No entry for rules

No entry for rules

We love talking on our mobile phones in a silent theatre. We enjoy overtaking vehicles from the left. We take pride in disobeying signal lights... Well, we are a nation of rule breakers. But, isn’t it about time we changed this hideous attitude of ours, wonders S Nanda Kumar

We love breaking rules. We may be a nation with a proud cultural history of great achievements — inventing the zero, giving the world Ayurveda, architectural marvels of our countless ancient temples — the list is endless. But, if there’s one thing we love doing as a race — it’s breaking rules. The evidence is there in almost everything we do in our daily lives.

You don’t agree? (That’s another thing we do very well — not agree on most things, but that is another story!) Take some time off, and let’s travel together and look at this issue.
Did I say travel? That brings me to our roads and traffic rules that are flouted left, right and centre. Indeed, this whole article could be dedicated to just our shenanigans on the road!

But, let’s look at a few things, at least, that stare us in the face everyday. Take traffic signals.
The light very clearly shows red, meaning ‘stop’ to the meanest intelligence. But the first thing the experienced Indian road user looks for is the presence of a traffic policeman. The more experienced veterans don’t just glance at the area in front of them — they scan all the roads leading off, behind the battered traffic umbrella, at the tiny tea stall across the road, all the hidden places that mere novices would miss. Once they have confirmed that the hapless white-shirted countryman in uniform is missing, they rev their engines, dart through the streaming traffic, and are gone, leaving behind screeching brakes, shouted curses and chaos.
These days, the more experienced rule breakers also glance up to see if there is a CCTV camera recording the goings on.

A knowledgeable taxi driver showed me how to spot one. He did it with great relish and said philosophically in Kannada, “What to do, Saar! These damn things even record the number plate! Like it or not, we have to wait. Unless we can quickly follow somebody else jumping the light. Otherwise, we have to wait. Technology!”

Just in case you were from the minority group that does obey signal lights, like myself, other drivers behind will haul you up if you are found dawdling. Halted at a red signal many months ago, I found the auto rickshaw driver behind me honking continuously and gesticulating rudely. When I rolled my window down and pointed to the red light, he switched off his engine, came striding up, and told me in a disgusted tone, “Aiyyo, it’s okay, Saar! Everybody takes this turn even if the light is red. Look at that car. That van. Please go.” When I refused and pointed to the light again, he went away muttering and cursing, inviting me to go ‘to foreign’ and drive, as I was not fit for this country, and when he manoeuvred his rickshaw around and sped off into the red light, illegally-tweaked silencer roaring, with even his passenger glaring at me, he had a final repartee, “Rich fathers give people like you cars to drive!” That I had bought my modest car out of my own hard-earned money only added to the confused thoughts running around in my numbed brain. So much so that I could not even move when the light turned green.

Overtaking from the left is another brilliant manoeuvre that we have perfected. The sole guiding philosophy seems to be centered on leaving no available road space unconquered. It does not matter how alert a driver you are (or if your vehicle has clear glass all around) — the ‘left hand side overtaker’ is an expert, and will surprise you, giving you that cardio-vascular workout your doctor keeps muttering about. Rather than following him in hot pursuit and exchanging hotter words, I have now honed the art of exchanging a polite word with the ‘leftist’ at the next signal on how unwise it was to follow this practice, with an ingratiating smile on my face. I have found three broad reactions, on an average. The first, an equally ingratiating smile on the face of the offending driver, with a short telegraphic explanation on the lines of how late it was for his office or to drop his child off at school or some other urgent errand. The second, more aggressive and pained reaction, was on the lines of how idiots like me expected people to follow rules for overtaking when it was quite evident that traffic was terrible, and did I not realise that Metro work (or underpass or flyover construction) was going on? It was people like myself who wanted to educate other people on the road who made life more miserable for the others struggling to cope with the confusion. The third reaction was a blank look when asked ‘The Question’. I could be speaking in Swahili for all he cared, as he continued to scan the horizons and my face with a distant look.

