A remarkable thing about Indian life is that, for the most part, things are no problem. Every day the morning newspaper reports the all-too-usual human tragedies—dowry murders, farmers taking their own lives, miscreants thrashing elderly people and taking their rupees, molestation and rape, traffic casualties. And there are intricate and unexplainable Indian rules, for everything it seems, and always a guard or peon stationed nearby to remind you that the rules are in play—forms to sign in triplicate, ledgers to fill out, with date and time and reasons for coming and going, and timings that simply have no exceptions. But the day-to-day life of the urban Indian, as far as I can tell, is characterized by an ability to take things as they come. This is a remarkable thing, as life in an Indian city is rife with complication and delay, rich with unexpected twists and turns, bumps and knocks, inconveniences and, well, problems.
I first took notice of the no problem on the roads, where cars and trucks and two-wheelers dodge and weave in a miraculous study in group patience and good will. I am well aware, after a few months living and traveling in India, that there is some level of grumpiness at times. The paper today reported, in fact, on a case of “road rage.” It seems a woman, six months pregnant, and her husband, were roughed up by an agitated motorist. But on the whole, people give way. Rickshaws do 180 degree turns into traffic—with only a small brown hand brushing the air in the direction of the turn to give other drivers a heads up—and two wheelers accelerate into one lane or the other only to cut back at the last second into their proper lane to avoid catastrophe. Vehicles only stop at the largest intersections. Everywhere else, they mostly do a slow drift into oncoming traffic. Cars and two-wheelers generously bend, yield and sometimes roll to a stop for the slow drifter. Few drivers mind what is called traffic discipline here and yet, for the most part, it turns out to be no problem.
Horns constantly buzz and blare. But if you actually watch the buzzers and blarers you’ll see calm, alert faces, taking it as it comes. I did catch a smirk the other day, but believe me, such expressions are rare. It’s not like in the United States, where people’s faces get all red and bent out of shape as they press on the horn as if they were performing CPR—as someone will, eventually, be doing on them. Come to think of it, in the months we’ve spent here I’ve yet to experience someone yelling at another driver. Friends living in Tamil Nadu said that they were told to run if they were in an accident as all hell can break loose, especially if someone is injured or property is damaged. And that sounds to me like a problem.
Crossing a busy street in Pune has become, after a period of learning, no problem. Speaking now not merely as an observer but as a pedestrian who ventures across streets every day, here is what you do. First, you learn to give up the hope of a crosswalk actually offering you any protection whatsoever. I’m pretty sure there is no word for yield in Hindi or Marathi. If you are from the United States, you then must learn to instinctively look the opposite way that you instinctually look. Then you wait for a gap. And you enter the stream. Sometimes, or more often than not, you need to abort your passage and hastily retreat back to the sidewalk which is usually torn up or smeared with dog shit as a two-wheeler is coming at you faster than you had anticipated. But you simply can’t wait for a clear lane on a two-lane road. You’d be waiting all day. So you move out, angling toward the oncoming traffic, alert and hoping for a gap, or even someone to slow down. Drivers anticipate the direction and drift of people in the road, as well as less predictable children and more predictable older people as they make their way to the other side. Older women in muted colored saris extend their hands down low below their hips, brushing the air, their body language saying, “please, I just need to reach the other side.” I’ve slipped this gesture into my repertoire, mostly for when I am clutching the hands of my children, my body saying, “please, you are going to slow for my children, aren’t you?” We now have the get-going squeeze as part of our street-crossing repertoire. This involves holding hands on the sidewalk and then squeezing when it is time to move or to begin moving again after letting a two-wheeler pass like a matador arching his back to avoid a charging bull. Really, it’s no problem.
If you’ve lost your luggage and your driver has not come to pick you up someone will say quite peacefully “no problem” and then will go on to show you that despite your peculiar western anxiety and stress it really is no problem. Late for an important engagement? No problem. People will wait, or move on without you. (Besides, showing up on time is a faux pas here, as everything seems to begin about an hour after it is scheduled to begin.) A long wait? Someone cut in front of you in the checkout queu at the market? Need another bottle of Bisleri? Vindaloo not spicy enough? Chai not hot? No problem.
Trucks break down. Cars stop. Every machine—from the sugar cane press to the water pump at the pool—breaks down. A bus bringing children from an aborted weekend camping trip is two hours late. The internet connection in the apartment does not work. The electricity stops a few times a day, sometimes for hours. In fact, as I type this, the fan stops spinning, it feels immediately hotter, and the computer battery kicks in. No problem.
Rickshaw riding, inevitably, involves blown tires, broken throttle cables, engine trouble. But when the inevitable and apparent problem suddenly brings motorized progress to a stop, in what appears to you to be the most inconvenient place in the city, the driver will calmly get out and hail another rickshaw. This has happened to me more than once, and I am happy to report that even if I think that I am going to be late, I have learned to simply sway my head, smile and say, “no problem.”