Getting Roadside Directions in India

Mumbai RoadsideIn Mumbai again. Yesterday I went to visit a friend of mine in the evening. He had moved to a new place in Khar close to Khar Gymkhana. His directions were somewhat sketchy so we had to stop a few times to get directions. It got me thinking about how different asking for and giving directions was in India.

The most common word used in the business of giving directions is Seedha (keep going straight). It is very often the only word. “Where is Khar Gymkhana?” Seedha. Since, the person giving you directions is likely to be standing in front of a paan shop, you might just hear a mumbled word and a pointed finger, which you should also interpret as Seedha.

Though I have heard many people make fun of the Indian tendency to boil down complex turn by turn directions to Seedha Jao, I totally get it. What they are really saying is – “Stay on this road for 200 meters and then ask someone else.” Or, it could be that “You don’t look like a person who can tell your left from your right.” It’s one of the two.

In smaller towns and villages there may be something else at work as well. People don’t want to admit that they don’t know where Khar Gymkhana is. In a largely agrarian society I suppose it won’t do if you mixed up where you planted your jowar with your bajra. And given that there is just one road going up and down in most small towns, Seedha Jao has a 50% chance of being correct. Mumbai, in my opinion, has evolved from this state. People will actually say that they don’t know if they don’t know.

The next most common thing said when giving directions is Aage ja ke left. Or right, as the case may be. This should be interpreted as “Stay on this road for 100 meters and then ask someone else.” He (the direction giver is always male) knows where the left turn needs to be made, but there is no good landmark. And street names in Indian cities as everone knows, are only naam ke vaaste. Every road has two names – the official name which could be Desh Ki Neta Indira Gandhi Road – and the unofficial name – Curzon Road or even IG Road. And when the local administration decided to rename the old Curzon Road to Desh Ki… they did not approve new road signs. The old ones were painted over in a font size of 9 pixels.

The last dimension to direction giving is the landmark. “Left at the water tank” – is something I can deal with. A water tank is typically very big and doesn’t cluster with other water tanks. However, over reliance on landmarks can get suboptimal. Like yesterday.

The directions my friend gave me yesterday were “Come down SV Road and make a left at the Color Plus store.” Given that Malad is an hour away, this seemed inadequate and even ambiguous to me. I would have to keep a watch for Color Plus stores all the way from Bandra (in case I missed the boundary between Bandra and Khar). Given that I was taking a Kail Peeli taxi which as most Indians know was designed for midgets wearing protective headgear, I may not have a clear view of the stores on the side of the road. I may have complained a little to my friend, to which his response was – “then just ask for Khar Gymkhana, everyone knows where that is”. I guess I got lucky that my destination was a landmark itself for after only six stops for directions I found it.

Landmarks are so important that even postal addresses use them. Put an “opp. Regal Cinema” in your address and you can’t go wrong. Although with the landmarks and the c/o (care of) lines in the postal addresses, they do get somewhat long. I have seen some that, in the absence of proper space planning, end up with very little room for the city and state at the bottom of the envelope. Given the wear and tear on mail in the Indian Postal Service, it is possible that there are many postal items that lie in the dead letter office that have triangulated coordinates between multiple landmarks for their address, but the city and state are washed out.

There is a problem with landmarks though, which is somewhat similar to the road names problem. While most buildings are private and so don’t have to go through patriotic renamings, there could be local takes on a building’s name. Our company guest house in Mumbai is in an apartment complex called Palm Court. The auto wallah’s uniformly refer to it as Palam Court. There was this time when our office was in a building called Paradigm. We were looking for a consultant to help our research team with writing better business English. The consultant and her cabbie kept asking for directions to Para-dime and nobody knew where it was. The locals all call it Para-diggum. Which actually is good news. It means they can read English. Correct pronunciation in English is anyway a matter of opinion.

So there you have it. A complete analysis of road-side direction giving in India. You could call it query-by-query directions as opposed to the turn-by-turn directions that Google maps gives you. I liken it to the Agile method of directions which is different from the Waterfall method followed in the West (IT junta will understand this). Either way, we know that it works. (You get there, don’t you?) Plus it has other collateral benefits. If turn-by-turn directions could get you there, sure, you could just stay in your air-conditioned Honda City, listening to Himesh Reshammiya on the car stereo and actually get to your destination on time. But then you’d lose the opportunity to interact with the locals. And that would be a shame.