Non-compliance

I am sure by now you’re impatient to get a word in edgewise about other traffic novelties that we excel in, such as parking in ‘no parking’ zones, riding on the footpath (where footpaths exist), driving on the opposite side of the road because the u-turn was 500 metres away, riding without helmets (but kept ready to slip on when a traffic policeman is spotted), trying to kill pedestrians crossing the road, and so on, but I am sorry, I have to move on to some other interesting areas, since I think by now you’re in the correct lane.

This one is hardly an elevating example. Yes, I am talking about lifts in public places. If you’re lucky enough to find one of those modern, spacious, cabin-like lifts, (when there is power), just watch how quickly it fills up, to hell with the sign that says ‘no overloading please, 15 persons or 750 kg maximum capacity,’ or whatever. The unfortunate lift attendant looks around helplessly as passengers either glare back, become busy on their mobile phones, look pointedly at late comers, or shuffle their feet and glance interestedly at the floor. The more experienced attendants issue a dire warning. “It will get stuck between the 7th and 8th, after that it’s your fate. If all of you want to wait here, let’s wait. Anyway the power will go soon and you will have to climb the stairs.” Or words to that effect. Only then will a few reluctant passengers get out, glaring at the others, muttering. This drama unfolds in quite a few buildings daily. In case there is no attendant, then there is adventure thrown in, as a daring office-goer punches a button and the overloaded lift shudders and groans its way up, and passengers gratefully alight at each floor, as the remaining passengers yell ‘up, up, up’ in a chorus, to frantic queries from waiting people on whether the lift was going ‘down, down, down?’

And if it is a hospital you are visiting to see a loved one, then your visit will be brightened up considerably by arguing with the security guards on duty about sundry issues, from parking your vehicle, visiting hours, to the number of people accompanying you, to carrying ‘outside food’. In fact, visits to hospitals are considered major tests for showing how important you are, or how clever you are with words, as visitors make it the mission of their life to thwart the guard and the hospital rules. How often one sees visitors yelling into mobile phones, asking to be put through to the Hospital Chief, simply because they and their retinue have arrived well past visiting hours and have been halted in their perfumed tracks! It becomes a Great Contest, and in case you have ever been ‘on hospital duty’ looking after a relative or a friend in hospital, as I have many times, this evening argument time is where you get free entertainment, and get your thoughts away from grim matters of life and death and ICUs. You can even add to the excitement by flashing your ‘attendant pass’ and slipping through the arguing groups.

Why people can never come strictly during visiting hours is a mystery I have never solved. Another mystery is the feeling of triumph that an illegal visitor exhibits, and enters the ward past visiting hours, just as one is about to coax and spoon in a mouthful of food into one’s relative, and as the patient on the adjoining bed is being given a sponge bath. One enterprising security guard in a hospital where I was doing ‘attendant’ duty used to regularly come and check the toilet in our room everyday after visiting hours — he said that was where visitors hid so that they could stay on a while longer! Winning over that security guard’s confidence as a law-abiding ‘attendant’ during that traumatic period was one of the highlights of my hospital stay.

Above queues

Queues are another of those interesting experiences in our country’s exciting life. They don’t exist anywhere. If they do, the line quickly breaks up at the final moment, making the whole thing an exercise in futility. But railway ticket counters at stations are one of those rare places where queues still exist. People here kick up a great fuss if somebody jumps the queue. An eagle eye is kept on passengers waiting patiently with forms clutched in their sweaty palms. Should somebody even dare to jump the queue, even if it is to check a minor detail with another citizen (such as the train number), a hue and cry is raised, with the enquirer being directed to the display board, or even to join yet another queue at the ‘enquiry’ counter. The timid enquirer has no alternative but to subside quietly and return to his rightful place in the queue.

