P.J. O'Rourke on India – Hilarious Observations

PJ O’Rourke, one of the funniest writers alive (excerpts from Holidays in Hell), surprised me with a contribution in The Best American Travel Writing of 2000 on…India! I laughed out loud many a time while reading this essay in the Mumbai airport. I’ve seen all of this — not kidding. So I’ll let a more talented writer take over:

The road is straight and level and would be almost two lanes wide if there were such things as lanes in India. The asphalt paving — where it isn’t absent — isn’t bad. As roads go in the developing world, this is a good one. But Indians have their own uses for the main thoroughfare spanning their nation. It’s a place where friends and family can meet, where they can set up charpoy beds and have a nap and let the kids run around unsupervised. It’s a roadside cafe with no side — or tables, or chairs — where the street food is smack-dab on the street. It’s a rent-free function room for every local fete….

The road is also convenient for bullock cars, donkey gigs, horse wagons, pack camels, and the occasional laden elephant — not convenient for taking them anywhere, just convenient. There they stand, along with sheep, goats, water buffalo, and the innumerable cows sent to graze on the Grand Trunk. I watched several cows gobbling cardboard boxes and chewing plastic bags. There may be reasons besides sanctity that the Indians don’t eat them…

India really is magical. How can they drive like this without killing people? They can’t. Jeeps bust scooters, scooters plow into bicycles, bicycles cover the hoods of jeeps. Cars run into trees. Buses run into ditches, rolling over their old-fashioned rounded tops until they’re mashed into chapatis of carnage. And everyone runs into pedestrians. A speed bump is called a “sleeping policeman” in England. I don’t know what it’s called in India. “Dead person lying in the road” is a guess. The animals get clobbered, too, including the sacred cows, in accidents notable for the unswerving behavior of all participants. Late in our trip, in Bihar state, the car in front of us hit a cow — no change in speed or direction from the car, no change in posture or expression from the cow….

In one day of travel, going about 265 miles from Varanasi to the border of west Bengal, I recorded 25 horrendous Tata wrecks. And I was scrupulous in my tallying. Fender benders didn’t score; neither did old, abandoned wrecks or broken-down Tatas. Probable loss of life was needed to make the list. If you saw one of these pile-ups on I-95, you’d pull into the next rest stop — clutch foot shivering, hand palsied upon the shift knob — saying, “Next time, we fly.” In India, you shout to your car-mates, “That’s number nineteen! I’m winning the truck-wreck pool for today!” …

Getting out of Pakistan was a normal THird World procedure. A customs official explained the entire system of Pakistani tariff regulation and passport control by running his thumb against his forefinger. “Fifty dollars,” he said. I opened my wallet, foolishly revealing two fifty-dollar bills. “One hundred dollars,” he said.

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