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The International Writers Magazine: India

We can all learn from the Chennai Express
• Mike

Chennai, city of 4 million, and the Chennai Express, one big road, shared by rusting cycles, three wheelers, vintage bus behemoths, and water buffalo, all scrambling for a little piece of road, and absolutely no rules. Madness? No.


I'm in a rickshaw, heading in to the throbbing centre of this tentacled beast. Steaming in from the left a glistening Land Cruiser bludgeons his way straight onto the Express, there is no gap in the traffic, the road packed tight. Chennai responds - the silver brute is big and must be respected. My driver, calm, engages the threat. Gently, he shifts us to starboard, we melt into the traffic, he finds space where there is none and the particles on the road reorganise into a new matrix, rickshaws, buffaloes, buses, seamlessly repositioned to accommodate the newcomer. A sophisticated game of Tetris, multiplayer, and rarely beaten. Everyone is welcome on the Chennai Express.

Tuesday morning, rush hour, and parts of the road are missing, I have no idea where they've gone, but it looks like opportunistic Indians have built houses in parts of the road, maybe they took their chance one night when traffic was light. It means the primary trunk road into the centre often drops down to one lane as thousands of road users squeeze into a snug funnel and peer into Chennai's newest residences.

Chaos follows? Traffic backs up for miles, furious honking, the local side streets flooded with fumes as desperate drivers dive off the expressway? No - none of it, our journey into town barely affected, as humans and bovine adapt - how would you adapt? Just fill the space better - the Tetris pieces just got smaller - fine, we'll embrace the challenge.

And absolutely never, in any circumstances, show any irritation - if you're being run off the road by a king cobra, you're scraping your fragile rickshaw against the concrete, you're staring a crushing in the face, you don't show any concern, you adapt, if you can't adapt, you get crushed - fine it was probably your fault anyway.

The thing is, if there are no rules, you can't blame anyone for not following them, and you always stay frosty, because you have absolutely no idea what will happen next. No road rage. Contented drivers. And free flowing traffic in major cities. Just turn off the rules - we could all learn from the Chennai Express.

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