Traffic, Delhi

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Manu and Dayel are the family drivers and they think we are hilarious. They speak just enough English to tell us so, or maybe it’s just something in their eyes.

On the night of the party, we’re in Dayel’s car, which is scary because Dayel drives like he’s rounding the curve in a NASCAR race but really, he’s driving a van in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a Saturday night in the second largest city in the world. There are no discernible traffic laws in Delhi, no stop lights, no lines in the road. Most cars carry no insurance. The city’s pedicabs have no working headlights or tail lights, and they account for every third vehicle on the street.

By the time the party is over, when we are happily warm and a little tipsy and piled into Dayel’s car, when he is blasting Hindi dance music at top volume, as he accelerates, foot to the floor, even though there’s a truck twenty feet in front of us, Jen realizes that she knows exactly how to drive a car in Dehli. She’s sitting in the front, on the passenger side but on the left. Her stomach has been iffy all night.

She holds up the palm of her hand, presses it forward toward the windshield, and goes, “Beeeeep.”

It seems, in this moment, that she is exactly right. That here, a horn is a turn signal and speed is the only chance at survival.

Dayel swerves to the left and we see what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to create a fifth lane of traffic to the left of a long line of trucks, but the space between the trucks and the guardrail is so tight. It barely looks wide enough for our car.

“NO,” we shout. “NO!”

And he laughs, because he’s going to do it anyway, and because we have no idea how this works and we think we do, because we’ve driven Toyota Camrys and Chevy Cavaliers on the streets of suburban Massachusetts and Texas and New Hampshire.

He does it and we shout some more, and when a car suddenly appears in his makeshift lane, he swerves back, falling into line behind a cement truck with the words, HORN PLEASE painted on the bumper. Dayel obliges.

“What are all these people doing out?” asks Jen.

“It’s Saturday night in New Delhi,” says Katie.

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We pass through the same neighborhood we did on the way, a tangle of low, neon-lit hotels that had been choked with hollering street food vendors, and stores crammed in with endless piles of things – plastic, glass, electronics, live chickens – only it’s silent and dark now. The shops have lowered their metal grates. The sidewalks have cleared. Still, Dayel does the same thing he did on the way: He locks us in. We joke that he’s trying to keep us from trying the street food – something we’re all fairly desperate to do – but we know that’s not the reason.

It takes us twenty minutes to get home from the party. Abiding by the American-style speed limits in our minds, we estimate that it should have taken an hour. We will learn later that Dayel and Manu had a bet about who could get us home first, that there was beer riding on it. We are not sure how the results were tabulated, or who judged, but we’re guessing that Dayel won. For Manu to have beaten him would have taken miracles – and a sixth lane.

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