances of survival because, well, you’re not really moving enough to crash into anything, or travel at daredevil speeds on free, empty roads, risking life and limb, but be happy you got to your destination quickly (if at all)?

What a terrible conundrum.