Chennai Traffic Rules

This post is in part inspired by one of the interns working at Agriya, he rides around Chennai on a scooter (clearly the heat has got to him, is he mad?!) and written about his experiences here.

So, it has inspired me to tell you all about the Chennai traffic rules.

First off, there are basically two official ways of getting a driving license in India:

  • For those that don’t want to learn how to read, you take a practical driving test
  • For those that don’t want to learn how to drive, you take a theoretical test

Incidentally there is a third, and far more popular method of “who needs a license?”.

Anyway, intrigued by what it takes to pass the theoretical test so I can get a license in Chennai, I did some digging and asked around.

After much hunting, I finally managed to get my hands on the answers to Chennai’s driving test. I’m putting it up here for you all to see, but I don’t know how long I can keep it up here for, they may demand that I remove it tomorrow.

Chennai Theoretical Driving Test Answers

1. What is the speed limit in built up areas?

As fast as your vehicle can go

2. When turning left, what procedure should you use?

Lean your elbow on the horn and look straight ahead
3. When you have missed your turning, what action should you take?

Conduct an emergency stop and put the car in to reverse. Ensure that you look straight ahead while leaning one elbow on the horn
4. When is it not appropriate to use your horn?

Trick question. It is always appropriate to use your horn
5. When you wish to pass a vehicle, what procedure do you follow?

Get as close to the vehicle as possible and lean your elbow on the horn,then decide whether you have enough room to pass to the left or the right
6. A vehicle behind you wishes to pass you, what do you do?

Lean your elbow on the horn
7. You wish to overtake on a blind bend, what procedures must you follow?

Lean your elbow on the horn and try and go out as far as you can in to the oncoming lane to see if anything is coming
8. What does a red traffic light signify?

Check for cops, lean your elbow on the horn and start edging out until you think you can make it across
9. What is the correct procedure for turning right at a busy junction?

Lean your elbow on the horn, and speed up to turn right as fast as possible
10. What is the correct gear to pull off in?

Second gear, while leaning your elbow on the horn
11. When lost, what procedure should you follow?

Lean your elbow on the horn, set your speed to 30mph, pull up along side an auto driving, lean across and wind down the passenger window and ask for directions. Ensure your right elbow is pressed against the horn at all times while gesturing with your left hand.
12. You see a girl walking down the street wearing jeans, what do you do?

Lean your elbow on the horn and stare at her until you can no longer see her out of your rear window
13. What is the purpose of the rear view mirror?

To hang CD’s from
14. Where is the correct place for the ornamental tissue box?

The parcel shelf
15. What is it important to remember while reversing?

Lean your elbow on the horn and look straight ahead so you can see where others are going
16. You notice that the tread on one of your tyres is completely bald. What urgent action do you take?

Check to make sure your horn is working
17. Who has right of way at a junction?

Whoever has the loudest horn
18. Everyone who is turning right at the junction is blocking the road ahead. You want to turn left. What should you do?

Lean your elbow on the horn, and drive slowly along the pavement
19. At night time, what two things is it important to remember?

Sound your horn every 10 seconds and set your lights to full beam so on-coming traffic can hear you and you can see them
20. You discover that your horn is broken, what do you do?

Take the bus to work

As I said, these answers are top secret, and I could be found out at any time. To any Chennaites reading this, I hope it serves you well and good luck with your test!

Crows Feet

Just had a shave (shave yourself, in India? No way!) and noticed that when I smile (which is apparently all the time), I have big lines extending from the corners of my eyes.

I’m getting old! Or, my preferred reason, the humidity and pollution in Chennai is sucking my skin dry of moisture, causing these laughter lines.

Either way. Feeling so sad 🙁

How To Turn A Kitten Into A Lion

The thing that strikes you about everyone in Chennai (and one would assume hopefully the rest of India) is how nice, welcoming and generous everyone is (with the obvious exception of the scheming thieving tuk-tuk drivers!). People often say that Americans are full of hospitality, but compared to Tamil Nadu, they are not even close.

People are excruciatingly polite, very friendly, laid back and have the patience of a rock. Whether in the office, at home or out and about, you couldn’t ask to meet nicer people.

They are kittens.


I’m about to reveal how to turn kittens in to savage, uncompromising lions.

