Chapter 3: Study This, Madam

Although I’d worked illegally in India when I’d first arrived, I’d since gotten my J-visa and didn’t want to risk getting it revoked by driving without a license. I didn’t have a motorcycle endorsement on my U.S. license because of the laws in the United States when I’d taken the rider course. A rider’s permit had to be held for thirty days before submitting it back to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles with the course completion card to get an endorsement on a license. But I’d had a return flight to Delhi to catch and couldn’t stick around for thirty days, so I left without it. Now, I needed an Indian driver’s license.

There wasn’t a woman in sight when I arrived at Sheikh Sara Authority in central New Delhi, India––only men loitering under scraggly neem trees, spitting streams of red paan juice onto the steps of the bureau of motor vehicles. The rickshaw driver I’d hired pulled into the parking lot and stopped in front of the grim looking government building. This wasn’t my first visit to the bureau. I’d come a week earlier to pick up an English translation of India’s driving manual, climbing four flights of stairs and going down dark narrow hallways that reeked of testosterone and cigarettes to the Office of Inquiry. There, lodged behind a large desk bearing a nameplate “Mr. Dubashi,” a man had eyed me as I’d entered – helmet in hand – and explained I’d wanted a motorcycle license.

I could have gotten a license without taking tests by bribing an official or having someone else square it for me. There were plenty of fixers hanging around the parking lot offering that service. But I’d never bribed anyone in the years I’d lived in India, not even when officials all but asked for one and it would have saved me much trouble to simply comply. Getting a license that way felt like cheating despite its everyday occurrence, and I was determined to do it legally. Besides, I didn’t figure I’d have any problem passing a test. I’d been driving for more than twenty years.

Mr. Dubashi studied me momentarily before handing me a driver’s manual.

‘Study this, madam,’ he said, tippling his head slightly to one side as he peered over the tops of his glasses at me. ‘It has all the information you will need to be able to drive safe on India’s roads.’

His words “safe” and “on India’s roads” struck me as contradictory. In my years in India, I’d found nothing particularly safe about her traffic. This was confirmed by a report recently released by the Central Road Research Institute.[1] It claimed only thirty-six percent of India’s drivers were aware that there were traffic laws, and of those just twenty-seven percent understood them. On top of that, it said ninety-one percent needed glasses but didn’t wear them because they didn’t know they had vision problems. Even when drivers knew they were being evaluated on their skills, the report insisted, they failed miserably: fifty-five percent disregarded flashing signal, twenty-five percent ignored speed limits, twenty-eight percent refused to use hand signals (most vehicles in India didn’t have functioning signals), and thirty-three percent displayed a “propensity for abrupt lane changes.” I attempted to console myself by saying these facts were city stats and most of my riding would be highway, but in reality the highways were more dangerous. Two million miles of paved and unpaved roads crisscrossed India, making it the third largest road network in the world after the United States and China.[2] Yet, despite its enormity, only two percent of the roads were national highways––and they carried forty percent of the traffic and accounted for twenty-five percent of all accidents. Barely trained truckers stoned and drunk were the rulers of the roads, and rarely give an inch to anyone. Being a motorcyclist in this Darwinian environment meant I’d be at the bottom the evolutionary rung, one step above “squishables[3].”

crashed trucks

[1] The report was published in 1996.

[2] The World Fact Book published by the Central Intelligence Agency in 2011.

[3]  What some motorcyclists jokingly (I hope) call small animals they’d be okay running over.