What has nerves of steel, lightning fast reflexes, and the focus of a laser beam? If you said a professional driver in India, you’d be correct. There are a lot of stereotypes about India we can bust. The state of the roads and driving may not be one of them.
There’s no refuting this stereotype. Driving in India is CRAZY. I recently met an Uber driver in my homebase of Calgary, Canada. He was born and raised near Chennai in Tamil Nadu, South India and when I asked him if he drives when he visits India, he said, “Absolutely not! My family forbids it and I wouldn’t want to anyway, I’d get killed. My brother drives me everywhere when I’m home.”
Why would a professional driver in Canada, born and raised in India, not want to drive in his own country? The reasons are numerous.
First, the rules of the game are subtle and ever-changing. In some places, a driver honks to communicate. In other places honking is verboten. There are different numbers of honks meaning different things in different places. Sometimes, cars come up behind you flashing headlamps when they want to steamroll past you. Sometimes they just bear down hard and fly out to pass at the last second.
The middle of the road is anyone’s turf as long as they have nerves of steel and don’t mind playing chicken with oncoming traffic. Speaking of chicken, animals on the roads are commonplace. Depending on which state you are in, the flock could be camels, elephants, goats, sheep, or those sacrosanct bovine – the ubiquitous Indian holy cow!
Congestion is another contention.
When Tata Motors released it’s Nano car for the equivalent of about $2500 USD in 2008, many families who relied on bicycles, scooters and motorcycles could suddenly afford a car. That was over a decade ago. We rarely see clean air human-powered bicycles on the roadways now. You might see a family of four on one motorcycle and you see many, many Nanos and their imitators. This is great for middle class Indians but the roads were not designed to handle the volume so traffic jams are part of life for city dwellers especially.
Enter the professional driver.
Over the years I’ve come to greatly admire the professional drivers I’ve worked with. Whether they are driving me and a busload of guests in a luxury coach (read much too BIG for most roads) over a mountain pass or swiftly sorting a route through a mega-metropolis in a private car to deliver me safely to a visit with friends or a business appointment they are nothing short of super heroes.
Indian coaches are all built with a sound-proof plexi-glass wall between the driver and his assistant (yes, he, and it’s always he, needs an assistant) and their passengers. The driver must be distraction-free. The assistant is a much needed second pair of eyes, helper with parking, backing up, payer of tolls and liaison with the back of the bus. Most drivers have a small deity like Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, on their dash. I’ve even taken to bringing some Alberta wild sage along with me to do a smudge ceremony around the bus before we start the journey. The drivers love this blessing of sorts. I also give them a cool Canadian snack each day that I drag all the way there. I want them bright and perky!
When Pauli-Ann and I toured South India in 2016 we had the delight of the same driver for 21 days. His name is Murali and he is both a guide and driver for Travel XS based out of Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu. He might be based there but in the touring season, he does not spend much time there.
Modern technology like Facetime and WhatsApp are great inventions for this occupation. Especially because data is not expensive in India. They can easily keep in touch with their family. Murali’s wife has a sweet ritual that she paints one of his fingernails the same as hers so that when his hand is on the wheel, he will see it and always think of her.
Being a travel writer and photographer we also appreciated that the Travel XS car came with 4G wireless internet access. With press of a button, Murali could easily connect us.
We travelled over 2000 kilometers through Kerala and Tamil Nadu and Murali did not get lost once. While we flew from Chennai to Coimbatore, Murali drove overnight so he could pick us up when we landed in Coimbatore.
When he realized our great respect for his country and the fact that we were truly there to showcase it, there was nothing he would not do to contribute to our experience. Please take us to your favourite local drivers’ lunch spot in Madurai. Kindly tell us what you think of this ice cream. Help – can you find a computer store? We need dosas now please!
It didn’t matter what we asked, Murali responded deftly and joyfully. It was truly a pleasure to spend 12 – 16 hours a day with him for three weeks. We think about him often and are thrilled to dedicate this post to him and to all the amazing professional drivers of India. I’m sure they save lives daily.
Don’t let India’s roads keep you from visiting. Just hire a great driver when you do visit. In our upcoming posts, we’ll share a secret Shiva temple that we only found because of Murali, a favourite chai stop of his on the road from Kerala’s coast to Periyar, and recipes for the most amazing black chana dal, pongal and mango ice cream we only found because of our drivers!
Please come along for the ride.
A special thank you to our amazing driver Murali for safely steering us over mountain tops, across vast plains and around hairpin snake-like roads during our visit to South India in 2016. We greatly appreciate the contributions he made with his joyful sharing of his truly local knowledge. Many thanks also to the KTM Society and Travel XS for sponsoring our travel throughout South India that year.
All words and photos are our own and were not shared with the sponsors before publication.