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Back-up Buzzers, Road Craters and Silly Slogans: India’s Insane Car Culture

Jacob Friedman October 7, 2010 All Things Hoon 20 Comments

To many, thinking of India conjures images of far-away lands, beautiful monuments and spicy food. What many people don’t think of, though, is India’s automotive culture.

However, India’s urban revival has largely due to the rapid adoption of cars and two-wheelers in Indian cities. An estimated 13 million new cars are produced in India every year, a number which will only grow with the introduction of super low-cost cars like the Tata Nano.

More impressively, though, is the fact that nearly 50 million motorcycles and scooters are on the road in India today. Combine these two factors with the chaos that awaits every driver on Indian roads and the result is a car culture totally unlike anything else in the world.

I Feel The Need, The Need For…Uhhh…

Many countries have a burgeoning tuner scene dedicated to turning boring family cars into much faster machines. While India does have some skilled tuners, the number of people who are willing to tune their cars is sharply limited by one thing: the mind-numbingly awful traffic.

If you think that New York on a day with a parade is bad, then you’ve clearly never seen Bombay on a normal day. The statistics don’t lie, either. According to the Times of India, the average moving traffic speed (over a 24 hour period) in Bangalore, India’s fastest-growing city, is a mere 11 mph. Other cities are equally bad, if not worse.

As such, it’s no surprise that the vast majority of car owners don’t take the Clarkson-esque POWERRRRR route. After all, who wants to boost their Suzuki Swift to 300 horsepower, only to spend all day keeping it from racing off in traffic?

Another factor which keeps people away from performance parts in India are the appallingly bad roads. On Indian roads, potholes are the rule, rather than the exception. And indeed, these potholes can range from the normal US-sized divot to axle-snapping, car-swallowing monsters. These massive ditches (for lack of a better word) can even take down the mighty exhaust-spewing goods-carrier trucks, which ride on stacks of leaf springs two feet thick.

The depth of these craters also kills any hope of low-profile tire and wheel packages. The imported cars you see in India (BMW and Mercedes are the preferred brands) almost universally ride on rims which would be considered comically small in the US. After all, when was the last time you saw an S-Class on sixteen inch wheels? These huge, high-profile tires (commonly referred to as balloon tires) are pretty much mandatory equipment for Indian roads, though.

Music in Reverse

With the most common avenues of modding and tuning largely cut off from Indian drivers, one would expect that the Indian car scene would be full of miserable, anonymous grief-boxes. Despite these problems, though, almost every Indian drives a car which has been modified in some way.

While the mods rarely are performance based, they often reflect the individuality of the driver. Many drivers choose aftermarket paint jobs, ranging from saffron pinstripes on the hood (for the more religious drivers) to full airbrushing work. This can lead anywhere from the luridly-colored heavy goods trucks, to buses with elaborate scenes painted on their sides, to cheetah-print motorcycles (yes, really).

Others, especially the heavy goods vehicles, fill their tailgate with wild doodles and crazy sayings. When was the last time that you saw a tractor-trailer with the words “TATA HORN PLEASE MY INDIA IS GREAT APART TWO TOGETHER ONE SOUND HORN OK” painted on the back?

The back of the truck says "We Two Ours One Sound Horn" and then some Tamil.

Still other drivers choose to modify their cars’ interiors, tearing up their seats to replace the fabric with wildly colored fabric or leather. Still others decorate the inside of their cars with LEDs and light-up statues of Hindu gods

By far the most common, and most unusual, modifications on Indian cars are back-up buzzers and more powerful horns. The back-up buzzer blares basic renderings of popular music at ear-splitting volume whenever the driver selects reverse.

Remember monophonic ringtones in the mid-90s? It’s kind of the same sort of thing, except hundreds of times louder and far more annoying, because it plays every time the driver backs up. Common songs include film songs, songs from commercials, the national anthem, and occasional oddball choices like “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic.

For example, I now know for a fact that my old neighbor’s back-up buzzer played a jingle for the local phone company because he often goes to work at 4:30 in the morning and this jingle serves as the world’s worst alarm clock, since it’s played at ear-splitting volume.

The modified horns make more sense in the context of Indian traffic. In the US, the horn just conveys danger or anger. In India, the horn has a far different role.