Some kind of superhero metamorphis takes over them the moment they sit behind the wheel of a car or the handlebars of a motorbike.

The red mist descends over them and suddenly the opposite of how I’ve described them above is true. The fires of hell are lit behind their eyes, venom drips from their teeth and they become more highly strung than a violin string [yeah, I nicked that one from a Discworld novel!].

The thing about Indian drivers is that they simply do not want to stop, ever. Until they get to where they want to go. Come hell or high water, nothing in this world can stop them as they drive from A to B.

There is often talk of the New York minute where it’s the amount of time before the guy behind you beeps his horn after the traffic light turns green. In India they are beeping while the light is still red. As I have previously discussed, traffic lights are considered suggestions, and if there is any chance of making it across without stopping, then it will be done.

I have even had detours through petrol forecourts as tuk-tuk drivers attempt to evade the traffic lights.

As I said, absolutely nothing will stop Indian drivers as they attempt to get to their destination. The motorbike drivers will pile themselves through the tiniest of gaps at 60 mph just to keep going. They will weave in and out of cars, lorries and buses to get the front of a junction and continuously edge forward.

There is no mercy on the roads. The poor guy that runs out of petrol in the middle of the road, no one will stop to let him pull over. Want to turn right at the junction? Don’t wait for the traffic to ease, one because it never will, and two because no one will stop to allow you out – and certainly don’t think that because the light is green it’s safe to go. The guy that stalls his car will not get the benefit of the doubt as a bus driver attempts to become well acquainted with his boot whilst leaning on the horn with his elbow.

Pedestrians are simply other moving targets – which makes walking down the road a challenge as there are no pavements. OK, there are, but they usually double as someone’s house.

All the politeness, easy going laid back nature is forgotten. The car becomes a weapon. Get out of my way! ROAR!

An Indian Love Affair

Before you think I’m going to head off on some Mills & Boon romance thing, don’t worry, I’m not. This love affair is not of the romance kind but with a little gadget that no Indian can resist the charms of.

It is the mobile phone.

All around you see people clutching their mobile as if their life depends on it. I ask a member of staff to come in to my office, they will bring their mobile phone. We go in to the meeting room, they bring their mobile phone

What’s even more amazing is the inability to let a phone simply ring or turn it on silent. If a phone rings, an Indian has some built in desire to answer it, regardless of where they are or what they are doing.

For example, a couple of weeks ago we were interviewing someone for the position of Office Manager. Now common sense dictates it would be natural to turn our phone off or put it on silent during an interview, infact, one could say it would be foolish to go with your mobile switched on. But that’s not what I’ve experienced in India. In the middle of the interview, this guy’s phone goes off. Far from being mortified, he casually took the phone out of his pocket, and with barely an “excuse me” glance went on to answer it and have a conversation.

It doesn’t matter what the situation, they have an overwhelming desire to answer the phone. Here’s another example. The other day I went to a proper Muslim wedding. During the actual ceremony, loads of people were just chatting away on their mobiles, phones were ringing (and being answered!).

How about in a cinema, the ultimate faux pas would be to have your mobile phone go off in the middle of the film. Here, the majority of people are chatting away on their phones! The film soundtrack is accompanied by a cacophony of ringing cellphones.

Particularly annoying is the use of the mobile phone in the work place. Where one might think twice about taking a personal phone call while we are working, with alarming regularity you see guys and girls (mostly girls, from my unscientific observations) scurrying out of the office with their phone attached to their ear.

One of the contributing factors is that talk is so cheap. We’re talking less than a penny for a minute of talk time. Very rarely do they text one another, which is the preferred method of communication in the UK.

So there you go, another cultural learning experience for you 🙂

The Most Surreal Marriage Ceremony…Ever!

I’ve just come back from can only be described as the single most surreal event in my entire life. I’m still trying to mentally process what happened, because I’m not altogether too sure what has happened. If that makes sense.

Allow me to place the scene…

One of my work mates, Farooq, had his marriage  arranged. Farooq is 28, which is about the age the guys get married here in South India.

Anyway, this was a traditional Muslim wedding…and from an outsiders perspective, particularly a Westerner who’s only concept of a wedding is a bride walking down the aisle in a white dress, it was completely and utterly, well, surreal, as in, “is this actually happening?”.

