When I was but a youngling, I was taught to cross the street thusly: stand on the edge of the street, look to your right, and look to your left, and look to your right again. Only if it is clear – i.e. there are no vehicles proceeding at a fast rate of speed towards you from either side – then cross the street.
Having scrupulously followed this piece of advice all my life, I have managed to avoid being run over in cities all over the world. In fact, this behaviour has become so ingrained that it is second nature to me. Or at least, it was second nature to me until I moved to Hyderabad. Since I moved to the Capital of Cool that is the City of the Charminar, the Nizams and the 12 noon daybreak, that part of me has been under continuous assault by the Hyderabadi habit of treating traffic as just another thing to “take light” as the cool kids will tell you. Going by how cool the average Hyderabadi is, the really cool kids must be frozen stiff.
In Hyderabad this is how you cross the street: you walk across it – the traffic will flow all around you by itself. The first time I encountered this behaviour was when I accompanied a few of my co-workers across the street from the office. Following my ingrained behaviour, I stopped at the side of the street, while my colleagues continued walking with nary a pause. They kept walking, the traffic kept flowing, and I stood there just gaping at them. They crossed the street, ordered their chai and the smokers lit up, and it was only when one chai went unclaimed that they figured I was no longer with them. One of them looked at me and gestured from across the street – they genuinely did not know why I was stuck on the other side. One of them had to ultimately cross the street and bring me across.
Now that I have spent a decade and a half in Hyderabad, I can do this myself – sort of. In crowded and congested streets, where pedestrians are part of the traffic, I can do this with aplomb. I can walk with the best of them and confidently step in front of an RTC bus since it is only proceeding at the rate of 2 kilometers per hour. But on the larger roads with faster flowing traffic, my childhood training still kicks in and overwhelms 15 years of exposure. Even though I see dozens of people stepping diffidently through the traffic, I still wait for a break in the flow before I step in. Sometimes, when I feel the bravery of William Wallace, I even follow a Hyderabadi as they confidently dart across the traffic. Lest you mistake the word ‘dart’ as any indication of speed, let me disabuse you of that notion forthwith – a darting Hyderabadi does so at a slow and deliberate pace, pausing a couple of times to respond to WhatsApp messages, send off a “Forwarded as received,” click a selfie if they are an influencer – all of this while walking from the side of the street to the median. At the median they will execute either gymnastic talent (where they vault over) or vandalism (where they will slightly move the median out of their way – possible because many medians are on wheels). They will then order biryani on Swiggy before making their way across the other half of the street.
I have a childhood memory of my mother telling me the story of a Tamil film, where the protagonist avenges the eradication of his entire family by sending the villain for a walk across a busy Madras street without his glasses. The antagonist being quite unable to see without his glasses, cannot avoid getting out of the way of the traffic and gets run over. Every time I see my fellow Hyderabadis walking in traffic, I can imagine how this plot point:
a) Was obviously not written by a Hyderabadi
b) Would never work in Hyderabad
In fact, I bet if you show the film to a Hyderabadi, you would have to classify it as science fiction.
I love Hyderabad and think it is one of the best places in the world to live in. Hyderabadis have our quirks. We think personal space is a fun concept, but impracticable. We ourselves are traffic – reminds me of Walt Whitman (I am large, I contain container trucks). Biryani is a life essential. 12 noon is early. And a host of other things. But I will have to put a pin in nonchalantly walking across a street with a lot of traffic.