An Excursion in Chennai

There’s probably no more accurate description of Chennai, as a city, than its traffic situation. It follows no rules, is chaotic, messy, and definitely dangerous, but it functions, somehow.

Several roads now have lane markers, thanks to some chronically optimistic person. Chennai drivers, naturally, ignore them.

Depending on the mode of transport you take, you’re exposed to different facets of this madness. In a car, you’re insulated from the outside, and there’s a fair chance you can get some air conditioning going. Autos are fun, and certainly the quintessential way of traveling some distances in Chennai. But this means you’re at the mercy of the exhaust fumes from other vehicles. More importantly it means you’re being driven a fair distance by someone you’ve already had a heated argument with, regarding price, even before you climb into the vehicle.

By the way, there’s a saying in this city: autos are so nimble that if you just stand with your legs apart, they’re liable to nip under and around you.

But by far my most memorable ride anywhere is on a bike (or, as city calls them and all scooters, two-wheeler).

“I don’t have much experience traveling on bikes,” I told my uncle, as we set off for a South Indian classical concert.

“Oh, that’s fine,” he said, strapping on the sole helmet. “Just make sure both your feet are firmly on the sides of the bike. Ready? Right.”

The large portion of this journey is now a blur. I knew bikes were probably the niftiest way of getting around a city (except for autos; see description above), but I didn’t realize exactly what that entailed. As we swung and ducked our way around fallen trees (recent cyclone), pedestrians a foot away (totally indifferent) and other cars (far too close for comfort), I couldn’t decide if it would be more helpful for me to close my eyes and pretend this wasn’t happenning, or if I kept a close lookout for the car that would inevitably crush my knees to a pulp.

At one point my uncle turned onto a street blocked with trees, along with a car that had had the same idea, and a car coming in the opposite direction that had severely underestimated the breadth of the street it occupied.

There, with one car about two inches from my left knee and the other car nestled up close against my right ankle, the car on our left rolled down his driver’s side window and leaned out to discuss the situation with my uncle. “Sir, where do you think you’re going in such a hurry?” said this individual, employing rhetorical questioning to devastating effect. “Just trying to make a turn into this lane,” said my uncle, equally amiably. They spoke calmly for a couple of minutes about rights of way and what concessions we had to make for a cyclone that had leveled some 100,000 trees in residential areas. Then my uncle buzzed off, with me in the back and all limbs, shockingly, intact.

In my head, every bump and pothole — and there were many of these — that we hit in the road was a disaster waiting to fling me off the bike and split my un-helmeted head in half. So I tried to distract myself by watching the roads and shops pass, but this also involved watching pedestrians crossing the road. In one case, a man sauntering across the road behind us was so close that I could have reached out and plucked the pen from his shirt pocket.

In the fevered state that I was in, I barely noticed the scenery, such as it was, going by. There was an immediacy to the situatino that would have been, if I was calmer, bracing rather than terrifying. All around me people crossed the chaotic roads with bewildering nonchalance; conducted business briskly in minuscule shops that infringed directly into the road; carried on vigorous conversations with the passengers within their vehicle and anyone unlucky enough to cut them off in the road.

Then a memory popped into my head. The way I remember it, I was probably under ten, and we had all gone to watch Jurassic Park at the theater. I don’t remember much except that at some point early on the proceedings, I’d decided that I had had enough of T-Rexs systematically chomping down on characters, and had hidden my face in someone’s shoulder. I was realizing now that that shoulder was the very same one I was clutching onto for dear life.

There was some comic relief in imagining that the same uncle who saved me from T-Rex nightmares was now expertly guiding me through Chennai traffic.

And as I pondered this, I found to my amazement that we’d arrived at the concert venue — and that both of us were in one piece.


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