In 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.