Krishna’s birthday and Indian Independence Day both fell over this weekend, causing the population of Bhagsu and McLeod Ganj to swell to ridiculous proportions. Indian tourists from all over Himachal Pradesh flocked to these tiny towns, congesting the roads and spilling out into the rural countryside. I made the mistake of walking to McLeod Ganj to do some errands on Saturday, realizing too late that I had chosen the worst possible holiday weekend to venture out.
The road between Bhagsu and McLeod Ganj is usually busy with people, men selling fruit at the roadside, Punjabi teenagers zipping by on motorbikes, monks in robes carrying rainbow umbrellas, Western tourists holding hands and listening to IPods. But on this particular day, it was like a sluggish snake that has just ingested a gigantic meal- nothing was moving. Cars were stacked up like fallen dominoes, no space between them to maneuver. Pedestrians were forced to walk in the muddy puddles at the side of the road, and in between stopped cars along the crooked median.
I swerved in and out of traffic, sometimes easing myself through a tiny space between jammed cars, sometimes giving up and tromping through the rushing ditch at the side of the road. I tried not to hit anyone with my umbrella, but there were so many people, and so many other umbrellas, it was impossible not to nick someone every now and again.
Further up the road, I saw a large mini-van easing past a smaller sedan. It stopped about half-way, however, the driver too timid to go further. The road caved away to a rushing ditch on one side, and on the other side, he was nearly scraping the paint off the other car. Horns honked incessantly, and people hurried by in the rain. I watched drivers getting out of their cars, coaxing and encouraging the driver to continue on his way. If he didn’t move, traffic would remain at an utter standstill.
In this town, it is completely normal to see two cars stuck in the middle of the road, their driver sides touching, their passengers sides pressed up against the stone walls of neighboring shops. It used to blow my mind that they would try to pass each other on these tiny, narrow roads, but they always do. And they always get stuck. They become wedged in until they cannot move, and then begins a cacophony of honking, shouting, swearing, and hood pounding as everyone gets involved trying to figure it out.
Given that this is a regular occurrence, I couldn’t understand why the driver of this mini-van was making such a big deal. Granted, he was pressed up against the other car on one side, but he had a good inch or two on the other side before he, his children, his wife, and the mini-van slid into the rushing roadside gully. Why was he hesitating?
I realized that I’ve begun to accept India for all of its ridiculous idiosyncrasies when I found myself thinking, in all seriousness, Come on, dude. GO! You have at least an inch!
A bit further down the road, traffic had slimmed a bit, and cars were zipping past. An Indian family walked in front of me, the mother guiding the perky-haired son by his shoulders, the father holding the little girl’s hand. Suddenly a car whipped by, its driver laying on the horn. I watched as the little girl was nearly hit, her lavender dress lifted in the gust of air, her swinging hand almost cut off. I drew in a sharp breath as the car slammed on its brakes. It was apparent that the driver had realized how close he had come, and was instinctually stopping to see if the little girl was okay. Drivers never stop here. He had clearly come too close. The moment he saw her still walking though, his brake lights died and he roared off. My heart was still pounding hard, and my adrenalin was pumping. The little girl had no idea she had almost been killed.
Her mother knew, though. She had been walking a few feet behind, and now she began to berate the father for allowing the little girl to walk so close to the road. This being India, the father bickered back, gesturing wildly to prove that their daughter was still alive and well before hawking a huge loogie at the side of the road and continuing on, dragging his daughter’s hand, and ignoring his pesky wife.
Sometimes I think it’s just the Westerners who cannot handle the incessant blaring of Indian horns. Laying on the horn is as integral to Indian driving as using blinkers, or engaging the emergency brake on a steep hill is to us Westerners. They cannot drive without their horns, they are attached to their horns, they make loud, incessant music with their horns. They race up the road, beeping and honking as they swerve, narrowly avoiding innocent pedestrians. They careen around corners and blare their horn as they go, scattering cows and dogs and people. Sometimes you will hear a motorcycle coming half a mile away, because the driver will lay on the horn the entire time- the crescendo in your ear as he roars past is maddening, because you’ve had too much time to anticipate it. The horns are uniquely, frustratingly Indian.
Today, however, I saw that Westerners are not the only ones who are negatively affected by the deafening horns. As I left the chaos of Bhagsu Road, and entered the chaos of a human-inundated McLeod Ganj, a car came screeching around the corner, blaring its horn like a vehicular Paul Revere, screaming its way past the throngs of people, umbrellas and shops. My ears clenched up and my face grimaced as the car roared past. I felt my usual impulse to turn around and throw a rock at his window, hoping it might break the glass and hit him in the back of the head so that he would cease honking the horn. My hands were full, however.
Just then I looked up and saw a Tibetan monk covering his ears, his face contorted in a wild expression of frustration and anger. I normally associate those crimson and yellow robed monks with peace and equanimity, but this one looked mad. In fact, he looked a bit like a monkey. He gritted his teeth and spat out some words I couldn’t hear. Then he shook his head violently and dropped his hands as the car whipped around a bend in the road and disappeared. He caught me looking at him and his expression altered. It took him a moment, but he seemed to collect himself. We shared a silent, commiserating exchange, and then he smiled. And I felt a bit vindicated- it’s not just us Westerners who despise those horrible, shrieking horns. Even Buddhists monks hate that shit.