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THE COMMUTE

The daily horror of driving to work in India’s Silicon Valley

By Maria Thomas

At first, there’s something really satisfying about playing Tetris. That sense of achievement you feel when the colourful blocks in the video game fit perfectly into place, and line after line disappears with a chime. But soon the blocks begin to pile up, their edges don’t line up. And before you know it, you’re accumulating rows you can’t fill, and the screen is full of blocks of all shapes and sizes reaching all the way to the top. Game over.

Bengaluru’s traffic evokes a similar feel—only it is far less fun. Instead of colourful blocks, there are yellow-topped autos, green and blue buses, dirty white cabs, and swarms of bikes and scooters that instantly plug the minuscule spaces that open up. And there’s the accompanying cacophony. Restless drivers and bikers here truly believe that mindless honking can unclog city roads.

Every Bengalurian has a legendary traffic story to narrate. It could be about that time when a downpour pinned you, along with the entire city, to a spot in the middle of nowhere; or the “one-hour airport trip” that ended only after four hours. It was now time for me to live out one of my own because my job demanded it.

Disclosure: I work out of home, and in the 11 years of having lived in Bengaluru, I’ve never really been through the rush-hour rigmarole.

So despite the horror stories I’d heard, I looked forward to this task of merely experiencing the worst. And one fine weekday morning, I set off around 10am, making my way from the south Bengaluru residential and tech hub of Koramangala to Sarjapur, another tech hub around 10km to the east.

That may not sound like much for outsiders, but I was taking supposedly one of Bengaluru’s most congested routes during peak hours. So yeah, there was virtually a lifetime lying ahead of me, given what vehicular traffic is like in here nowadays.

As of December 2017, the city had nearly 7.3 million vehicles, up 74% from 2012. This has been fueled in large parts by the steady expansion of the tech industry, which has drawn migrants from across India, swelling Bengaluru’s population to an estimated 10.2 million in 2014, up from 8.4 million in 2011. The city’s infrastructure—roads, bus service, the two metro lines—have hardly kept pace.

The result is slowly stultifying chaos. One staple job-interview joke about Bengaluru goes like this:

Manager: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Interviewee: Silk Board Junction!

Silk Board Junction being a legendary south Bengaluru traffic choke point, which, on that particular day, I was moving away from. Small mercies.

The average vehicle speed in Garden City, they say, never exceeds 18km per hour, making it one of the slowest cities in India. But I was in for some luck. On that day, the speedometer of my Uber cab struggled to inch up even above 10km/hr.

In the first 15-20 minutes, I actually enjoyed myself slightly, taking in the sights and sounds I would usually miss when out and about: small crowds around street vendors, eating breakfast off fluorescent green plastic plates; the impromptu pavement businesses that sell everything from fruits to helmets to painted pots.

But 20 minutes on, I had travelled exactly two km, according to Google Maps. Still, that was alright. There was plenty more outside the cab to soak in, even as the road began to deteriorate and big muddy holes opened up along the sides.

Soon we entered the belly of the beast: one narrow road leading into Sarjapur, the once rustic suburb now home to offices of the likes of Microsoft, Samsung, and KPMG, besides the Indian software giant Wipro.

To our right was the Agara lake, sewage-strewn till recently but now turning into a beautiful park, replete with paved walkways and colourful outdoor gym equipment. But there’s only so long you can look at a lake from one direction, as I learned when my cab came to a stop and mostly stayed that way for the next hour-and-a-half.

In this time, our vehicle and thousands of others were squeezed into one side of the road; the other, heading back to Koramangala, was cruelly empty, since everyone was headed for work in the same direction.

Now, I like to think of myself as a pretty patient person. Give me a book and I can wait in line for quite a while. But being trapped inside a stagnant vehicle, hemmed in by hundreds of others, with no visual relief but a grey sky and the distant sight of an ugly half-constructed apartment building, was some endurance test.

I looked out at fellow commuters, but if they did share my mounting rage, they didn’t show it: They looked surprisingly zen. It’s the years of practice, I told myself.

On Quora, the question “Is Bangalore traffic the worst in India?” has a wonderful collection of answers. My favourite comes from someone who describes himself as a former quality analyst at Uber: “When you are driving a car and get ‘stuck’ in Bangalore traffic, you are not stuck—you ARE the traffic.” It was an easily forgotten truism as I silently seethed at the city and its woeful planning. For the fact was that many of us were one or two to a car, or riding on individual two-wheelers.

On Google Maps, meanwhile, the road ahead was one long angry red line. As far as the eye could see it was cars, buses, trucks, autos, and bikes frozen in my lane. In the next lane. And on the flyover above us.

In the small gaps that did emerge between vehicles every once in a while, one could see scraps of garbage—grimy Lay’s packets, rags, a torn basket, a mangled sofa chair, garbage bags bursting with even more plastic—mingling with the wild greenery on the roadside.

There was a single hapless policeman manning the crowded intersections that we passed by over the next hour or so.

The only moment of relief came when Maps suggested a side route snaking through residential complexes. We flew, the speedometer’s needle quivering over 20km/hour. But that barely lasted minutes. We hit the main road again, rejoining the jam.

My destination was one of the major tech parks in the area, a massive campus that hosts companies like Accenture and Intel. I arrived a good two hours after having set forth.

Standing on the sidewalk, I was grateful for finally getting back on my feet. Incredibly, for the overwhelming crowd of people, cars, and bikes around me, the work day was just beginning. In a few hours, they’d be back in the same place, trapped in the same jam, only in the opposite direction.

On Quora, another question reads, “How do I escape through the traffic of Bangalore?”

The best and the most depressing answer: “You simply don’t.”

This is the second in Quartz’s The Commute series that brings to life the rush-hour commute in major cities of India. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.