The best time to drive in Delhi is at dawn or, even better, around 7am. By then the last of the trucks that cross the city during the night are halted at roadside restaurants with the drivers sipping scalding chai and eating desi-ghee parathas with Dal Tadka and Baigan-Bharta, and there is a short period before the traffic builds up.
Delhi’s urban sprawl is now so extensive that entire satellite cities, where several million people live, have disappeared into the mass of the metropolis. Gurugram, the new town to the south, is still separated by a thin belt of scrubby grassland, but Noida, the vast development to the east, is, to all intents and purposes, part of the city. If these satellites are included, the city’s population probably touches 25 million. This is set to increase further as economic growth sucks in villagers from across the country. Girdling the city’s old core is a ring road – an unplanned set of linked chunks of carriageway widened over three decades. Over nearly ten years, I have learned to respect, if not necessarily appreciate, its rhythms. Like the city itself, it changes character through the day and night.
At 7am, in the cooler, clearer morning, driving over the crumbling flyovers, there is relative calm. You can look in one direction and see the pristine marble-tiled dome of the tomb of the Muslim Mughal emperor Humayun. In the other, the modern forms of a Bahá’í temple marks the horizon. Then there is the Akshardham temple too- a visual treat to your eyes as you head to the Nizamuddin Pass. Kites and pigeons wheel overhead. Dogs forage in the rubbish at the roadside. A few auto-rickshaws putter straight down the centre of the three- or four-lane carriageway, not much faster than the bicycles ridden by the night-watchmen returning from their shift.
By 9am this (relatively) bucolic vision is long gone. The roads are a virtual chaos, you are now breathing the sulphur and nitrogen oxides rather than oxygen and the only slightly comforting thing that keeps your head from bursting are the romantic songs of Arijit Singh playing on the radio. Since “lane driving” is seen as an odd, foreign practice here in India (particularly in Delhi) ,the result is a gridlock, which if you manage to get out of, trust me, it’s your lucky day.
This gridlock evolves, however. The buses are slightly less empty mid-morning, then refill with schoolchildren and students. The dreaded privately owned Blueline buses, badly maintained and driven as fast as possible to maximise profits, have gone. Those that have replaced them are marginally better, but still often flatten small cars and motorbikes. There is an opening around 2pm when the traffic eases, but by 5pm, the roads are a strip of snarling, grinding vehicles. The buses, now with passengers packed against doors and windows, loom like ships full of refugees above a choppy sea of jerking cars. The air is black with fumes. The new cars – Audis, BMWs, huge imported SUVs – sit bumper to bumper. Labour is so cheap in India that a minor retired bureaucrat is likely to have a driver, even if the vehicle is a tiny, battered Suzuki. The really wealthy have a uniformed chauffeur.
Vestiges of another India occasionally surface. Over by the badly built, badly designed complex used as athletes’ accommodation in the 2010 Commonwealth Games you can see a local vegetable peddler negotiating traffic around one of the new metro stations. There is a traffic signal every 300 metres and as soon as your vehicle stops, you can witness the roads being taken over by young kids, men and women with babies sticking to their bosoms; trying to make money by selling then now wilted flowers, balloons and small toys. At one of the far edges of the pavements you can see families setting their beds, retiring for the night. At night, these concrete pavements become beds for entire families.After rush hour, there is a lull. The day workers have gone home. The buses even have empty seats.
There is a new peril however: the minivans used by call centres. They race to get their passengers to their offices as fast as possible, hurtling up inside lanes, jinking between slower vehicles like a footballer dribbling his way through a pack of defenders. Part of their haste is explained by the approaching deadline that heralds the next phase in the life of the road: the trucks.
At 10pm, the police allow the heavy goods vehicles that need to traverse Delhi into the city. With no proper bypass, a small army of honking, overloaded, low-geared, multicoloured road behemoths gathers during the afternoon on all approach roads. These now clank forward, filling two of three available lanes with an apparently inexhaustible convoy carrying construction materials, foodstuffs, manufactured goods, from Udaipur to Chandigarh, from Agra to Amritsar, from Bareilly to Jammu.
By 1am most of the trucks are through and the final phase begins. Road deaths in India reach 140,000 a year. This means that every two years, more people died in accidents in the country than were killed in total in the 2004 tsunami. Most fatal accidents in Delhi occur in the small hours, when fast cars driven by young, wealthy and often drunk men hurtle across the city. These regularly career out of control to hit families sleeping on the pavement, insomniacs, nightshift workers, even traffic policemen. Hit and runs are the rule, not the exception. Those with the means bribe their way out of trouble. The casualties or their families may get some compensation, if the culprit can be traced.
At 5am and 6am, in that small moment of calm, you can hear the horns of the trains leaving the main stations, hauling their packed carriages out into another India and another day.