The ceremony started at 11am, but that is to say, around 200 people were sitting in a big hall chatting to one another. This is the first thing that strikes you as odd as there are 2 ‘stages’ on opposite ends of the room. The men are all facing one stage and the women are all facing the other stage.

After about 3/4 hour in to the ‘ceremony’, the Groom comes in completely covered from head to toe in Jasmine flowers. He can’t see anything so he’s guided up the stairs and on to the stage facing all the men by a couple of guys. While this is happening, there’s no lull in noise from the guests, they are all sat in groups chatting away to each other or on the phone (a subject I feel should be looked at later).

When the groom is settled down, the bride enters, again, completely covered in Jasmine flowers and unable to see. She is guided to the stage on the opposite side of the room and sits down.

The Iman (Muslim Priest) then recites a few verses (no one is paying a blind bit of notice to all this) from the Koran and the Groom signs the bond papers. The marriage is now official and over – in less than 5 minutes.

The Groom is then taken over to meet his new in-laws, but not, it should be stressed, his new wife.

The Groom then returns to his stage and is blessed and greeted by all his friends and family. The bride is completely ignored – and still unable to see anything.

Eventually the bride is led out of the room and the guests go and have a meal which is semi-orchestrated by the Groom – who still hasn’t spoken to – or seen – his new wife.

After the meal, there is more meeting and greeting by the Groom, the bride has gone without even seeing her new husband!

Does that sound bizarre and surreal to you?

Obviously in Europe and America the Bride is the number one attraction and all eyes are on her. In a Muslim marriage in South India the bride is completely ignored – she doesn’t even get to sign the marriage papers!

Still, quite an experience, I’ll have to save the story of to and from the wedding for another day.

Cheating In India

I’ve been in India now for (*checks watch) 1/3 of a year (or four months for those of you who don’t work in fractions), and I must admit, it really doesn’t seem that long. Weeks are zipping by, and, rather more depressingly, so are the weekends.

However, I’m beginning to wonder whether or not I’m cheating a little bit out here…or whether it’s just normal for any Westerner (as I’ve taken to referring myself as) to lead the type of life I am.

Take for example the apartment I’m living in right now. It’s brand new. So new, that when I moved in 4 months ago the place was still a building site. The place is fantastic, the right size, it feels like a holiday villa with it’s marble floors, en-suite bathrooms, balconies and roof top veranda (which is seriously calling out for a proper barbeque and beers one Saturday afternoon).

The apartment is decked out with flat screen TV’s, playstations, cinema surround sound, dvd players, cable tv, broadband with wifi router, 2 a/c units…and looking around I can see no less than 5 laptops.

It’s not really the sort of thing you think of when you think of India, is it?

The apartment is cleaned each morning, the washing up is done for me. I have to fight tooth and nail just to be able to do my own washing and ironing…although not really sure why I’m choosing to do it myself.

For dinner, I go to my friend’s parents house across the city, and his Mum cooks the most fantastic (and fattening) South Indian food you can imagine. Every meal is superb. But that brings me on to my next point, I’ve not even had to cook while being here…not even boiling some rice or pasta.

Transportation is usually courtesy of my friend who drives around everywhere (the Indian government is crippling itself by heavily subsidizing the price of fuel. Official inflation is running at 8%, they reckon without the fuel subsidy it would be as high as 17%!). The only time I use other transport is in the morning to get to work, occasionally at the weekends and after work.

The weekends are generally boozy, or have been the last few months (with some crazy-bad hangovers to boot). Either at one of the few bars and nightclubs in the city or at people’s homes. It’s definitely not your typical Indian weekend, where people have often told me on a Monday morning how their weekend was that they spent it “re-arranging my clothes shelves and doing my laundry”.

So, all this leads me to the conclusion that although I’m living in India, I’m kinda cheating.


Studying English While Learning Tamil

One of the great things about living in India is the opportunity to learn a new language. In India you have over 14 different languages to choose from, but it makes sense to learn the local one 😀

I’m living in the state of Tamil Nadu, in the main city called Chennai (it used to be called Madras before they decided to get rid of the connection with their colonial past). The city is fast filling up with British expats like myself and international students from organisations like AISEC.

