In India the word “bad” doesn’t hold much meaning. For a country of 1.2 billion there’s not much room to move, which means a lot of traffic and a lot of faith. A spectacle that the many street dwellers get to absorb day after day. Today I am enveloped in this spectacle.
One tiny speck walking among a horde of humanity, I amble along the main road adjacent to the Ganga River in Varanasi. As I approach a large chowk (square) near the bazaar, the traffic thickens. Rickshaws and bicycles putter along at pedal pace, about the speed traffic usually moves. Helmetless motorcyclists—rarely one, usually two, three, four or more to a motorcycle—weave in and out among clunky cars. Unfit for these roads, these moving boxes of steel and glass are dimpled, scratched and worn with the weight of traffic that pushes up against it, but rarely seriously dented. Even more beat up are the autorickshaws, their eager drivers always with one eye on the road, one on the throng of potential customers walking alongside.
Human traffic is only half of the equation. Suicidal dogs zip in between the whole mess of vehicles and people, packs of monkeys occupy the airspace, scampering along loosely strung telephone wires—like bands of gypsies they always seem to be evading stones from cursing street merchants below.
Whether it’s because they know they’re considered sacred and protected by law, because of their calm demeanor, or a bit of both, the cows are the only ones completely unfazed, sitting like roadblocks in the middle of the street or lumbering along the sidelines rooting through trash.
I take three steps forward, sidestep around stopped cars. Forward again. Stop. Back up to avoid getting smacked by an auto. Lurch around a moped that just pulled in front and slowly arrive at the chowk.
Without traffic lights, the multirhythmic mass of humanity, cattle, doggerel, steel, glass and rubber fends for itself. Like molecules of water making their way through a drain clogged with hair and grime, the vehicles all come together from different directions, ebbing and flowing around each other, always within inches. It may be a slow affair, but with a lot of eye contact and some shouting and honking, eventually everyone gets through. A task that is easily completed in most countries, in India demands a merging of minds and the skill of an all-star Tetris player.
Half step by half step I follow single file behind a man and a woman. Our little pedestrian clump faces the turnabout. We get a quarter of the way through until we’re forced in the middle of complete gridlock, layers of vehicles surrounding us. For twenty seconds the man in front directs traffic around him. It is up to him to break the gridlock. He does then passes through. The woman takes his spot as traffic cop and waves a couple of vehicles along before making her way. My turn through the crush. I give a motorcycle the green light, hold up my hand to another and scoot past, smiling at the small role the pedestrian plays in moving traffic along.
Organized chaos. A term that aptly describes India in a lot of ways. A paradox that Mother India alone can sort out. I look at a cow lying on the street as motorcycles whiz by within inches of it. If it had feathers not a single one would be ruffled. Who needs traffic lights when you have this majestic reminder of peace? Sacred Nandi directing traffic—not stop and go, turn left or turn right, but be peaceful and remain calm, accept the traffic or stay at home. It’s a “system” that more or less works.
Not even a month later I was at that same intersection, except this time it was completely different. Like pumped up thoroughbreds at the starting line, row upon row of revved up traffic was waiting at a stoplight. Where once there was organized chaos, now there is a mechanical pilot telling people where to go, what to do. Telling the multitude how to live their lives as separate beings no longer needing to embrace the wonder of coherence. Is this progress getting the green light or religion getting slammed on the brakes? If cows could speak I think they’d say their time here is done.
Read another India travel article in WILD LIFE: Making friends with Nature in India>>