I don’t know how I did it, but two and a half years passed and the horns never bothered me. Sure, there were odd moments when a motorcycle or taxi blasted the horn too close and I jumped, and there were kids speeding past my house and tooting their horn all the way down the road, but the thought never occupied my mind for longer than a few seconds. Until now, that is. Just lately, horns and their abusers have suddenly become a menace – to be yelled, gesticulated and cursed at. I cannot escape them. They’re everywhere, all the time.
In case you didn’t know, Indian motorists are notorious for their liberal horn use. You probably did, though, especially if you’ve been here. It’s generally the third thing one notices about India after stepping out of the airport terminal: first there’s the smell, then the heat, and finally the chorus of horns. In my case, I got a ride in a beaten-up van from Indira Gandhi Airport to my hotel in PaharGanj. I found myself whipping my head around every time the driver hit the horn, expecting to see some terrible hazard approaching; there was never anything there.
I quickly realised that in India the horn is not a last-resort means of communicating urgently with another road user, for use in emergencies only. No - in India, the horn is a multi-purpose tool for all occasions. It can take the place of:
- headlights (two short taps)
- orange side indicators (tap a few times as other vehicles part)
- brake (hold down until in the clear)
- rear- and side-view mirrors (tap sporadically until required manoeuvre executed)
- Western-style emergency horn as above (hold down with gusto for ten seconds, yelling of expletives optional)
If I’ve missed any other uses, do please let me know. Still, you get the point: the horn is just part of how you drive. Most visitors to India can’t stand it but grudgingly learn to put up with it over time. I don’t know why I’m the other way round but somehow, I managed to come to terms with it on that first night.
Good things never last, though. The tipping point came about six weeks ago as I was walking to the bus stop. It was 7 am and I was starting my hour-and-a-half-long commute to work. From behind me, I heard a vehicle approaching – noticing first the engine, then the horn. The driver was actually hitting the horn at clearly defined intervals, and as they approached and passed me, they tapped it incessantly like a child with a drum. I looked around; there were no other cars on the road as far as I could see in both directions. That’s ridiculous, I thought, but was about to continue on –
– and then I noticed the red ‘L’ plates in the car’s rear window, and the garish word art of a driver instruction company plastered across the back bumper. This was a learner driver – having a driving lesson – from a professional – who was instructing them to hit the horn every ten metres. This learner, beginning a life of road use, was learning that this is how you drive. With the horn. Every ten metres. Except when there’s a hazard, like an intersection or a saip on his way to work. At such times, you are at liberty to go nuts.
Since then, I’ve been in a phase of horn resentment. If I perceive someone’s horn use to be unnecessary, I glare at them and give an arms-lifted ‘come on now’ gesture. If it’s really bad, like the times when they blast it as they pass me – as if a vehicle moving at high speed beside me somehow escaped my attention – I yell after them until the ringing in my ears subsides.
What to do? This has been the status quo for decades. There are two rules on Indian roads: 1) the biggest vehicle has right of way; and 2) employ the horn wherever possible. I can’t change either of these. I simply hope that whoever reads this reconsiders their horn use, and tries to reduce it if they find they’ve been excessive. There are plenty more pressing concerns facing the world at the moment but if things were a little quieter, and the roads a little less in-your-face, maybe we’d have more energy to try and address those bigger issues. Or, in bumper sticker form:
REDUCE HORN USE! SAVE THE WORLD!