One of my main goals while living out here is to learn the local Tamil language.  However, the interesting thing is, that as I’m learning Tamil, I’m studying English more and more.

For example, until recently I didn’t even know what the origins of the English language were. A quick bit of research and I’m able to give you a condensed history of the English language…

English is based on the Germanic language brought to the UK by the Saxons of what is now North-West Germany. However, even this Germanic language is a sub-category of the Indo-European language which can be traced to Northern India. When the Normans invaded the country in 1066, Old French was the language of the law, courts and administration. Even when it was changed to English, many words and phrases remained.

In the 16th and 17th century, many words were borrowed from Latin. Modern English that is spoken today can be traced back to the Elizabethan era.

There is a very interesting diagram showing the classification and evolution of languages here: History of Language Diagram

Where English is quite a modern language, Tamil is credited as being one of the oldest languages, that is still widely spoken, in the world, with a heritage that can be dated back over 2,200 years – this makes it one hell of a difficult language to learn! Take the letter ‘L’. There are three ways of pronouncing it!

Back to English.

Even though many educated people in Chennai can speak English (well, I like to call it Indo-English because the sentence structures and word usage are different), I’m able to understand them quite well, but often they are unable to understand me.

This is because I would use slang, abbreviate (don’t, do not) words, and more significantly use idioms, metaphors and similies when I’m speaking.

Time and again I would have to go back and explain a slang word or saying, and in the true Indian fashion of wanting to learn and understand, they would ask why we use such words, what the orgins are etc. Since we don’t pay much attention to what we’re saying in the UK, we never really get a chance to study our own language or the origins of words and sayings.

Take this saying:

Straight from the horses mouth

A bit of research tells you that the origin of this saying comes from horse racing and the only way to accurately tell the age of a horse is to look at it’s teeth and mouth. Hence, “this horse is 3 years old, I got it from the horses mouth” ie. the information came direct from the source.

Other sayings and slang that I’ve been asked to explain include…

  1. Raining cats and dogs
  2. Come down on you like a ton of bricks
  3. Went down like a lead balloon
  4. Stuck between a rock and a hard place
  5. Chavs
  6. If you can’t beat em, join em
  7. Hard as nails
  8. Sweet FA
  9. Scot free
  10. Cushty
  11. This time next year…
  12. Bent as a nine bob note
  13. Cool beans

And many more sayings besides. There are also some sayings that don’t seem to have any origin, they are either a play on words which have different meanings or slang meanings, it can confuse the hell out of my Indian friends…

  1. Let’s make like a tree, and leave
  2. Let’s make like a banana, and split
  3. Let’s make like a donkey’s d***, and hit the road

There are also occasions where I have to give someone a better way of saying something. For example, on our help desk, a phrase that was often used was:

  • Please be in patience

I explained to them that although any English speaking person would understand exactly what they meant, the accepted way of politely asking someone to wait would be:

  • Please be patient

This was taken with a certain amount of skeptism, because “everyone knows that patient means someone who’s undergoing healthcare, like a Doctors Patient.

I think that’s long enough for my musings on the English language. It’s an interesting subject for me and it’s a shame we don’t learn more about the history of our own language in school history lessons.

For further reading on the history of English, Tamil and words and phrases in English, check these sources:

An Argument About Coffee

Just had a little argument about the best way to make coffee today. I was asked if I want a coffee, to which I replied, “sure, I’ll boil the water”. This was met with a blank expression along the lines of “why the hell do you want to boil the water?!”…Err, to make coffee?

Well, as it turns out, here in India, we make coffee in the opposite way to the UK (well, at least in the opposite way to the way I make coffee!). They boil the milk first, and then add small amounts of water to taste.

Naturally an argument ensued about which is the best way to make coffee. Frankly I think we’re going to have to do some double-blind tests to put it to rest 😀

You Know You Are In India When…

Just a little fun, no offense meant from this list 🙂 It’s just some of my observations from the last few months of living in Chennai.

