Caution - elephants

A drive through Rajasthan is the ideal way to uncover the mysteries of India's roads

It took me about 11 seconds to fall in love with India. I staggered from the hot, hideous airport to a coach and collapsed into a subterranean sleep, in which I gradually became aware of a distant tapping noise. The taps, I then painfully realised, were not a dream, and were intended to politely wake me up. So I slowly, resentfully opened my eyes - then opened them as wide as I could and gave a small shriek of delight. I was looking, through the coach window, into the eyes of a small monkey, whose long finger had been tapping gently on the glass. Then, realising that the light had suddenly stopped coming through the windows opposite, I turned to see why. There was a simple reason: elephants.

During the next three weeks of driving round Rajasthan, I continued to feel that I was rolling through the pages of an unusually colourful children's book. If I had never visited any of the great cities, temples or palaces, and merely kept to the roads, I would have come away with just as strong an impression of India as a place of quaint manners, fertile invention and rampant individuality.

Always an independent traveller, I had baulked at the idea of joining a coach party. But Indian roads are as mysterious as they are dusty: you can drive hundreds of miles and find that the few signs you see all day will not be in English. So coach was the budget option - or, for wealthier tourists, the hire of a driver and Ambassador, the chubby pre-war-style car whose name doubtless arouses the same awe as a pyramid of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. The other nostalgic vehicle to be seen in any number is the Morris Minor. When these or a coach pass a field in which men (and women, and children) are working, they actually pause, grin, and wave vigorously, completing the impression that one has stepped back a century. One gets no greeting, however, from the gangs of female roadworkers, all in bright-hued saris, breaking and carrying rocks, the lowest level of India's frantic building boom.

Trades that in Europe are carried out indoors are equally open to view in India. As you pass through a small town, the road is lined with what seem like life-sized doll's houses. In each little three-walled room, men sit sewing by hand or behind treadle machines, preside over huge bags of rice, or cut the hair of a patron in a single chair. The man selling false teeth seldom merits a room of his own, so he sits cross-legged on the ground, next to a poster illustrating the styles on offer. The tiny taxis with open sides are not used only for passengers. I saw several on their way to market, stuffed top to bottom with live chickens.

You don't have to be anywhere near a town, though, to enjoy a display of ethnography in the form of applied art. When you see your first few Indian lorries, you think they are headed to the local fairground, but then you see that every one, in both directions, is decked out the same way. A truck is a blank canvas in India, painted turquoise or orange or cerise, and covered with savage birds, flowers, arabesques, bullocks, various Hindu gods and goddesses, and signs enforcing the courtesy of the road ("No Horning"). Well before you notice that most articles for sale are plastered with glass gems, mirrors, metallic foil and/or embroidery, you get the idea that "embellish" is a particularly Indian word.

Indians also apply their creativity to the English language, as one can see by the signs that create hilarity for sharp-eyed western travellers on the road. One can see that a simple ignorance of English poetry would produce the memorable Albatross Travel, and that a country of strict morals would find nothing odd in a toy advertisement that tells parents, "Your child will love to play with the Wonder Cock!" One can also understand the thinking that Christians would wish to eat in the Lourdes Cafe, visit the Perpetual Succour Shop, or ride in a vehicle owned by the St Jude's Taxi Service. And one is touched - India, one often feels, is a country of the one-eyed leading the blind - by the signs promising "English Fluentzy" or success in passing exams with "Bula's Toturials".

But some apparent mistakes seem to hit on a deeper truth - the shop sign for Indifferent Menswear, for instance, or the invitation to the Internet Dungeon, or the name of the PMS Hotel (we've all stayed in that one). And, while I could not feel more strongly that the names of Bingo ice cream, the Cute Point and Mirthful Stores are quite, quite wrong, I would not like to have to explain, to an Indian, why.

Even English people exasperated by health-and-safety apparatchiks may be disconcerted to find that the concept, let alone the phrase, is unknown in India. Indeed, if they don't mind where they go, they will be disconcerted from the bottom of a deep, muddy trench down one side of an apparently modern road. A popular activity in front of Indian garages or pavement shops is welding, carried out with no protective goggles for the workman or barriers for passers-by, who have only themselves to blame if they can't keep clear of his torch.

Even more unnerving dangers can await the traveller in the less developed areas of India. As we headed for a town in Gujarat late at night, on a narrow road through the bush, I asked our tour leader why she was pulling down the blinds on both sides. She merely smiled. Our driver was proceeding cautiously when an arrow streaked across the road just in front of the windscreen, on a level with the driver's head. The driver's window was open on the side the arrow had come from. The thought of what could have happened had he been just a little bit quicker was galvanic, especially on the driver, who burned rubber all the way to our hotel. The tour leader explained, "The tribesmen don't like people going through their land at night, but sometimes they don't do anything, so I didn't want to worry you."

To me, however, what was most striking about the incident was my reaction. Normally a physical coward, I did not go numb or hysterical. I was not angry or indignant. I laughed. I thought: What an adventure! I shall always remember with pleasure how, on a road in India, the iron as well as the tinsel entered my soul.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters