Friday, August 23, 2013

The Kingdom of the Wheeled

This post is written out of sheer frustration. Not one bit is exaggerated.

Please pity the poor Indian pedestrian. Pity her, because nobody cares about her. It doesn't matter if she's walking on the road for exercise, or because she can't afford a vehicle. Is she is out to buy milk for her child, or is she just walking home from work? Either way, nobody cares whether she lives or dies. Because this is the Kingdom of the Wheeled

Let's take the case of an entirely hypothetical young woman.

There she is, walking home from the bus-stop in the evening. She's walking partly for exercise (though it's only a five-minute walk), partly because she thinks travelling by car is the ultimate sell-out. Either way, she feels good walking. She stares up at the darkening sky, she looks at the leaves waving in the wind, she smiles to herself.

The road to her house is better than most roads in India, because it actually has pavements.

Umm... Actually, I should qualify that statement. The pavement's only on one side, and only part of the way. But still, something's better than nothing, right? That's what she tells herself anyway.

Unfortunately, the pavement is on the left side of the road, which forces her to break a cardinal traffic rule, one that's taught to all Indian children right from school. Walk. On. The. Right. Side. Of. The. Road.

As a child, she used to wonder how one could walk on the right side of the road. What was the right side and what was the wrong side? Or did they mean the other right - the 'left and right' right? If that was the right they meant, then wouldn't the right side depend on which side you were facing?

Clearly, she wasn't very bright  as a child. But she grew up, and she figured it out. I'm not sure which one happened first.

So there she is, walking on the left side of the road. There is no concrete pavement on the initial stretch of the road she's walking on. But the road has an unofficial 'mud pavement'. There are occasional fruit-sellers on this unofficial pavement, whose stalls force her to step out onto the road once in a while.

But wait - what is this? An open sewage drain seems to have overflowed, and is spewing its nasty contents out onto the road! She is forced to hop-skip-jump so that she doesn't step on the sewage, all the while trying to avoid the stinking water that passing vehicles want to spray on her.

There - she has crossed the dirty stretch! She is very proud of herself and her nimbleness.

A few more meters of the unofficial mud pavement, and she comes to a blind left corner where there's no pavement at all. She's walking right on the road now, and she keeps looking back to see if there are any vehicles that want to hit her.

Navigating this stretch is a problem for her on the best of days, but on rainy days it becomes worse. Rain water pools up along the edge of the road. Since she's not Jesus and can't walk on water, it's a choice between walking IN the water, and walking on the middle of the road.

Having survived this stretch, she heaves a sigh of relief. A proper broad well-maintained pavement starts now, and stretches all the way to her house. Her steps speed up in anticipation.

But what is this? Her jaw drops open in surprise. The pavement seems to have become a cowshed!

Two cows are sprawled out on the pavement, and their shit stinks up the entire area. Disgusted, she crosses the road to avoid stepping on the cow-shit.

She is pavement-less once again, but at least she's on the right side of the road this time. She walks on, clinging precariously to the muddy edge of the road. A futile white line marks the edge of the road and leaves a tiny area for pedestrians - the vehicles neither see it nor obey it.

The other reason she doesn't like this stretch is the stinking garbage dump on this side. Skirting the pile of garbage takes her onto the road again, so it's a very good thing that she can see the cars coming at her.

Next in this obstacle course is a line of shops. Shops are generally no obstacles, of course. But the cars and scooters of the people who're shopping there take up whatever little space there is for pedestrians. She is again forced onto the road.

But she crosses that stretch and - thank God - it's home sweet home. She turns into the lane that leads to her apartment block. The contrast with the road outside couldn't be starker. Old people gossiping, young mothers chattering, little kids playing.

Here at least, it's the cars that have to be careful. Here at least, the pedestrian rules.
• • •