Saturday, 22 August 2015

Let go and live

I drive the highways often. It allows my body and mind to find spaces that I have lost in the city. It allows me to explore the fourth and the fifth gear in my car.

A bit more than a decade ago, the highways were outside my comfort zone. It is not as if I didn’t drive from City A to Town B then, but then that was only when I really needed to.

Those were the days when the highways belonged to the taxi, bus and truck drivers. In short, the terrain outside the city, then, belonged to the professional drivers – the guys who sat at an angle behind the wheel in Ambassador cars and drove with one foot on the accelerator and one finger on the horn. Those were the days when the highway dhabas were patronised by professional drivers, and they had not become travel destinations reviewed in Zomato and Burrp. Rocky and Mayur had not made their television presence.

The Golden Quadrilateral, along with the arteries connecting the north and south, east and west, changed it all. In September 2004 my Maruti 800 quivered with excitement as I raced her along the as yet incomplete arm of the Quadrilateral between Vijayawada and Chennai.

These new highways allow us to find space that we have lost in our cities
The neatly laid out four-lane roads have opened a new getaway opportunity for many like me. No booking train tickets in advance, or searching for the budget seat in a budget airline. No anxious wait facing the tatkal webpage. Just pack up and drive.

The divider separating the traffic flow gives wannabe rally drivers like me adequate protection. We don’t need to dodge the accelerating car heading straight for us before squeezing itself back into its lane. We don’t need to worry about the truck lights blinding us at night.

However, there is something that I worry about all the time driving on these four-lane roads. I check my rear-view mirror far too often. I feel more like a historian rather than a futurologist driving the highways nowadays. I am especially alert when going past a slow-moving vehicle in the adjacent lane. I check the mirror once, twice, to see if there is a smart driver trying to weave through the shrinking space between my car and the other vehicle.

On the highway I am reminded of the amusing title that Rama Bijapurkar gave to her book describing the choices of the Indian consumer – We are like that only. The smart driver does not want to slow down for those few seconds to allow me to pass. It is a dangerous game of get-ahead-at-any-cost. The cost, in this case, can be the lives of all of us in the three vehicles.

In today’s world we love not to wait. Waiting is for misfits, failures and laggards. We are impatient and successful. We want progress – here and now.

Bijapurkar’s book title may need some change if we are to describe our social behaviour in the recent years. It would be more appropriate to describe it by saying We have become like that only.

In 1987, I had moved to the metropolitan New Delhi from the sleepy, laid-back town (then) of Thrissur. The size, scale and intensity of the city hit me on arrival. The peppy Maruti 800 had started scampering on the Indian roads a few years ago and the agile squirrels were slowly replacing the staid Ambassadors and Premier Padminis. Every Kapoor, Thomas and Kidwai who could own one had one.

Having gone to Delhi from the quieter Thrissur, there was something that surprised me those days. And this was at the red light of the traffic signals. After the traffic had stopped and backed-up on the broad roads, there would invariably be at least one M-800 that would squeeze its way and go and stop ahead of everybody else.

What provoked this almost obsessive one-upmanship behaviour?, I used to wonder. Living the city and its social, cultural and economic environment for the next five years gave me an understanding to this question.

Those were the years when Delhi was breaking the boundaries of economic growth. It was building and consolidating on the kick-start of the development activities initiated for the 1982 Asian Games. Enterprise was oozing from every street.

Those who were driving this growth were men and women whose grandparents had been stripped of their property and dignity and had to move to Delhi as refugees. These families worked hard to survive and grow out of poverty. And in the process it was perfectly acceptable to get that one step ahead of the others. What if that business deal or contract that you have worked hard for is only for one person? You certainly would want to be ahead of everybody else. Yours had to be the lone M-800 ahead of the others at the traffic signal.

From metropolitan Delhi I moved to metropolitan Madras (it was not Chennai yet) in 1992. Change again. There were less M-800s in Chennai, which was still in the Ambassador, Bajaj Chetak and TVS 50 age. There was no upstart trying to get ahead of the others at red lights. In fact, the Chennai drivers wanted to be safer than safe and slowed down even as the light turned amber.

The highways I drive today are located south of Chennai. But the behaviour that I see on the roads is similar to that I had seen in Delhi decades ago. At tollgates all too often there would be a car who would come from the side and squeeze into the lane right in the front.

Delhi has spread to all parts of the country. In the past 25 years, the game of one-upmanship has been promoted. This is a result of the very premise on which economic liberalisation has been built on – promoting consumerism. The way to a person’s wallet, or credit card, has been by reaching to him as an individual. Exclusivity sells.

This premise has its benefits. When everybody in the country takes care of himself/herself then the country takes care of itself, is the argument in its favour. Growth and mobility brings in energy into people’s lives. Growth also brings a belief in being in control of one’s lives, adding impatience when something small goes away from the script. It also brings a sense of insecurity – will one be able to continue on a trajectory of growth, always.

So when the smart driver sees my car closing the space between the slow moving vehicle and me, he wants to squeeze through. I could slow him down. Or, I could reach before him at the tollgate. 

My rear-view mirror is my protection. I do not want to be a collateral damage in his impatience.

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