While it inevitably serves the same function as the American horn, it also contains further shades of meaning. In India, the horn is a means of communication. In a way, it acts to show solidarity among motorists as if the horn were shouting “HEY! WE’RE ALL CARS AND WE’RE ON THE ROAD TOGETHER! YOU’RE THERE AND I’M HERE, AND I’M PASSING YOU IN A MINUTE!”

In a land where everyone lays on the horn all the time, though, you need to stand out to ensure that your shouted horn communications drown everyone else’s out. Some opt for blaring klaxons, others for shrill, repetitive beeps. However, the newest fad is cramming tractor trailer-style air horns into tiny hatchbacks, which is jarring to say the least.

Combined with the clatter of huge diesel truck engines, the single-cylinder blare of scooters, the sounds of the menagerie of animals on the road (usually dogs and cows, although occasionally sheep, goats, camels and elephants will make appearances), the Indian driving experience is as vibrant and noisy as the country itself.

Holy Cow! Literally.

More than any other, though, the defining characteristic of Indian car culture is the absolute utter anarchy on the country’s roads. Every second of every minute on the road, bikes and scooters weave in and around heavy goods trucks, cars mix it up with autorickshaws, and everyone tries to avoid the miasma of wildlife on the road.

As traffic inches forward, it often seems as if every single vehicle on the road is fighting to win a zero-sum game of getting to the destination first. Ironically, this competitive attitude likely makes the traffic problem worse, as people cut each other off at the drop of a hat.

On the country’s National Highway system, the insanity mounts. The same game of automotive cat and mouse gets played, but this time the game is played at 40 mph. Buses swerve across the center line, trucks pass other trucks in the face of oncoming traffic.

The biggest wild-card by far in Indian road anarchy, has to be the animals. While many people hear the stories about cows roaming freely on the streets and dismiss them as pure hyperbole or speculation, the truth is so much crazier than even the best story could explain.

Aside from cows, it’s not at all unusual to find an army of stray dogs clogging the road, accompanied by pigs, goats, sheep, the occasional monkey, the rarely-seen elephant and the even more rarely-seen camel. Despite thousands of years of evolution engraining in these animals’ heads that they should avoid big, speedy things, the animals on the road manage to be completely nonchalant about strutting out into speeding traffic.

In the case of the cattle, which are afforded a particularly wide berth, this often includes lying down for a nap in the middle of the road. More than any pothole or any rubberneckers, these beasts cause the worst and most unpredictable traffic jams. Ironically, the animals on the road are almost entirely unreceptive to the horn blasts directed at them. This then causes more horn blasts, with even less effect.

In the end, these factors lead to a car culture in India that is so different from our own that it’s tough to see the similarities. At its root, though, India’s car culture shows the same creativity, ingenuity and desire for self expression that are at the center of the American tuner scene. In this way, India’s back-up buzzers, lurid paint jobs, strange slogans and light up statues aren’t too different from our wings, bodykits and turbo packages.

  • P161911

    Caught the show IRT: Deadliest Roads the other night. It seemed to do a pretty good job of capturing the chaos of Indian driving. The old guy, Alex, quit before he even got out of the city. A lynch mob started forming around his truck after a fender bender.

    When the trucks were in the mountains they were constantly being passed in blind corners with sheer drop offs. From what I could see the solution to India's population problems might be to have more cars.

    • IronBallsMcG

      I watched that with my wife. I don't think I've ever seen that calm women react so strongly to a TV show. She was quite clear that we would never go there. Quite odd. It was strange seeing Alex's departure. Interesting show.

    • Jim-Bob

      I saw it too, and I found myself quite surprised that Alex was the only one with the good sense to leave before it killed him. I drive for a living doing food delivery, so I am used to a fast pace and moderate risk taking, but even I could never conceive of trying to drive in a place like that. I need an ordered framework to work within. Not being able to predict the other driver's next move would scare the crap out of me.

  • Perhaps the horns should be recordings of tigers, or the McDonald's jingle?

  • Number_Six

    I think I seen it on a Clarkson special, but an Indian dude explained that they believe god or whomever might be minding their particular spiritual shop decides their entire fate. This means that lessons, rules, airbags, common sense, will to live, fear, oxen, clean underwear, and turn signals have absolutely no bearing on whether or not they die slowly, screaming and bleeding out in a horrendous tuktuk/bus/Ambassador/moped/accident.

