Borrowed time

A month back:

The morning traffic was building up. It was still around 7:30 AM. Roads were still being ruled by buses. There were many of them – the red Volvos, white company buses, blue and white tin-boxes, healthier red and blue ones with digital scrolling signage. Two-wheelers had started swaying in and out, but they lacked the numbers to bully the buses and were mainly getting out of the way. The signal had just turned red. I stopped my car by the petrol pump at Udupi Garden on BTM. A siren rang out behind me. I barely had time to turn and see a beige single-door what-once-used-to-be-plush-but-since-neglected Pushpak come at me from behind, weave itself to my right and then back into my lane missing me by inches, and then come to a halt bang in the middle of the junction, objective accomplished – traffic from my left had been disrupted. They had seen a green and started off only for this monster to lie in the path. The hurry was to get there and now he took his time to get across while angry helpless horns blew themselves hoarse, while I sat there all nerves, trembling at the narrow escape and imagining the worst possible what-could-have-been – my car with me inside spinning around after impact with a flying bus, with another bus on my left ready to stop the impact with a crash of metal against metal.

A few weeks later:

I called my colleague from the bus. He had kindly agreed to pick me up from the other campus and give me a lift to the actual place where am supposed to work. I had been sickly and didn’t see myself doing the long walk in my campus from gate to the actual building in the cold. He picked me up promptly from the bus stop and we made our way in his car to our workplace. The U-turn was negotiated and we got off the main road which is Outer-Ring-Road, needing to cross the service road and then to the gate. A siren sounded. Like an approaching train it reached a crescendo. He suddenly braked and we looked left to see a Tata Sumo speeding at 70 kmph on the service road, with no intention of slowing down for the junction, driver’s hands on the horn. We had gotten well into the road and were on his path. He swerved left, using up some space for the main entrance and then came back on the path and sped away, right foot not for a moment coming off the throttle! We said a silent prayer, thanked our stars and went along.

And just a few days back:

St. John’s junction. Morning 8 AM. Traffic not quite anywhere near peak. Me waiting with an angry Innova on one side and an irritable MUV 500 on the other. On bike this time. Main road dug up for the aborted underpass, forced onto the service road. Service road on the opposite side is closed. So everyone has to move slightly right to make it to the main road. Signal still red. A few make it past in the few moments while the vehicles from the opposite side realize it’s their green and start up. Signal eventually turns green. I start off on first gear and move to second immediately. And just like that a blue BMTC monster starts off from the left on its red. My path and his path on a collision course. I slow down just a little bit. A lifeline on my right – a gap. I move to the right. I keep a finger on the horn and keep heading pig-headedly – my green! He seems to speed up. This time my vocals also join in in a frantic attempt to stay alive and to not let him. He slows down just a tad to let me go and I make it past in one piece showing a hand at him for good measure. Biker on my right gives me a WTF look. A moment is all it took to realize that the general opinion was that I had overreacted. Buses jumping signals was no big deal. I was supposed to get on with it.

***

One of the main advantages of traveling in a BMTC Volvo for your everyday commute is that you are at the top of the traffic chain. You are part of the red monster that bullies its way around two-wheelers despite their numbers, other tin-boxes, drunk and weaving private buses and cabs, slow moving sand lorries and even the mafia-controlled water tankers. It gives you a feeling of absolute power, so much so that when they jump signals it feels like the right thing to do. For those who say that being on a Royal Enfield makes you feel like a king, try being on a BMTC Volvo.

The BMTC Volvo is part of and at the top of the Bangalore traffic ecosystem which is often compared to a “Jungle out there”. After numerous outings to the Jungle and seeing how few animals are left, I beg to disagree. It’s a whole different ecosystem – more like our own. And the sad fact is that you live there on borrowed time. Dents from drivers on the phone who didn’t see the red you had stopped for, two-wheelers swerving in to avoid the parked car that suddenly took off and came into your path and claim it’s your fault, to the dangerous buses or Sumos that jump signals even after red. The overbearing feeling is that it’s just a matter of time before you get caught under one.

The stats talk of about 5500 odd accidents per year of which 750 result in death[1]. It’s not hard to imagine why. A signal turing green starts off a cacophony of horns and resembles a flash mob coming together to dance. The odd lady with a dog in tow walks across nonchalantly oblivious to the dancing ‘mob’, except that it’s more of a BMTC bus, truck or Sumo and someone too eager to get across on seeing green could get killed.

Defensive driving helps you to some extent. Always assuming that the guy in front who’s slowing down is going to turn right, or has a phone in hand. Giving more space for autos to do their thing, knowing when they probably are going empty and hence crawling, liberal administering of the horn when overtaking. Assuming that even though you’ve had the right indicator on for the last 50 metres, the biker on a pulsar behind you is still going to overtake you from the right in the narrow gap and letting him do that. Little things, they help maintain sanity and safety. You still leave it to sheer luck. Like when driving on dark roads and blinded by the high beams from the opposite direction, you hope no one is jumping across the median and trying to cross the road, no one is trying to take a U-turn while on the phone or no one has discovered a black hole on the road and stops or swerves into your path or in the worst case, you discover one and stop while a speeding bus or truck behind you, also blinded, doesn’t.

Borrowed time. It’s all borrowed time before the traffic gets you.

[1] Accident stats: Bangalore traffic police webpage.

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