The Language of Traffic

As we slowly transition into the cacophony of everyday life after a few months of almost eerie silence, our bodies are being assaulted with the sounds of mundane everyday life.

We are casually attuned to these sounds in the city – from the unmistakable tune of BEST buses honking to the tinkle of a chaiwaallah mid-afternoon, the darshan from temples and evening namaz, the angry haggling at the market and the constant ringing of doorbells.

Over the last few months, our senses have acclimatised to different sounds – the songs of birds chirping or a loud sneeze from a neighbour’s balcony, chewing across dinner tables with not much to say, arguments at home or at our neighbour’s home, intimately listening to our bodies for any sign of sickness and, of course, the constant dialogues in our inner world.

As the world attempts to return to an ounce of ‘normalcy’, these seemingly ordinary reminders of our former lives are striking our senses in ways that they haven’t before. What we hear has changed. How we hear it has changed too.

One of the most perceptible sounds has been that of the endless disharmony of traffic, and I can’t say I’ve missed it.

The other day, I took the car out to run some errands. For the first time in months, I was reminded of the tension I hold in my body while I navigate the city. People were driving recklessly, the desperation for inner freedom expressing itself on empty roads. This was when I recognised that traffic is its own unique form of communication in India.

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As we drive through the streets of Mumbai, our ears are attuned to the different forms of honking and the ways we respond to each one so unique. The one-off hoot is rarely acknowledged and bikes that honk without a break are our greatest source of irritation.

We unconsciously communicate our inner world through our driving. Feeling disempowered at the workplace? Gain authority through impulsive speeding on the street. Feeling claustrophobic in ourselves and our homes? Break the rules/signals to get a taste of freedom. Feeling proud and invincible today? Bully the smaller cars in our path. Working on developing inner peace and calm? Be patient with the cars that keep intimidating us on the street, until at one point we snap, just as forced positivity on a regular day.

Exasperation with backseat driving might represent our desire to take the lead in our own lives. There are friends that give directions like a broken GPS system, telling us we took the wrong turn only after we did – just as real friendships work. Stopping to let someone cross the street is our act of kindness for the day.

In India, we honk to speak. Driving is an extension of our body language, revealing so much about our inner worlds. People are constantly communicating with one another, displacing their daily woes, holding another’s. The act of driving is not just mechanical, but a way to process or offload psychological work. The road becomes an embodiment of our collective unconscious too, the frustration of living in Mumbai spilling onto the streets through unbroken aggression.

For empaths, driving in India can be exhausting because of our inability to switch of attuning from another’s experience and we might be left shaken after a truly gruelling day in traffic. It represents our general absorption of other people’s pain and anger. It might be easier to function and separate themselves on these roads filled with feeling for those who find it easy to compartmentalise/dissociate.

Also read: The Siren Sleeps Now: The Dulling of Mumbai’s Magic

These roads also represent our cultural experience. Indians are notoriously emotionally ‘uncontained’. While we might not express our vulnerabilities, we definitely express a lot of histrionic emotions.

Just as in daily life here, the streets are safer for men than they are for women. Men drive with more authority, power and certainty, while women, just as in our daily lives, are expected to be more hesitant. And the inner work it takes for a woman to be taken seriously is a lot more. God forbid a man hits a woman’s car resulting in an accident. You can be almost completely certain that she will be blamed and experience some form of violent behaviour or language – just like real life in India.

The language of traffic is one we take for granted, our bodies are so adjusted to its words. But after this long period of silence, maybe we can listen a bit better to what we are saying. Perhaps we can attune ourselves to both our inner worlds and the outside world, reflecting on our driving for individual, collective and cultural self-awareness.

We might be surprised by what we discover.

Rhea Gandhi is a psychotherapist based in Mumbai.

Featured image credits: Franco Beccari/Flickr