    **edit – this does not explain the seriously transgressive shit I saw going down on Chinese roads

    • That was Sanjeev Bhaskar, British-Indian comedian. I loved his tale of seeing two small boys on the front of an Indian lorry as it drove along, one pouring water into the top of the radiator, one collecting it as it came out the bottom

      • Number_Six


    • bzr

      Believe me, Chinese roads are way less chaotic. Though this did afford me a moment of hilarity when I saw a fender-bender in Shanghai involving a taxi knocking over a guy on a scooter. Never before have I seen an entire city block descend into pin-dropping silence, then frantic yelling.

      • Number_Six

        I respect your Chinosity but have you been out west or down south to places like Urumqi, Kashgar, or Dali? I once had to catch a train in Urumqi and made the mistake of telling the driver I was in a hurry. It was like GTA, Xinjiang Province. In Kashgar the road out of the airport is six lanes, on which people travel in any direction they feel like. Half the buses in Xinjiang and Qinghai province have home-made fiberglass front halves on them because they've been shop-repaired after fatal head-on collisions. The terror you can experience on a 24-hour bus ride with a driver on amphetamines is what one must feel when being eaten by a great white shark.

  • JacobDFriedman

    @Skitter: I have heard a canned cat roar noise as a horn before.
    @Number_Six: there is a strong attitude of fatalism among many Indian drivers. Many people don't wear seat belts for that reason.

    • Number_Six

      I forgot to mention reincarnation for the Hindus. A fatal accident in a tuktuk might mean you come back to own a Hyundai Getz!

  • Ermott

    I think I'd feel very much at home here.

    (My wife says I honk the horn too much.)

  • One of my housemates in grad school was from India. He once explained the test for his scooter license: There was a written component, but the practical component was practical indeed– he was told to ride from the testing center to another center on the other side of the city (Patna, pop. about 1.5M at that time), where an official would be waiting for him. If he made it within the specified time, he would get his license. He did.

  • dr zero

    Did anyone else (possibly Rusty or Dearthair or other Canadian folk) see the Ambassador during the "Look-an-Australian-has-beaten-an-Englishman" Games opening ceremony in Delhi? I thought it was a nice nod to their automotive culture.

    • Number_Six

      Oh, the Diarrhea Dash? No, didn't see it. But one of our swimmers did win a gold medal before he succumbed to the squitters.

      • dr zero

        I don't see the problem with the runs in the pool. It's all extra thrust, isn't it?

        • Number_Six

          You squirt out a good point.

  • Prab

    Great article! Definitely carries the feel of India! They are getting pretty intense about drunk driving here now as well. Yeah, you would think after Jacob's article that someone would be nuts to drive drunk in this obstacle course, but no, it is actually a pretty bad problem. Solution so far? Road blocks and actual breathalyzers. Sounds good yeah? Except, once found guilty, you pay a fine (sometimes a legitimate fine with a receipt, other times slightly less with no receipt, wink, wink, nudge, nudge), and then they let the guy drive home!! Strangely the logic works if you live here long enough!

  • brhm148

    Bit much hyperbole for me, but the final paragraph is absolutely right. Indians take massive pride of ownership in their vehicles – for many, it's the most expensive thing they ever buy – so personalising and decorating them is a big deal. A common thing here in the South is for the vehicle owner to have his first name painted in massive letters across the windshield, particularly with buses and trucks. These examples aren't quite the same, but a similar idea: http://artnlight.blogspot.com/2009/03/kerala-truc

    Also, the horn is simply a tool for communicating that you are on the road, and the type of blast can convey a number of different meanings. 'I'm pulling out.' 'Move (even when doing so is impossible).' 'You're pissing me off.' The general, unthinking use speaks to the lack of patience of Indian drivers, and to the fact that very few people do actually pay attention to other vehicles on the road. The idea of letting someone into the flow of traffic is completely ridiculous here, so you have to just inch out steadily, blasting the horn the whole time, until you force someone to stop.

    • JacobDFriedman

      Yeah what you couldn't see in the video of the white Qualis was that the driver's first name (VIJAY) was plastered all over the front (hence the letterboxing on some of the pictures) and his last name was plastered all over the back.