Thursday, July 22, 2010

Priceless lessons learnt on the streets of Calcutta.

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If I had to put it very mildly, the driving experience in the streets of Calcutta is a f****g nightmare. I wouldn’t wish this even on any Manchester United player.

I am not joking. It’s in our genes to drive like mad. I know a lot of people would say nothing beats Bombay traffic and all, yeah ok. Whatever. It can’t be this bad. Here is an example.

It was December 2007. I was with a very close friend of mine from Calcutta, Vivek. I had a bike and we met, roamed, and had a good time all day. On our way back to Malad from town side, we got stuck in a massive traffic jam in the highway around the airport area. Now there must have been a long line of around 20 cars each, in all the 3-4 lanes those were standing still. Imagine the length of the jam. The advantage of having a bike is of course, you can slip into the gap between two lanes and make some ground. We found, to our delight, that enough space was left in between two very well mannered lanes for us to really travel quite some distance until we encountered a car that, neither was in one lane, nor the other. Like a fool, his front was in one lane and his rear in the next. And hence he blocked our merry ride.

Yes, that car had a WB (West Bengal) number plate. I and Vivek could only exchange that ‘we know these people’ look.

Let's be positive. Let us look for positive points. Let us learn from all this. Following are the various invaluable lessons I have learnt from the streets of Calcutta.

01. History

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Instead of calling Calcutta a metro, you can call it a retro.

The Government which has been in power in Calcutta since pre historical times wants the kids to not only read their history, but also feel it. Total awesomeness!!! What an idea! Hence, we got trams in the city. And hand held rickshaws. Even in times of modernization, we don’t forget our roots.

Trams are funny. They are 2 compartments long. And still manages a first class and second class area. Even though they look like little trains, they are absolutely not. Because as a friend recently told me, they stop right away if you show them a stop signal with your hands.

Hand held rickshaws. Yeah the name says it all.

Where else in the world would you see, in the year 2010, a tram, an Ambassador taxi, Mini bus a hand held rickshaw, and a new Honda Civic, all side by side in a traffic signal. Its like the Calcutta of 1950s has been superimposed on the present day Calcutta. Impressive. Superb and unique.
(I think the dude who bought a Civic in Calcutta was high when he decided to buy it).

02. Who the God of Calcutta is?
I always thought Saurav Ganguly is the God of Kolkata. No. The bus drivers are. They drive these little (yes little, called mini) buses which have wooden floor through which you can easily see all the road beneath you. Oh that’s not the point. These bus drivers are really the rulers of the city. When you are on the road, remember they can do anything. So be prepared. They can stop, start, stop again, swerve, accelerate, scare, entertain, drift anywhere anytime.

The second* best characteristics these people have is their enormous amount of skill. Look, I know bus accidents happen so much in cities like Delhi. But my point is in Calcutta, even though they drive in the craziest possible way, the fatal accident frequency is much less. There are two reasons for this apart from the obvious skill these drivers possess. One : Everyone drives like them. Even the taxis, cars, autos try their best. So everything gets cancelled out. This is to Delhi’s disadvantage. And reason number Two : The people of Calcutta are not dumb. If they are in Calcutta, they know what to expect. So I guess they take the necessary precautions.

*(the best characteristic by the way is having strong political backing).

03. The stuff that are written on the rear of buses and trucks are to be taken seriously.
We have all seen all kinds of crap written at the rear end of buses and trucks all over the country. Have we ever thought about the good intentions of the driver to warn us beforehand? No we never have. But in Calcutta, you must read them in all seriousness.

Many buses have ‘Danger’ written. Self Explanatory.
Some buses write ‘Stop.’ Yes, please stop if you don’t want your life to stop.
Some write stuff like ‘blow horn’ and ‘awaz karo’. Please.
Some have religious lines written. Like ‘Om namah Shivay’ or ‘Joy Ma Kali’. This means they are telling us to pray. Pray for our lives. Simple and direct. I like that.

04. Increases Current affairs and Political Awareness

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True. The fear of the scary Calcutta roads and the even scary political players in the city makes you forcibly keep up to date with the political scene of the state. So that you know when and where a massive rally or march has been planned on the roads(monthly), or when they have called a bandh(4 times a year) , or when the taxis are on strike (4 times a month) and so on. All this for your benefit. That’s why Calcutta kids know their politics well.

