My apartment in Phuentsholing was located next to a busy automobile workshop and my sleeps would be punctuated by a series of honks at nights. When I left Phuentsholing a year ago for good I knew I was leaving behind that noisy apartment, but when I reached here, it was honks, honks, honks, everywhere. Staying right above the national highway (that never sleeps) only worsens the situation. It is more than a complete repeat of my Phuentsholing days. Maybe even more! The following is something I wrote back then, but I feel it is still relevant now in Thimphu.
One day, back in 1990s, we were traveling to Phuentsholing again after our brief sojourn in Thimphu. Almost every alternate winter vacation would take us to that part of the country from our village. Our grandmother, who suffered from nausea while traveling, occupied the front seat in our uncle’s ancient yet majestic-looking jeep while grandfather, my cousin and I were seated at the back. And almost throughout the journey, my uncle found his back-row passengers snoring. However, at every turning, the piercing sound of the old jeep’s horn would wake us up momentarily.
“Now we are near the turning, it is time blow your horn,” our alert grandmother would remind our uncle, who would sincerely oblige her direction. And for the rest of the way he had repeated reminders: “Blow horn, blow horn, it is time to blow … time to blow horn… it is time…” Thanks to our grandmother, we reached our destination without even a slightest scratch.
In Bhutan honking is a distinct feature of our driving culture. You are at the zebra-crossing, you hear that familiar irking beep from passing cars, you are about to cross a junction, you hear that familiar honk, there is a traffic jam in town, you hear that sound, a car is about to join the main road from an unknown corner, you hear it, a driver is slow on the highway, you hear it, a driver wants to overtake a car at the front, you hear it, the driver at the front does not want the man driving behind him to go ahead of him, you hear it, a man indicates he is in hurry to his wife, you hear it and of course there are needful honks at the highway curves and bends.
The man steering a majestic land cruiser honks at the Maruti 800 driver while small cars’ horns go wild blowing at the bigger ones and smaller ones are busy honking at cars of their size and nature. Cars honk at pedestrians and they honk at a herd of cattle on the highway. And anger is very contagious. We understand traffic congestion wastes time and resources, but does honking ease the situation? No one likes being honked at because it signifies someone is blaming him/her for something or worse still someone trying to show his/her incompetency in steering the wheels. And who likes being finger-pointed?
So, what does it mean to honk in the town? Of course I find honking very symbolic of various social expressions. It symbolizes one’s status, which is manifested by who honks and at whom. It symbolizes our need to go faster and be ahead of the pack on the highway. It demonstrates our need to reach home early and denotes our urgency to be early at work for we run important offices in town. It displays our superior driving skills or mastery of the machines and others’ inferiority or lack of it. And it encapsulates our arrogance and impatience.
By nature we are kindhearted people. Maybe that’s because we are all Buddhists at heart. But again, we form a group of most impatient people on earth. We complain having to wait at the hospitals, banks, ATM queues, bus stations, roadblocks, traffic jams, wang ceremony or receiving an important official. The culture of waiting is yet to be developed and engrained in our genes.
Traffic regulations say drivers are to avoid honking near the Dzongs, schools, institutions and hospitals premises. And now maybe we should designate a few more places where honking should be avoided - in the deep forests for it pushes away wild animals from their settings - and town and cities. Honking disturbs the sick in the hospitals and students in the process of learning.
Is there any other alternative to blowing horns in the plain and clear city roads? And maybe with the elections round the corner we might need to demand some form of policies on this and find some kind of alternatives to this nuisance. If we could afford to ban so many things in the country, we can for sure afford to do away with honking in the towns and cities. But we should also acknowledge the utility of horns at sharp turnings. Maybe we must even put up more signboards on our highways.
Noise pollution is as alarming as climate change. As the number of wheels rolling on the road increases by the day, pollution level will only go up, if proper policies are not in place. Let’s do away with our horns irrespective of the time of day for everyone deserves to sleep in peace, drive home happy or smile in the office all day long. And every pedestrian deserves to walk home without being honked at.