The amazing traffic

I just finished reading Maximum City by journalist turned author Suketu Mehta but this post is not its review. If I had to put my impression of the book in a few lines: It's a brilliantly researched piece of work, an effort that more than succeeds in bringing to us the dirty truths behind bomb blasts and the ensuing riots of 1993, the fine structure of Bombay underworld with its political and judicial affiliations, the seedy underbelly of the seemingly unending red-light behavior of the creeking megalopolis and its insistent fight for resurgence in the form of honesty, zest, and the will to survive. It's a very good book. But I wouldn't want to read it again. If only I could, I would have reversed my act of reading it. The easiest way by which truth manages to be stranger than fiction is by being more gruesome; and unfortunately for me, I never enjoy reading about the fine nuances of 3rd degree. Like everyone else, there is a pervert in me but it never raises its head to witness brutality. So Maximum City has been a bit of a drag really, especially after Orwell's 1984. John Wright's 'Indian Summers' was a welcome relief. To undo the effects I have started yet again on my absolute favorite, Catch-22 :).

Coming to the point of the post, Mehta mentions that traffic fatalities have actually decreased in Bombay in the last two decades and I would be surprised if that was not the case in every major city in India. It's an unintended fallout of city streets which are more crammed than ever before. The average city speeds have come down and people can basically stop from 20 to 0 in the space of a 50 paise coin. It's difficult to inflict major injuries at 20. It's a nightmare at 0. All you can do is take out your machete and start hacking away but I do not see any particular incentive for doing it either. And I don't see anyone else brandishing anything even remotely similar to a Rampuria. So obviously, fatalities are almost non-existent given the crawling speeds and an unexplainable disinclination in people for road-rage induced homicide.

All seriousness aside, it's awesome, spine chilling fun driving in Lucknow and it's humbling when you try to analyze how the hell everything just works. I am not trying to be an apologist for Indian traffic. I am genuinely amazed by its intelligence. It should not work. It just shouldn't. But it works and it works like a charm. It's a living, breathing organism with the IQ of a Nobel laureate. Forgive me for the comparison but it seems to have the sloth of Yokozuna but in fact has the nimbleness of 1-2-3 kid. Things get rearranged in matter of milliseconds. It's so well internalized you do not appreciate how this complex machinery is working. One small glance, a minute gesture, and the turning car would slow down ever so slightly so that it could turn with a decreased radius and you scrape past. And that small action simultaneously kickstarts a huge chain of reactions where every single one of the 70 adjoining units including cars, motorcycles, scooters, pedestrians, rickshaws, trucks, dogs and cows moves, accelerates, breaks, stops, shifts, turns, honks, swears, barks and moos to account for the new equilibrium. It's brilliant.

Contrary to what people think, I feel that the traffic in India is extremely polite and forgiving and it never makes you feel that you are being done any favor. It's noticeable when one tries to cross a busy intersection. It's impolite and impassable only for those who feel that they will get run over if they wade in. Once you start inching forward and basically hold your ground without making any sudden movements, the traffic adjusts itself to allow you room. It breezes past you from all sides but acknowledges that you have a right to your territory and it never tries to intimidate you out of it. Then you move some more.

After a bit of driving my scooty around in the particularly 'undisciplined' Lucknow traffic, I have noticed another interesting fact about it. There are very little, if not, no sudden movements. A mathematician would have described the multitudes of vehicular trajectories on a Lucknow road as smooth. Continuous and Differentiable. That is another reason why there aren't more accidents. Many more.

I know it's a nightmare for anyone who has to face the inconveniences of such traffic conditions everyday and I can only offer my sympathy but as someone who has lost a bit of touch with ground realities, having spent the bulk of his time in the tamed and monotonous precincts of a foreign country, there is a part of me that cannot help but marvel at the brilliant organism that Indian traffic is. The news is rife with hatred and regionalism and violence. They say that the country is breaking down engulfed in its own seething anger and suffocating corruption. They have been saying the same thing for as long as I can remember. India sags a bit, loses its way slightly, shrugs, corrects itself, and moves again. Like its traffic, it works. Against all odds.


