It was early and the traffic was just warming up when I took a “taxi” to Chennai airport. On the way out of Pondicherry a motorcyclist suddenly materialised from behind a parked van and we had to brake hard to avoid hitting him. It happened in a flash, and my gaze met his through the filthy windscreen. I was surprised at what I noticed in his eyes, because it was nothing. No shock, fear, anger or alarm. Nothing.
Coupled with the non-reaction of my driver, Ravi, it made me reflect on a couple of things about India that had been floating idly around in my mind. Firstly, that the outcome is the only thing that matters. If we’d hit the guy, or someone had hit us as we braked, I’m fairly certain the shit would have hit the fan. But we didn’t, and they didn’t, so who cares?
The same outcome bias causes people to persistently lie about what they know or have. What difference does it make if a tuk-tuk driver doesn’t know where your guest house is if someone else does and he can ask them and get you there? The means is unimportant compared with the end. Similarly, when a shop owner tells you he sells something he doesn’t, and sends a kid off to another shop to get it, what’s the big deal? You still get what you want.
I also think there's a wider concept of responsibility lying with society as a whole rather than the individual. Between them, Indians can get you what you need, or where you need to be. The role of each individual in the delivery is irrelevant; they're just parts of the whole. And on the road, society says it is acceptable (compulsory?) to drive aggressively and inconsiderately, so if problems arise out of doing so, it is society’s fault as much as the guy behind the wheel or handlebars.
Ravi must have sensed my silent contemplations, and set about debunking them by driving like a complete arsehole for the next three hours. For the first time in India I detected real anger and annoyance on the part of other drivers as he carved them up and ran them out of his way. Oh well.
After about half an hour we had to slow for some commotion or other. Tens of people milled around blocking the road, where a truck carrying live chickens had jackknifed. It lay unnaturally on its side, and next to it the cages of confused birds had been stacked on top of one another by the onlookers, some of whom were still rounding up a few clucking escapees. It was a bizarre and surreal sight. “Accident,” Ravi solemnly observed. Yes, I thought, most probably caused by some fucking idiot like you.
Outside Chennai we passed the scene of an earlier, and much more serious, “accident” in which a bus and a petrol tanker had met in a head on collision. The front of the tanker had been emphatically crushed and I doubt that the driver survived. I tried not to dwell on the image of the cab's flattened carcass, but it proved impossible to shake off. I decided to spare myself any more carnage by falling asleep, but every time I managed to nod off I was woken almost immediately by another reckless swerve from Ravi or the noisy protestations of his latest victim.
Before I left Pondicherry, I created a little extra space in my rucksack by sending a parcel home. I carefully packed up a bundle of clothes, books and assorted tat and took it to a small post office in the French Quarter. I was directed to a dimly lit room out the back, where a very old man was hidden among the overflowing heaps of sacks and parcels he had apparently scattered about the place.
He had me write down the to and from addresses on the back of a used envelope, sign an indecipherable (and blank) form where he had indicated, and hand over 3,800 rupees (£40). He arrived at this figure by performing numerous sums that I was unable to follow on the back of another envelope. I then watched him roll both the envelopes, the form and my money into a tight cylinder, fold it in half and twirl an elastic band around it, before casually tossing it in a drawer that happened to be open.
In exchange for my money and possessions, I received another scrap of paper, upon which he had scribbled something completely illegible.
I'm sure it will arrive in no time, beautifully wrapped in white cotton, the seams stitched tight by his steady hand and sealed with blood red wax.
** The parcel arrived six days later
** The parcel arrived six days later