  1. A Honda or Skoda is considered a premium luxury brand
  2. The tuk-tuk driver demands Rs 150 for a trip that you know should cost Rs 70. But you end up taking anyway because you just spent the last ten minutes trying to explain where you want to go to and haven’t the energy to do it all over again
  3. Over-taking on a blind bend is considered a skill rather than reckless driving
  4. They drive a bus through a gap in the traffic you wouldn’t even take a bike through
  5. The correct lane to be in for turning left or right is where ever your car is at the time
  6. It is the job of people behind you to get out of the way when reversing and you absolutely should not look out the back window when going backwards (for this reason every vehicle is fitted with some tacky tune that plays whenever it reverses :D)
  7. Traffic rules are merely polite suggestions
  8. Every other question is about food
  9. You’ve put on 10kg of weight since coming out to India and fitting comfortably in to your size 34″ waist jeans is but a distant memory, and someone remarks that you are looking too lean
  10. You are laughed at because the girl you happen to think is pretty and attractive is considered to not be fat enough
  11. Every successful film is about finding true love and following your heart, but in real life ‘love’ is not enough to justify a marriage
  12. Arranged marriages actually start to make some sense as the whole boy meets girl thing is taken care of for you and you can get on with the rest of your life (doesn’t mean you agree with it though!)
  13. You can accurately guess the plot of every Indian movie that’s ever been, currently popular and will ever be made simply by stating “boy meets girl and there’s a wedding at the end”
  14. You look out the window and it’s day time, you look out the same window five minutes later and it’s pitch black
  15. You can make artistic pictures by joining up dot-to-dot style all your mosquito bites
  16. Hanging on to the outside of a bus doing 30 MPH mere inches from the massive tyres with one hand and chatting on your cell-phone with the other is considered an acceptable form of commuting to and from work
  17. Seat belts are for weenies
  18. Motor-cycle helmets are for weenies
  19. They simply don’t believe you that the biggest actors and actresses in India are unheard of in the UK outside the Indian community
  20. Ditto for the films
  21. Cricket actually starts to make some sense!
  22. Rice and curry for breakfast isn’t in the least bit unusual
  23. It takes 4 guards with whistles to help you reverse out of a parking space
  24. It hasn’t rained for 4.6 billion years, but when it does, mother nature attempts to dump the entire Indian ocean in just 2 hours
  25. You see another white person in the pub and they suddenly become your best friend
  26. Every Indian that you meet in the pub is in the film industry
  27. Any Indian reading this light hearted and tongue in cheek article is offended and angry that I should write such a thing 🙂

Got anything else to add?! Let me know! I’ve promised the guys in the office we’ll do a “You Know You’re in England When…” post if they can come up with enough funny suggestions!

A Typical Day In India…

Thought I might write about a typical day for me in India. Could be incredibly boring for some, could provide useful information for others…who knows?!

My day usually starts around 9:30 – 10am when the maid comes in and starts cleaning the apartment. You don’t have hot water on demand, so you have to turn the heater on and wait 15 minutes or so before it’s hot enough to have a shower.

When I was in India last time, breakfast consisted of rice and curry (the sauce is called ‘gravy’ in India). But now I have my own place, I’m embracing traditional Western values by having muesli or cereal with fresh orange juice for breakfast 🙂 I plan to start making tea in the morning too, but I haven’t gotten around to buying a kettle yet…

I get to work between 11am and 12 noon, getting there either by car if Aravind stayed over or tuk-tuk if I’m on my own. Trying to get a tuk-tuk is always an experience. The office is located in an area called Nungumbakkam, but thanks to my wonderful British accent, the tuk-tuk drivers simply can’t understand me when I tell them where I want to go.

Getting a tuk-tuk would cost a local about 70-80 rupees, being white, it’s extremely rare for me to get 80 rupees, it’s usually 80-100. For reference, 100 rupees is about £1.25 or $2.50.

I take lunch around 3pm. Sometimes I bring a packed lunch with cheese sandwiches and an apple, or I’ll go down to the sandwich shop below our office (think: Greggs, if anyone is reading this in the UK). If I buy lunch it’s around 60 rupees (£0.75).

Work generally finishes around 8pm and depending on the plan, I’ll either go out to a nice restaurant for dinner or go home and cook some pasta. Going out to a restaurant at a 4/5 star hotel costs about £15 for three people – not too bad!