05. Impossible is nothing.
There is this Russell Peters joke when he says in Vietnam, he saw a whole family of 6-7 people on a scooter. If you have seen this and got shocked, you haven’t seen Calcutta. Or rather Russell hasn’t seen Cal. 8 people in an auto rickshaw. In Pune, only 3 used to sit in these ricks. Illegally 4. Here openly, in the main street at 10am in the morning. I was in one rick with 7 other people. 4 at the back. 4 at the front. Perfect balance.

Imagine a situation where you are in the left most lane in a 4 lane road. And say 10 metres from the crossing and you have to take a right turn. Problem? No problem. Just cut lanes, everyone here does that in their sleep. Distance doesn’t matter. Just cut lanes and go wherever you want to. It also gives a sense of confidence. And confidence is such a good thing.

I sincerely believe that the person in Adidas who came up with the tagline ‘Impossible is nothing’ did so while travelling in this city.

06. Increases faith in God.
Even the strongest of atheists have had their moments of fear and faith in this jungle. To be fair to them, it is not their fault. Anyway, we all must have noticed how Bengali mothers are extra attentive towards what religious lockets and stones their children are wearing (eg Ganguly). That can also be related to this I think.

It is not only in the madness and congestion do Calcuttans remember God. We also express gratefulness whenever we see an open stretch of road with no pedestrian taking a jolly walk on the road while talking on the cell phone. We also take His name whenever we are leaving or entering home.

07. One should never curse the police. Sympathize with them.
A common site in Calcutta is policemen resting in the nearby paan/cigarette shop. And not be on duty in the crossing. Think about it. Isn’t he doing the right thing by caring for his life more than ours? We all are selfish.

Also, it is terribly difficult to catch drunk drivers in the city. Because everyone drives like that.

08. Anger management.
No you don’t need to spend those thousands of rupees for enrolment in an anger management course. Just drive and ride for a reasonable duration here, and you will learn you lessons pretty well. And practicals are way more effective that theoretical lectures anyway.

09. Video Game practice.
Pretty obvious. NFS etc can stop brainstorming on how to make their locations more realistic and all, because in Calcutta, people drive cars like they play video games. Nothing can be more realistic than this. Have introduced buses already, but a lot of cars too, do the same. Here, there, fast slow, turn, stop, maneuver, crash, reset and the loop repeats.

10. Miscellaneous Lessons
Calcuttans love their chats. We call it adda. In these times of modern communication, adda has spread to mediums like mobile phones in the middle of the roads.

New swear words can be learnt. Mostly directed to people who break the rules, and since so many do so, more words can be heard and added to the vocab.

People realize getting up early is not only good for general health, but also essential for reaching places on time. Emptier streets in the mornings. Sense of punctuality sets in too.

If you have just banged your car or met with a small accident, you can always blame the buses and taxis in your explanation to the parents back home. They would believe you 100 percent.

A two lane road means a one lane road actually. Because one lane would always have parked cars. A one-lane stretch basically means go to lesson no. 06.

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For fellow Calcuttans reading this, May God bless us all. For everyone else, this is like a warning really, and you are welcome.

If someone thinks I am bluffing or exaggerating, please scroll up and see the subtitle of my blog. Moreover, frustrated minds , like drunkards, don’t tend to lie.

Most of the stuff my parents said to me in my childhood like Studying s good, and that drinking is bad etc have all come out to be rather dubious. But one thing they said truly stands out. Well proven in due course of time. “If you learn to drive in the streets of Kolkata, you can drive anywhere in the world”. I dont know how much i have learnt to drive but i sure have learnt so many other important things.

P.S. I love Calcutta.
And Sorry for the longish post. Just couldn't stop rambling.


  1. U paint an amazin picture and reading this 'long' post is effortless, seamless, coz the ppl who knw u hav talked of dis already on chat/fb/adda...effortless read, very personal yet and insightful brand of humour. :) kudos

  2. seems like home. doesnt it? :) :)

  3. Surely feels like home... Well written...I loved the bike incident..dint know abt it..also the 'retro' part :).. Damn awesome u GreaterBong!! Keep going :)

  4. good..u have a a unique style..sign f a gud wrtr..;)

  5. good one will get bored reading this......

  6. Thanks so much indeed everybody...

  7. ... cool... great post... :-)

  8. nice writeup. i've seen both cities.
    my opinion is slightly different though...
    calcutta has worse drivers. bombay has worse traffic

  9. hmmm... i guess yea fair point... too unruly, the drivers here... :)

  10. Hi, I love the interest but it would be nice if you could refer to it as "Kolkata". Some nationalist pride never hurt anyone!

    But, liked it :)


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  12. thanks tania... bout kolkata, to each his own rlly.. :)