To Lucknow

I am really sorry for this long hiatus in posting and I hope that all my readers; nearly both of you; would consider my apology in light of the fact that I became slightly busy in the process of coming to India. I understand that I had lamented about rants and reminiscences in only my last post but I hope that you will understand that this trip has the strongest undercurrents of nostalgia running underneath and that obvious comparisons between U.S. and India by a mind as narrow as mine are bound to leave a slightly sour taste in the mouth every now and then; every here and there.

My father has had a recent transfer to Lucknow from Haldwani so Lucknow is the place I have the pleasure of spending my month in. It is the city where I had spent, as they say, the prime of my years. Starting as an immature 12 year old cricketing away on dusty Sunday afternoons and glorious January mornings to an immature 18 year old cricketing away on dusty Sunday afternoons and glorious January mornings, I spent the most unburdened part of my life in this city that, to me, has always had the allure of being slightly more sedated, more laid-back and more sleepy than pretty much any other place I have lived in. It had what the French would call 'je ne se qua'. It quivers with the energy of sloth and trembles with the vitality of snores and wakes up under the full bodied noon-Sun yawning and rubbing its eyes and cursing the heavenly cycle for having invented sunlight. It is a spectacularly inept piece of machinery that provides no respite whatsoever to its dwellers. Things might not be as bad as Kanpur or Bangalore but my city has its moments. And I have realized it time and again every time I had to press on the sides of my miniscule scooty to compress it just that little bit so that I could squeeze it into that small gap between that Rickshaw with the Aunt haggling over 2 rupees and that bicycle whose owner doesn't seem to believe in the philosophy that the right of way in India is directly proportional to the size of the engine between your legs. I have a strong conviction that the city has its parallels in John Cleese's Basil Fawlty. It would do all well if not for its residents. But the residents are the headstrong sorts. They would spot every available inch of space with a brick, at least of equal size, if not bigger and when they have finished building over all the free space and when they have zoomed to heights curtailed by government regulations, bribe budgets, and sorry foundations, they would, furtively, encroach a bit of the public road when no one is looking and then they would take out their Hyundaes and Toyotas and Hondas and double up on the road and basically not go anywhere. And no one seems to mind. Placid, quiet, serene, they all seem to have attained nirvana. They are at peace with a city that, in all its commotion, somehow keeps ticking. Ever so slowly, teetering on the brink, it's alive. And I'm really proud of it. Not because it manages to do what every city in India finally does but because buried just beneath the surface, lying dormant, is the oft repeated notion of a rich cultural past and a sober assimilative history. Lucknow has long had comparable populations of Muslims and Hindus. I feel proud of the fact that the city has never played host to any significant religious fundamentalism.

While in college too, I kept visiting Lucknow every year over the Summer holidays witnessing to my ever increasing muted disapproval the 'thinning' of the old crowd as they dispersed in search of greener pastures. I looked scornfully at every new flyover that botched up the pristinely chaotic landscape, every effort at modernizing any shop that I used to frequent while I was a school kid, and every new statue that that stupid, dumb, trainwreck of a woman, Mayawati erected in her honor. Then my father got transferred to Haldwani and I have not really had a decent stay in the city for 4 years if not 8.

So here I am back again after so many years. Things look about the same. Just more tightly packed together. More half finished flyovers and more road side barbers snipping away at more unshaved faces. More bikes with 25 more CCs dodging more cows and more Indicas. More sweet shops with more people working in them than needed and more rules for buying 250 grams of Jalebi. Coupons and tokens and lines and haggling and ultimately no-lines and more haggling. Huge advertisements rising up into the sky as you traverse a completed freeway. They promise you a better life with beautiful cars and beautiful homes and beautiful locales and beautiful girls. And they hide the sky behind. Then you look down and see a mad sea of ambitions and emotions and dreams heartbreaks all uniformly packed into every square inch of habitable area. Not much seems to have changed really. It's nice to be back.

About Me

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Like a particularly notorious child's tantrums, a mountaneous river's intemperance, a volcano's reckless carelessness and the dreamy eyes of a caged bird, imagination tries to fly unfettered. Hesitant as she takes those first steps, she sculpts those ambitious yet half baked earthen pots.