If I have to make my own way home then the fun and games start all over again with the tuk-tuk drivers. I live in an area called Mandavelli, but once again, I say this word and a look of confused incohesion crosses the drivers face. It’s always an adventure to find out where you’ll wind up at the end of the journey…

…Since I live near Mandavelli station I use that as a local landmark when explaining where I want to get to, but it’s still incredible how many drivers have no idea where it is. This evening for example, I was taken to Mandavelli bus station.

I’ve also just discovered that apparently the way I pronounce ‘Mandavelli’, it sounds like I’m saying ‘head hurting’ in Tamil. That caused a lot of amusement in the office…grrr.

Anyhow, back to dinner and food…

Pasta is rediculously cheap, this evening I went and bought 2 packets of pasta, 2L bottle of coke, some milk and some juice and it came to 110 rupees – about £1.30.

Since they also have Pizza Hut and Dominos Pizza here, we’ll occasionally order a pizza, this is a bit more expensive, costing around £4.50 ($9.00) for a medium pizza, 4 slices garlic bread and a bottle of Pepsi. The pizza’s are all made from the same ingredients, so they taste exactly the same over here as they do in England (surprise?!).

In the evenings I’ll kick back and watch TV, I’ve got a nice 32″ widescreen flatscreen TV mounted on the wall with cinema surround sound – it’s all good 😀

Umm, so there you have it, a short ‘day in the life of’ someone living in Chennai. Not all that exciting really, except maybe second guessing where you’ll end up when you climb in to a tuk-tuk!

Playing The Matchmaker

I was inadvertantly playing Cilla Black the other day at the office, let me set the background if I may…

Anand, the CEO of Agriya, the company that I work for has decided that it’s time to get married. Or rather, his parents have decided that it’s time for him to get married – this being India afterall. A hunt up and down the state of Tamil Nadu has uncovered several likely candidates for the marriage.

One of the candidates parents were not keen on the proposed marriage because Anand was the CEO of a ‘small’ company, and to them that meant high risk. They wanted someone who worked for a ‘big’ company like Infosys for their daughter, under the belief that this would provide a more ‘secure’ income.

Keen to prove the daughters parents wrong, Anands parents asked them to come and visit the office and see for themselves that this was a medium sized business that was going strong. They agreed and visited the office the other day.

Unfortunately for Anand, the initial impressions were not good, they saw the downstairs office and were not completely impressed. Then they came upstairs to my office and they did a complete U-turn in their opinion.

The reason?

Agriya has two Westerners working at the office 😀

As soon as they saw me and one other European guy in the office, they changed their mind and said “Agriya must be a big company if white people are working for them”. So after that, it was Game On for the marriage!

See, not only am I doing a wonderful job, I’m also helping office staff to get hitched. I think that deserves a payrise…

Update: Game Off! Cancel everything, the sky is falling, the marriage has been cancelled! 😮 Rumours, hearsay and theories abound.

Mobbed By The Kids

I had my first proper experience of being mobbed by Indian children the other day! I’m used to the staring you get as a white person living in Chennai – in a city of over 6 million people I would be surprised if there were more than 1,000 Westerners living here. With those kind of percentages, if you have white skin, people will stare – not even in a subtle way, but full on staring as they watch you go by.

The staring doesn’t bother me at all – my ego even gets carried away to think that I might be the first white person they’ve seen 🙂 – but very unlikely in Chennai. The staring isn’t done in a rude or offensive way, and there’s certainly nothing aggressive about it, it’s just curiosity to see this odd person with white skin.

Anywho, the other day I had just popped down the road to the supermarket (think small shop that sells a variety of different products – they are still very much in to the “one shop, one product type” over here, fruit from the fruit store, vegetables from the vegetable store, bread from the bread store etc.) and as I came back with a weeks worth of shopping in each hand, I passed what could politely be described as a slum.

A group of scrawny looking kids wearing no shoes (did I really have to say that?!) were playing in an old car wreck when they saw me and then ran over shouting in Tamil. Naturally I didn’t have a clue what they were saying and then one of them pulled out a Motorola Razr phone (no shoes, but they have the latest cell phones?!) and they all crowded round to get their picture taken with me.

It was pretty surreal as I stood there with shopping bags, posing for photos with the kids, grinning like a fool and desperately working out how I was going to get out of the situation. Umm, but I did get out of it eventually.