I sat in the cab, busy scrolling through the Facebook app on my phone, oblivious to my surroundings. It was several more minutes before I realized we weren’t moving. Looking up, I saw the line-up of cars sprawled around me, each one occasionally letting out a deafening honk. I craned my neck a little to see what was causing the jam, because I knew there wasn’t any traffic signal in this area.
Wait, that’s right. There was no traffic signal here. But there was a crossing, and as is the driving norm in India, cars had pushed their way forward from every direction so astutely that they had all managed to trap each other in an entangled web. None could move while the other stood there. And, well, the other could do little else except stand there.
The traffic jam was well past the point where anyone could reverse their way and ease the flow. It needed someone to physically guide the cars out of this mess. Option number one would have been a traffic cop, but there wasn’t one around. Option number two would be – well, anyone else. But no one really moved. Everyone remained in their cars, continuing to let out their frustration by pounding the horn and yelling occasional abuses at their general surroundings.
You know you want to.
Just do it. Get out of the car.
I’m sure someone else will fix it.
Why not you?!
It’s just that…never mind. Next time.
If not you, then who? If not now, then when?!
I have more quotes where that came from.
My mental battle raged on, while the cars outside provided the relevant sound effects. I knew what I wanted to do, but I also knew that it was highly unlikely that I’d do it. The idea of stepping out of that car, standing in the middle of that traffic jam and navigating the cars out of that web sounded – absolutely amazing and liberating and unrealistic.
It’s strange, how in moments like this – and by this I mean being stuck in a traffic jam contemplating your role in this world – your mind turns sociological and philosophical and existential. There’s me, as I am, and there’s me, as the version I’d want to be. That version is fearless. It doesn’t overthink situations. It does things – small and big things – without thinking enough to stop itself. It hands out money to every single person who asks for it. It helps out strangers without waiting for them to ask. It talks to anyone and everyone without any hesitation. It writes the stories it has been wanting to write for the last few years. It has difficult conversations without skipping a heartbeat. It challenges the status quo without caring about the ‘but what ifs’. It takes decisions without hesitation. And it bloody well confidently helps clear out a traffic jam when it sees one.
I’ve spent far too many moments in my life visualizing and dreaming up the image of that other version, or far too little doing anything about it.
Enough thinking, I decided. Just do it. Heart racing, I picked up my bag. I blurted out something to the cab driver along the lines of waiting for me on the other end of the road when he’d managed to get through. And just like that – I stepped out.
Trying to ignore the thumping heartbeats, I began making my way through the immobile cars. I think I got quite a few quizzical looks along the way, but I’m not sure: everything was a bit of a blur. As I approached the big entangled mess at the centre, I took in a few deep breaths. It was time to cut down the blur and bring in some focus.
Scanning the cars around me, it became even clearer just how much of a mess this was. Every single car had pushed its way forward until the last few inches, leaving no room for anybody to even try and back up (not that anyone would have volunteered). The din was crazy here. Each driver was busy jamming their horns as they waved their hands and hurled abuses at the other cars around. Standing there, taking this scene in, I could feel my stomach clamping up. This was not a good idea.
I continued scanning the cars, trying to find a spot where there some possibility of movement. This felt like that game we used to play as kids, where everyone would stand in a circle and then get themselves tangled up, only to have the ‘doctor’ come and untangle the mess. I didn’t recall being particularly good at that game as a kid, and I didn’t feel particularly confident going into this one.
I don’t quite know how long I stood there, trying to figure out where to begin. I’m pretty sure there was a lot more that went into my delay than just the jam. Fixing this traffic jam meant getting all these drivers to listen to me – a random stranger. And I couldn’t quite see why they’d do that. Sure, eventually someone always does fix the mess, and the drivers to listen to that person, but that person is usually a guy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman fix this kind of mess. Let alone one in pyjamas and carrying a backpack. Something seemed really off about this picture.
Screw it, I decided. Spotting an opening towards one corner, I made my way there. Four cars were trying to push forward from every direction, ensuring that none of them could actually move. Holding up my right hand as I’ve gotten used to doing every time I cross the streets now, I signalled to the cars to stop. In return, they merely shifted their abuses in my direction. Trying hard to ignore the clamminess and the abuses, I kept the hand steadily up, while using the other to motion one of the cars to move slightly towards the side. It took a while for the driver to realize I was actually signalling to him. Luckily, by then, the other cars had stopped trying to inch forwards.
It took some manoeuvring, but eventually, the car was able to find its way out. But this solution would go for a toss if the remaining cars all rammed their way in again. Putting up both hands to signal to those other cars to stay where they were, I motioned for others to move ahead. The abuses continued, though it did feel like they were directed at the general air and not so much towards me – or perhaps that’s just what I told myself.
Bit by bit, some of the cars were able to move. Each time, however, some space was created, other threatened to accelerate into that spot. I found myself glaring at several drivers as I firmly kept my hands up in the air, telepathically threatening them to stay in their place. I didn’t quite realize it then, but the glares became firmer with each passing second, and the hands stayed up more confidently. But man, those cars did not seem to end.
Eventually, and I have no recollection of how long this actually took, many of the cars were able to move forward. The navigation became easier, and the honking seemed to go down (the hand never did). Getting drones of cars moving, I finally felt my breathing return to normal. I could do this. I was doing this. Some of the people driving passed smiled at me or gave me a thumbs up; most just stared. Occasionally, someone would honk in irritation behind me, and I’d turn and look at them. It took me a while to realize that they weren’t glaring at me out of anger; just, frustration. And I got that. This was the Indian road. We’ve all been there. Didn’t make this situation any easier to bare, but we all got that.
As the traffic finally began to move more smoothly, I found a grin creeping up on my face. I had actually done this. Not just thought about doing it, not left it to someone else, but actually done this. Why had I hesitated so much? Why did I always hesitate so much? Maybe it really wasn’t that big of a jump from who I was to whom I wanted to be. I could feel a high rushing over me as the cars went past, a confidence I hadn’t felt in a long time. A feeling like I could do anything. Nothing in that moment could take away that feeling of –
I jumped up. The car door had just been shut. My cab driver had sat back down, announcing that the traffic was finally moving. Unnerved, I looked around, taking in my surroundings. I was in the car. The car was in the jam. The honking was as loud as ever. Nothing had changed.
The car began moving slowly. I sank down in my seat, letting it all wash over me. I was still in the car. I hadn’t moved. But someone had. As we passed by the centre, I saw an auto-rickshaw driver standing in the middle of the road, navigating the traffic out of the jam.
Someone had stepped up. Someone always did.
And it wasn’t me.