The laws of physics suggest that two cars cannot possibly occupy the same point in space. But Delhi drivers regularly give it a shot anyway. Coming from opposite directions, two cars will both try to pass through the same intersection at the same time, sometimes ignoring traffic signals but often having none to ignore. Either way, when they meet in the middle, motion ceases. Gestures ensue.
Behind them, cars immediately begin to route around the obstruction. Which is fine—unless the subsequent cars meet and halt just like the initial cars. Suddenly the intersection becomes a jumble of too many cars occupying not enough space, with more cars halting and more cars still coming. Seconds later, autorickshaws and motorcycles eat up the space on the periphery, and the worst has happened: total gridlock.
Despite everyone’s best efforts to clear things up by honking their horns, nobody is going anywhere.
In the absence of traffic police to disentangle the mess, it seems like a hopeless situation. Unless everyone backs up as a unified collective, we’re all stuck. Self-interest got us into this mess; only collectivism can get is out.
Except in Delhi, self-interest suddenly solves the problem it created. In this city, there’s little incentive to obey traffic laws because there’s no one around to enforce them; but the system actually works even when the worst repercussion of the asphalt free-for-all comes to a head.
In these cases, heads begin to appear between the hoods and trunks.
Motivated by a meeting they wish to keep, men wade into the fray, examining the crystalline structure of the traffic, looking for gaps, irregularities, wiggle room. Because there’s always wiggle room. Six inches here, a foot there, and this makes all the difference. It’s reverse Tetris: move one this way, move another that way, and suddenly some cars are free.
The amazing thing is this: these men don’t coordinate their actions. They don’t formulate strategies. In fact, they probably think they’re working against each other—as passengers in trapped cars, they care about helping the other cars move only insofar as it helps get their own car on its way.
That was my motivation, at any rate, when I played gridlock warden at a t-shaped intersection a quarter-mile north of Hauz Khas Market. It was a standard scenario: two cars met froze in an intersection and others quickly clotted around them. My auto driver tried to work the periphery, but another car had the same idea coming from another direction, and soon we were boxed in.
Five minutes passed, and then ten. The honking did nothing. I considered paying the driver and walking beyond the jam, but I felt some sense bizarre of solidarity with him: I got him into this, I decided, and I was going to get him out.
I exited my auto and surveyed the situation. Possibilities materialized in my head. I mapped out moves like a game of chess—“If this car goes here, and that car goes there…”—and then I took action, standing in front of this car and pointing him that way, then standing in the hole he left until my auto driver could slip into it. Around me, other heads had appeared in the traffic, and the hole one of them created for their own car cascaded back to me. Using my gestures to move some cars and my body to block others, I worked us through the jam—me grinning, my driver grinning, other drivers staring, and still other drivers following behind my auto as he followed the path I blazed out of the jam.
As we pulled away, other cars followed us into the sweet freedom experienced only by bodies in motion. Until the next stoplight, at least.