Sign of the times

'Horn OK Please': a crowdsourced, entirely dubious history of India's iconic truck slogan

What does the phrase actually mean? And where did it come from?

All-round outrage exploded on Friday when the Maharashtra government announced yet another ban, this time on the iconic injunction emblazoned on the back of most Indian trucks: “Horn OK Please”. The order is an attempt to address the issue of excessive honking on the streets. It is based on the delusion that this painted phrase is responsible for creating noise pollution.

In a country where traffic signs are treated not so much as rules to be followed but as decorative street art, removing a colourful phrase from a truck is unlikely to dispel the belief that jamming one's car horn into the steering wheels will miraculously make traffic evaporate.

Besides, the Maharashtra ban ignores the fact that the phrase is beloved of truckers across the country. Those travelling to Maharashtra are unlikely to follow this order. Other slogans may be optional (“Buri nazar waale teraa muh kaala”, “Use dipper at night”, “Maa ka aashirwad”), but trucks without the “Horn OK Please” sign are rare. The phrase has grown well beyond Indian roads. It has inspired innumerable blogs and videos, an anthology of stories, kitschy pillow art for urban hipsters, and restaurants in Pune, Rajkot, Indore and even London.

The phrase has even made its Bollywood debut as the 2009 comedy flop Horn Ok Pleassss. More recently, it appeared in Dedh Ishqiyaa as Punjabi rapper Honey Singh’s first collaboration with Gulzar.



Where did it come from?


Photo credit: Satish Krishnamurthy/Flickr.


Apart from its practical use – honking would warn a truck driver not to switch lanes when a vehicle behind him is attempting to overtake – nobody seems to know where “Horn OK Please” comes from, or even what it means. Semantically, it makes no sense if you read it as a complete sentence, unless you are speaking Indian English where the tone of the phrase suggests a polite request in the “Ok”.

On the other hand, the font and placement of the “OK”, usually bigger and bolder than “Horn Please”, might indicate a conversation split unnaturally to serve the cause of aesthetic and visual balance. The truck, in this theory, says “Horn Please” and the vehicle behind acknowledges it depending on its mood and font with an aggressive or cheerful “OK”. Picture what “Horn Please OK” would look like using the same style and it becomes evident that that phrase does not quite cut it.


Photo credit: Meena Kadri/Flickr.


These stories are mundane. Enter Quora, the one-stop internet authority for crowd-sourced, unverified and often dubious origin stories.

Could it be a sly marketing campaign that agents forgot to inform painters had ended? The Quora theory goes like this. Tata Motors was the largest manufacturer of trucks in the decades just after Independence. Around the same time, Tata Oil Mills Co, another Tata group subsidiary, launched a washing soap called OK. The logo of this possibly unambitious soap, it seems, was the lotus commonly seen on top of the OK on the back of trucks. This, the Quora theory claims, suggests that one Tata company added the OK as a favour to another. In time, perhaps since the lotus looked good and people had forgotten what OK meant, it continued to remain on trucks to this day.

There is even a theory that the phrase “OK, tata, bye bye” is a devious advertisement for that much-celebrated soap.

No, really


Photo credit: Meena Kadri/Flickr.


Popular folk histories aside, there are some more credible origin stories.

One dates it back to the Second World War, when due to diesel shortages, kerosene had to be used in trucks instead. To warn others to keep their distance due to the unstable fuel in its engine, truck drivers painted OK, or “on kerosene” at the back of their truck. Theoretically, diesel trucks can run on a mix of kerosene and diesel, as several cases of diesel adulteration even today shows.


Photo credit: Meena Kadri/Flickr.


Muneer Noorani, a Quora user, might come closest to the truth. He spoke to old truck drivers at his godown, who credited it to India’s old single-lane highways. Noorani wrote:
The ‘OK’ was accompanied by a bulb over it, which the driver of the truck would switch on to signal the vehicle behind it that there is no oncoming traffic and hence it was okay to overtake,” This arrangement was placed in the centre. […] Gradually the practice of using the bulb to signal other drivers faded away (probably because of the non-maintenance of the bulb and also the emergence of multi-lane highways), and the OK remained, sandwiched in between the horn and please.

And now here is the trailer of a 2012 documentary on truck art in India, appropriately called Horn Please.



 

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Get ready for an 80-hour shopping marathon

Here are some tips that’ll help you take the lead.

Starting 16th July at 4:00pm, Flipkart will be hosting its Big Shopping Days sale over 3 days (till 19th July). This mega online shopping event is just what a sale should be, promising not just the best discounts but also buying options such as no cost EMIs, buyback guarantee and product exchanges. A shopping festival this big, packed with deals that you can’t get yourself to refuse, can get overwhelming. So don’t worry, we’re here to tell you why Big Shopping Days is the only sale you need, with these helpful hints and highlights.

Samsung Galaxy On Nxt (64 GB)

A host of entertainment options, latest security features and a 13 MP rear camera that has mastered light come packed in sleek metal unibody. The sale offers an almost 40% discount on the price. Moreover, there is a buyback guarantee which is part of the deal.

Original price: Rs. 17,900

Big Shopping Days price: Rs. 10,900

Samsung 32 inches HD Ready LED TV

Another blockbuster deal in the sale catalogue is this audio and visual delight. Apart from a discount of 41%, the deal promises no-cost EMIs up to 12 months.

Original price: Rs. 28,890

Big Shopping Days price: Rs. 10,900

Intel Core I3 equipped laptops

These laptops will make a thoughtful college send-off gift or any gift for that matter. Since the festive season is around the corner, you might want to make use of this sale to bring your A-game to family festivities.

Original price: Rs. 25,590

Big Shopping Days price: Rs. 21,900

Fashion

If you’ve been planning a mid-year wardrobe refresh, Flipkart’s got you covered. The Big Shopping Days offer 50% to 80% discount on men’s clothing. You can pick from a host of top brands including Adidas and Wrangler.

With more sale hours, Flipkart’s Big Shopping Days sale ensures we can spend more time perusing and purchasing these deals. Apart from the above-mentioned products, you can expect up to 80% discount across categories including mobiles, appliances, electronics, fashion, beauty, home and furniture.

Features like blockbuster deals that are refreshed every 8 hours along with a price crash, rush hour deals from 4-6 PM on the starting day and first-time product discounts makes this a shopping experience that will have you exclaiming “Sale ho to aisi! (warna na ho)”

Set your reminders and mark your calendar, Flipkart’s Big Shopping Days starts 16th July, 4 PM and end on 19th July. To participate in 80 hours of shopping madness, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Flipkart and not by the Scroll editorial team.