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The Notoriously Loud Car Horns Of Mumbai Meet Their Match


OK, now a word of caution for those of you listening to this next story in your car - you are about to hear the honking horns that serve as the soundtrack to India's financial capital, Mumbai. The city of more than 20 million people is notorious for its traffic and noise. Police have a creative plan to change that, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from her Mumbai neighborhood.


LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: So I'm trying to cross the street here in Mumbai. It's this kind of tangle of rickshaws and buses. And the traffic light - oh, it's not working here, actually. This is actually a police officer trying to direct traffic. He's waving his hands, but nobody's paying attention to him.


FRAYER: And the horns - it's just this cacophony of horns.


FRAYER: I hop into a rickshaw, and the driver, Mohamed Sarfaraz, explains how horns are like a language in Mumbai.

MOHAMED SARFARAZ: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "A short beep means, hey, I'm about an inch off your back bumper," he says. "A long beep means, heads-up, I'm trying to squeeze into a nonexistent lane with one wheel up on the curb."


FRAYER: Commuter Amruta Chavan says the horn on her motor scooter has to be loud enough to cut through this chaos. Truck drivers often install custom horns with a jingle because honking here isn't always cautionary. It can be a greeting, Chavan says.

AMRUTA CHAVAN: There are some people who honk, like, in a tune.

FRAYER: You mean like, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep.

CHAVAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah (laughter). Like hi or bye - just for hi or bye, they'll start to honk in a tune.

FRAYER: You can lose your mind, or five hours, in Mumbai's traffic. I wear earplugs. Traffic lights are where it's worst. People lean on their horns. God forbid someone miss a beat and not peel out the split second the light turns green. And so Mumbai police did a little experiment.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Welcome to the honking capital of the world.

FRAYER: They filmed themselves installing decibel meters on a handful of traffic lights. When the chorus of horn honking reached eardrum-popping levels, the light reset to red. Only when the honking died down would the light turn green.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: The video shows bewildered motorists set to Bollywood music and a slogan.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Feel free to honk - that is, if you don't mind waiting.

FRAYER: Feel free to honk if you don't mind waiting, it says. Commuter Amruta Chavan thought the video was hilarious.

CHAVAN: That was really clever but also irritating. I am a driver, so I'll have to wait because some other people are honking. I think it might work.

FRAYER: It might work, as long as fistfights don't break out among motorists blaming each other for prolonging the red lights. Police tell NPR this was a stunt to raise awareness. The decibel meters were only up for a few minutes to record the video. But it went viral. And all the sudden, all these other cities are inquiring about it. Mumbai says it's now looking to bring back the decibel meters, and what started as a spoof could actually become a reality here.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRAFTWERK'S "AUTOBAHN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.