Despite the presence of such watchful eyes and overzealous citizens guarding the queue, sometimes an intrepid and experienced ‘line-jumper’ smoothly manages to hoodwink the system. Coming during a dull, listless, perspiring moment, when most have given up hope of reaching the counter, this intrepid jumper takes full advantage of the defences being down. Quickly striding to the front of the queue, he thrusts in his application form deftly, shouting his preference of ‘lower berth please’ and tendering exact change, just as the person in front has finished. The one next in line is still shuffling forward lethargically. The tired ticketing clerk is too tired to argue, and waits patiently until the bedlam that this jumping has caused subsides, with accusations from the now-fully-awake queue being hurled at the intruder. Not to be outdone, the intruder pacifies the outraged public with a smooth ‘one second, sir, one minute, madam, it’s over, why so much rudeness,’ and turns back to the tired clerk asking him if a middle berth would do. Brandishing the ticket in triumph, the wicked intruder struts out, even as discussions begin all down the line of how this kind of thing was keeping the country in the Dark Ages, no wonder people wanted to go and live abroad, how some people had no shame, even as the queue tiredly creeps forward. Variations to the above theme abound.

By now you’re beginning to get a fair picture, but no account would be complete without a mention of the rules flouted by mobile phone users. Motorbike riders who don’t have a ‘hands-free’ device have permanently-cricked necks, either to the left or right, bent at that perfect angle at which they can yell into their phones and kill road users simultaneously. Some ride that way even when not answering their phones, a fallout of the mobile syndrome. But the mobile phone users in a darkened theatre are in a class of their own. Whether it is a play or a movie, trust the phone to ring (with the latest ring tone, usually a ridiculous song) at the most dramatic moment and shatter the mood. But what takes the cake is the fact that the mobile user, hardly chastened by the glares and loud hisses of his fellow viewers, answers and carries on a long, inane conversation. I remember sarcastically asking a young person in the intermission of a gripping film on whether he had a good conversation, hoping to shame him. I was completely flummoxed when he replied with a grateful smile, “Oh yes. Thank you!” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I have even heard a person saying he was at the airport, when in actual fact he was at a ‘darshini’, stuffing his face with rave idlis. But I suppose lying is outside the ambit of this piece, where we are trying to look at rule breakers.

Flying high

Talking about airports, however, I have to mention this — as you know, when an aircraft lands, the air hostess, after giving you details about the temperature outside, etc, entreats you to remain seated until the seat belt sign goes off and asks you to not remove your cabin baggage from the overhead luggage compartments till the aircraft comes to a complete halt.

No sooner than the plane lands, however, there is a metallic ‘clack-clack’ of passengers hurriedly removing their seat belts, and getting out of their seats and reaching up for their luggage, even as the aircraft is still taxiing down the runway. It is almost as if they hoped to get off somewhere along the way! There is also that frantic switching on of mobile phones (they are all over the place!) and people making announcements such as “we have just landed”. As soon as the initial scramble is over, they all patiently stand swaying in the aisle, hand baggage ready, as the plane continues its way to the apron, and many, many minutes later, the aero-bridge or the stairway is connected, and the doors open, and there is a great surge forward, as if the airport has announced a prize for the first 20 passengers alighting! I have never understood this, especially since one has to get off the plane and wait endlessly at the terminal for the baggage to arrive much later. So, why all that hurry at the end of a long flight of many hours? Ah, I will never understand!

By now I am sure your brain is humming with many other examples of breaking rules. But what foxes me is — why do we break rules? Does each one of us feel that we are above the law, that rules are made to just pass time, or for somebody else to follow? Breaking some of them is fatal. But, does our fatalistic belief in karma prevent us from following rules? Do our political leaders set bad examples with their various scams, and ‘show us the way’ to break rules? We could discuss these points at length, but then I will have to break my editor’s rule of only so much space for publication in this issue. So, ponder on all that we have talked about, until the next time we meet... and try not to break too many rules!

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