I am here studying tabla (a North Indian hand drum) and the Hindustani rhythmic system. My teacher, Ramdasji, has gone on tour in many countries, including the U.S., and he realized that the highways and byways in India might seem to me a bit “undisciplined,” as he put it. Actually, driving here is about the same as what I saw in South America—a complete free-for-all—only in India it’s more exciting because everyone drives on the left side of the street.
“We use our horns like you use your brakes,” Ramdasji said.
That’s for sure. When people get in accidents, the most common accusatory remark is “Why didn’t you use your horn?!” And, if the horn was used, it’s “Why didn’t you beep more?”
I travel by bicycle to Ramdasji’s house for lessons daily and believe I’ve figured out the rules of the road. There are only two:
1. If someone is in your way, honk. If they don’t move out of your way, keep honking until they do.
2. If it looks like someone is going to crash into you, honk. If they persist in their collision course, keep honking or get out of the way.
Rule number two is more concerning, but usually if you stay to the edge of the road (the left edge) and obey rule number one, it doesn’t come into play.
The phrase “Horn OK Please” is painted in colorful, bubbly letters on the back of all large trucks and transportation vehicles. At first I simply chuckled and wondered if there was a set of punctuation marks that could be added to the slogan to yield a grammatically correct sentence (I’m still not sure, but my favorite version is a pleading “Horn, OK? Please?!”), but now what started as a game has become an obsession.
Sometimes I have to travel to performances by car, and, partly to distract myself from the driver’s fancy maneuvers in traffic and the frequent, sudden application of the brakes, I began to contemplate, perhaps even meditate, on the phrase. I saw several variations—“Horn Please OK” and “OK Horn Please”—and thought “Aha! I see a pattern!” I figured out the six possible permutations of the phrase and felt like I had established some type of order, some sort of control over the Indian highways. Then we passed a truck bearing the words “O Horn Please K.” Can they do that? Then “Horn OTK Please” and “Beep OK Horn.” By the time I saw “Speed OK 45Km/H” and “Horn O Ta Ta K Please,” I gave up. There is no logic that can be applied to driving in India.
Perhaps the funniest part about all this requesting to be horned is that, when beeped at, many drivers seem to go out of their way not to move. In fact sometimes they will move further in the direction you are trying to go, blocking your path completely. Most drivers don’t seem to get angry about any of this. If holding down the horn for a while doesn’t get a car out of the way, they usually add a rapid-fire flashing of the bright lights. And if that doesn’t work, they turn on the emergency blinkers and continue flashing and honking for an unbeatably obnoxious effect. Inevitably the car will slowly move out of the way. There never seems to be any hard feelings, but the roads are not a peaceful place.
The vehicles here, as well as being visually much more colorful, produce much more colorful sounds. Every truck and about a quarter of all cars are equipped with multi-note horns that sound like a distorted Mozartean ornamentation stuck on repeat.
But my favorite feature of Indian cars is not the horn calls. It’s the quirky, electronic melodies played through loudspeakers to warn when a vehicle is backing up. As I lie down on my bed, just as I am forgetting about the strange world around me, the tune “It’s a Small World After All” comes barreling in the window at impressive volume. I am occasionally awakened in the wee hours of the morning by an early riser backing out of his parking spot to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” I’ve also heard “Jingle Bells” and “Happy Birthday,” always reproduced way out of tune. Where are these little sound boxes manufactured? In India? If so, then why do I hear nothing but familiar tunes from the U.S.? And do the drivers get to choose their reverse-song, or are they just stuck with what comes with the car?
I’m still trying to figure that one out. Meanwhile, here, from my adventures by automobile in India, are the top five things I hope to never again hear uttered from the driver’s seat:
5. “Ah! What is this road?”
4. “See all the headlights? I don’t think we are allowed on this road.”
3. “Wow, I can’t see anything! Isn’t the fog beautiful?”
2. “Can you see the road? I can’t see the road.”
And definitely number 1, prayers mumbled in a foreign language.
Brendan Faegre returned to Tacoma in February. He is teaching in the UPS community music program and has given demonstrations of Indian percussion techniques to music classes on campus. He will begin working on a Master of Music in Composition at Indiana University in the fall, assisted by an associate instructorship in music theory. More information on Brendan’s musical life is at www.brendanfaegre.com.