Honkless in the city (Learning to drive again)

Last month, I returned home to Delhi having been away for 9 months. One of the things I had been silently worrying about was reviving my “Delhi” driving skills. Arriving at the airport 2 hours late and 1 bag less didn’t lessen the enthusiasm and I chose to take the front passenger seat in the cab; THAT gave me the front seat to the roller coaster ride that driving in Delhi is. The cabbie was my teacher & so that was the first step: Learning by observation. I watched as the driver made the cab twist, turn and squeeze through narrow spaces to get me home.

Next in my agenda was a hands-on session and chose a small car for it, the advantages being that a hatchback is easy to park and of course the maneuverability. The BIG disadvantages of my choice: the car has L (Learners) signs on the front and back [how apt, or so I thought!!!] and the horn wasn’t functioning. I wasn’t sure then what I was getting into. When driving in Delhi, the horn is one of the most important tools in your toolbox, probably even more important than brakes. Being honkless would mean that you’re in a boxing ring with no gloves, or like being on a stock exchange trading floor and not be able to shout, its like being on a fast the day you have a team feast.

Initially, the experience was frustrating, being a mute spectator in the chaos, the hand would reach out & hit the horn with intensity but there would be no sound. Add to that, the Learners sign, and that adds 10X hostility when you’re on the road. People don’t honk when they see a L sign but immediately try to overtake you. But then an interesting thing happened: I started to slow down, give way more and observe a lot (by force rather than choice); it gives you a different perspective and makes you less aggressive. That ring of wisdom didn’t last for long though, and evaporated as soon the horn was repaired. Soon after, I regained my Delhi driving skills and re-graduated to my own car.

And thus returned the sweet sound (ahem!) of the horn, and so I was able to contribute some musical notes to the orchestra on the street.

So here my friends, I give you Top 5 tips for driving in Delhi:

1. Changing Lanes
Active observer: When a car in front signals to change a lane, the driver following in the destination lane shall speed to not let the car change lanes.
Actor: If you need to change lanes, first safely get your car 50% into the destination lane and THEN signal. (Rule of thumb: signal after the remaining space in destination lane &lt width of the car that’s following)

2. The L sign
Active observer: L stands for Loser, not Learner. When you see a car with this sign, speed and get ahead as you need to be the Winner. Be a good citizen: don’t distract the loser by honking, let him drive at his own pace.
Actor: Try and get rid of the L tag ASAP. If you had applied a red plastic tape to draw the L, remove any remanents of it completely. An leftover impression of “L” on your car screams “Fresher”.

3. Overtaking
Active observer: Always drive in the fast lane and never give way to cars behind. If they really want to overtake, its their problem not yours. If you don’t like to be overtaken, speed when cars try to overtake you
Actor: If you’re trying to overtake, do so in a fashion and speed such that the driver you’re overtaking doesn’t notice you. Tip: use blind spots.

4. Traffic Signals
Active observer: If the car in front of you stops at a traffic light, honk repeatedly, the guy has no business stopping like that, the color red is over-rated. Also, research has proven that traffic signals change color in a few minutes if you honk.
Actor: Traffic lights and signs are suggestions really.

5. 2-way streets
Actor: On a 2-way street with no divider, be a leader…start a lane instead of joining one. If the lane you’re creating obstructs traffic coming in the other direction, well…a wider road is needed and should be built.
Active observer: If you’re in the traffic that’s coming from the other direction, relax, there’s nothing much anyone can do. Just utilize the lanes left so that no new lanes get created.

Disclaimer: The above is a work of fiction…..Of course I don’t drive like THAT!

The SQL query that made me smile

A few days back, I filed my income tax online. To many, that may seem like something ordinary but to me, being able to do that online was a milestone in itself. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that when I heard that taxes can be filed online, I started off exploring with a pessimistic outlook … maybe the website would be down … the system might be slow … will it be reliable … will it do what it claims. I had reasons for thinking this way, as over the years I’ve seen that these processes and the bookkeeping behind the curtains has been largely manual and on paper. And I’ve had my shares of experiences that have made me form my opinions … I’ve stood in queues for hours, I’ve visited the IT office(*1) and seen how much time & effort it takes to locate a physical file and have always wished that someday (maybe in 10-15 years), things would get computerized. I wasn’t expecting it to come so soon though.

The experience of filing my tax online was a surprise so pleasant, that I was actually …. QUITE surprised. I entered my name, date of birth and PAN number and the query pulled up my address on record. I’m a programmer myself and have written quite a few queries myself but let me tell you … no other query has given me so much happiness. For this query to be able to fetch data meant that the records existed in digital form and could be queried. That, in itself, opens so many avenues and limitless possibilities.

The overall process including registration, downloading and filling up the form and uploading the data took me less than an hour. The overall workflow was very thoughtfully designed, with a few exceptions which I’ll come to. I was able to file my tax from halfway around the world and there was only one manual leg in the process (since I didn’t have a digital signature).

These were my highs and not-so-highs..

The Highs:

  • Was able to file tax online
  • No attachments (Form-16, investment proofs) required
  • Non-proprietary software for filling the return Form. These days, Adobe Acrobat can be considered a standard software.
  • Query for PAN in registration process boosted confidence, was quite fast too
  • Website has an advanced users option (for programmers) where XML data could be edited manually
  • When filing tax without a digital signature, the acknowledgment form is generated as a downloadable PDF file (which has to be printed, signed and submitted in the IT department). Generating a downloadable PDF was a thoughtful design considering people want to retain acknowledgment in soft copy for their records and also may not have a printer at hand to print immediately.

The Not-So-Highs:

  • The name of IT website in digital signature didn’t match with site name verbatim due to which the browser gave a warning.
  • The completely automated option requires a digital certificate. Only certificates issued by one of the 7 affiliate agencies is accepted, even certificates issued by international issuing agencies aren’t accepted. None of these companies sell digital certificates online, so human interaction is required.
  • The return form gave a prompt for upgrading Adobe acrobat when it was opened in Acrobat version 6. When the upgrade option was chosen, Adobe Acrobat got upgraded to Version 7 and not Version 8.1. As per the IT website, the version needed Adobe 8.1.
  • The document opened up without any prompts/warnings when opened in Acrobat 7. While exporting to XML though, all dates in the form were getting dropped from the XML and was causing validation errors wile uploading. This problem was solved when user upgraded to Acrobat version 8.1.
  • IT department could’ve given a FAX number where the signed acknowledgment could be faxed directly. Or maybe an email address where you could send the scanned copy of signed acknowledgment. This would save a trip to the IT office (*2)

Overall, filing tax was a Breeze; IMO, the process isn’t perfect yet but it definitely a big step forward. Believe it or not, I actually jumped with joy after completing the process in less than an hour. And the SQL query for PAN, that’s brought on an instant Smile!

(*1): The best part about visiting the IT office at Mayur Bhawan in Connaught Place, New Delhi … getting to have the Special Choley Bhature/Rajmah Chawal/Kadi Chawal at Shankar Market…Mmmmm, I can smell those bhaturas from here
(*2): Maybe that trip really is worth it (Refer *1).