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20 Responses to Getting Roadside Directions in India

  1. Shashi says:

    Use wikimapia for Indian style directions. You can find major landmarks on the map, unlike Google maps which has only street names.

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  2. Krish says:

    Basab, you were a Bombay-ite earlier I guess. Trust the local rickshaw drivers that give you not just right, but the latest landmarks since the topography frequently changes with old edifices (say, Rallis Factory) giving way suddenly to a plush R-Mall on LBS Road.

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  3. The very nature of Indian roads and the difficulty in getting from point A to point B leads me to believe that geospatial content providers will strike it big in this country!

    The problem in Bangalore is incorrect official directions. The poor town administrators cannot keep pace with the random act of one-waying streets. A month or so back I actually did see two direction-arms, one perpendicular to the other, each pointing the traveler to the “Airport”. Now one has “Bengaluru Int” prefixed over one of the arms. The other arm serves to hedge the situation of the old airport re-opening.

    Sincerely
    Subrata

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  4. Suvendu says:

    Basab, the whole story reminds me this famous song of 50s…

    “As dil Hai mushkil Jeena Yahan,
    Zara Hatke Zara Bacchke, yeh hai bombay meri jaan”

    This is not Mumbai story, this is India story where road & Apt numbers are as complex as any credit derivative valuation methods..:) Wot saying-

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  5. In most Indian towns, about 10.000, there is no proper nomenclature. Also no attempts are made so far to apply “ecological commonsense” . This applies to both streets within, entry points and exit points. In addition there is the contagion of hypocricy. For example, in my hometown, Pondicherry, There are dozens of single road Nagars with about 20-40 house holds! They co-exist with some Nagars with 20 Cross Roads and 5 Main Roads. Some Nagars start with a single street and the newly laid ones are called Extensions! Any one can put a Signboard and get a few neighbours follow it. Hypocricy : The beach fron is well maintained because tourists, especially foreigners, frequent these areas. Trafrfic rules are only on paper. Mostly not followed; defied at will; protests are countered by rowdy behaviour. Therefore One has to resort to every conveneince pertaining to road side and other signs and directions in Indian Urban non-systems. God does not merely exist here, he can be seen functioning!

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  6. Suvendu says:

    Dear Prof Sharma,

    My experience in Pondicherry (pudducherry now) as far as road discipline is concerned is far better compared to other parts of India….one can definitely argue small size of a city helps ..

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  7. Basab says:

    there was an html error in the post, which was eating up a paragraph and a half. I have fixed it now.

    [Note to self: always read post after publishing]

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  8. Gaurav says:

    Basab,

    Spot on! I am amazed at how directions in the great state of Karnataka are always a collection of “straita” turns, as in “go straita, then straita, then straita, then you will see big building, then straita…”. I once went to Mysore and me and the local driver got hopelessly lost with these straita-forward directions.

    On the flip side, I often wonder now how we ever got around in the US before maps came along. In Delhi/Mumbai/Bangalore one had the corner paan shop as the local navigator. There’s nary a shop in sight in the US around corners. No wonder folks here had to invent maps! 😉

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  9. Anu P. Thomas says:

    For some strange reasons, I found that the directions I get in Bangalore is always “Munde hogbittu right” (Go straight and take the right turn). Bangaloreans wont turn left? That explains the need for a lot of flyovers 🙂

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  10. Suvendu says:

    So also Chennites whose standard answer would be “Straightaaa Poongaaaaa (go sraight)” – looks like they don’t have believe in any left or right issue….

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  11. Satya says:

    Basab,

    You do have a gift for writing, laced with humor 🙂

    Like

  12. Siddharth says:

    It is certainly more fun asking for directions rather than self reliance on a map or GPS. So used to the ‘query style’ finding directions during my years in India, I until last month refused a GPS. My help came from Gas stations, 7 Eleven, curb side strollers, or the car next lane at the stop light. I remember, around 2001, driving with 6 friends in a rented SUV, when for the first time I turned on a voice GPS, my friend jumped from his seat and exclaimed “Yeh car mein behenji kaun hain?” Now you have a choice to swtich to a “bhai sahib” too.

    Without a GPS, I faced some inconvenience but I still prefer to ask for help from people. The inconvenience was manually rolling down the passenger side window in my car while inquiring; then it was not always easy to stop the vehicle on one lane roads. In some cities, and in certain weather conditions it can be harder to get help. Clear road signs, severe weather condition, minimum speed limits, traffic regulations, lack of population, make US driving safe and easy but boring for desi drivers me.

    In US cities, I have asked strangers for directions hundreds of times, and with a 90% plus success rate I mostltly left with a smile and arrived with a thankful heart.

    In India, with some many places to go, our ‘per capita’ or ‘per sq. mile’ address locations are significantly more than in US. With a more diverse traffic system, languages spoken, class inequality, I am so excited to go to India and enjoy the ‘agile’ way that I first learned there. For me, the Quality of journey is critical than the Productivity of travel.

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  13. Pingback: MEDIANAMA | Getting Directions In India

  14. Madhavan says:

    Quite a bagful of quirks there…but the best part is people not being able to say “I don’t know”. But I can vouch for American confusions…where the country assumes that everyone has a map and follows it, and everyone drives a car and can read and understand all the signs towering above on the wide roads.
    In Europe, I found it embarassing to find no maps and it was not the done thing to ask anybody..you had to find a policeman. And in case you dared to ask somebody, that person’s chances of knowing was 50-50!
    Maybe there should be a Gridstone Book of Lost Travellers!

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  15. shalini says:

    Loved your post.
    Have you also noticed when one person does not know the direction he may look at as friend and get into a deep conversation about the possibilities of the destination….all while you patiently wait and the car behind you impatiently honks.

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  16. Saurav Mohanty says:

    Hi Basab,

    Appreciate your patience and salute your spirit of adventure. Wow ! to your great sense of humour too while writing this piece.

    While you did share your experience on a middle path, I am sure you would have gone through extremes as well – where either the coordinates are too detailed or the address is absolutely open ended. To get yourself to set course could be quite a challenge.

    Just to illustrate, try an address like the one below and you’ll know what I an referring to. :

    Old House No 856; (New House No : B-1717)
    5th Main; 7th Cross; 3rd Phase;
    4th Block; XY Nagar II Stage
    ( next to ABC Kalyan Manatapam West Gate )
    Bangalore

    or – where it could just be as simple as the one under :

    Sri S P Das, IAS ( retd )
    GPO Road, Cuttack, Orissa.

    Either ways, you will have two things guaranteed (a) that you will have to ask ‘people-who-look-knowledgeable’ folks for directions (b) that you will have quite an adventure and more stories to write!

    Happy meandering.

    Saurav Mohanty

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  17. Having got used to directions like ’95 North Exit 5′, I was amused by one of the most simplest and ridiculous directions in Chennai.

    Here it goes….

    “Sir, you see this traffic moving in that direction….”

    … somehow this gentlemen made me look at a traffic-stream that I would not have noticed otherwise….

    “Just stick to the traffic for ….umm….30 minutes…if they turn left, you turn left…….”

    Although it cracked me up, I controlled my laughter so that I don’t offend the gentleman….

    I was truly amazed becaused I followed his directions and I reached my destination without much trouble….

    Praveen

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  18. Vasudev Ram says:

    Good post, Basab. Funny …

    I particularly liked the part about “Para-diggum” – and I agree that English pronunciation is a matter of opinion.

    This one is my favorite getting-directions answer of all time – many times, the reply I get is something like this:

    “Go straight from Regal Cinema.”

    [ Insert any other landmark here instead of Regal Cinema. ]

    The point is: Ok, straight, but which way? There are at least 2 (opposite) directions to go in when you’re at any landmark (if it’s on a single straight road – and more if it’s at a T-junction (3) or at a cross-roads (4) … but no one ever realizes this.

    The best part is, they always emphasize the word “straight” earnestly, as in “straaaiigghhhtt” – because, of course, saying it like that makes sure you’ll reach the place 🙂

    – Vasudev

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  19. Pavan says:

    Love the agile vs waterfall analogy. Extreme progamming in the truest sense 🙂

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  20. Nat Srinivasan says:

    Funny! Totally relate to it. Explaining why our postal address has an “Opp Patel Auto”, to our increasingly inquisitive 6-year old (who recently moved to India) has been impossible.

    Another quirk that I noticed, at-least in Mumbai: there are no names for some roads. I go to work from “Off S.V Road” to “Off Link Road” for instance.

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