11 July, 2010

Progress...Indian Ishhtyle

Rain pelted the window in heavy chunky drops. The sound they made on the roof of the bus and the brief clouding of the windows being the only signs that it was actually raining. This was July and peak monsoon time in Mumbai, from where I had boarded a luxury bus to my destination Pune. One part was work and then I was to meet friends. I would be seeing some of them after nearly two decades and hence was excited. Adjusting the seat to recline back my gaze shifted out. How had the time passed…like the cliché…flown by so rapidly? Looking around I realized it was applicable even to the nature of the transport availed now for travel. This was progress certainly or wasn’t it? 

Leaning back I contemplated on this very transport that has taken domestic inter-city traffic by storm; the Volvo bus. They were first launched by the private transport companies and now even the state corporations owned several in their fleet. Quite a leap over the rattletrap buses running on the Indian roads a few years earlier. Public transport was getting better but largely only for a certain class of passengers. The lal ST or the red state transport buses still operated to reach the very interiors of the state. The Volvos only operated between a few major towns and cities but their reach was gradually increasing.

A bump shook me out of my reverie. One of the misplaced badly designed speed breakers for sure. This is the peculiarity of the Indian roads or rather the whole public infrastructure. On one hand we are on our way to building good roads and highways, and today we have a host of good automakers with their models designed for fast road travel. Then on the other hand we don’t allow people to make use of what they have and what has been built with public money for their original intended use. Case in point are these confounded speed breakers. The earlier roads had natural potholes that would miraculously emerge in every monsoon. They limited speed and did not get repaired till the arrival of the next one. Travel between two points on a map in a certain time not only involved skill of driving but also intimate knowledge of where a particular pothole was located to avoid it. There are fewer potholes on newer roads but for them we have speed breakers. 

The Mumbai-Pune expressway stretched across like a snake slithering in the rain as far as the eye could see. It certainly is a remarkable sight. The passenger in my neighboring seat leaning over me looking out said with obvious pride “Isn’t it like foreign?” looking at his glee I was wonder struck at his line. For those of you who are familiar with the colloquial way of speech, we casually refer to anything outside of India as foreign. Now this is a throwback to the times of the permit Raj of the late sixties till the early nineties where imports were illegal or unaffordable. Usage of substandard goods of local manufacture was the norm. Quality was never the benchmark for marketing a commodity or service. I remember a time of using a Staedler eraser gifted by an NRI relative, during my school years. The simple fact that it rubbed off pencil marks without tearing the page was nothing short of magical. The rubber was foreign. Anything good, classy or well designed was tagged foreign. The Mumbai-Pune highway did seem just like foreign; it is an experience that hitherto was not a norm. Our bus did not leak in the rain from outside, it proceeded at a seemingly fast clip and saving that awkward speed breaker went over the minor bumps and potholes with shock absorbing impunity. It also showed a movie to keep the traveler absorbed, yes it was like foreign.

But my eye also took in the unfinished nature of this highway that despite a decade into operation did not come across as safe. An expressway like this had inadequate illumination which would be very dangerous for night travelers, the edges around curves weren’t banked and in portions the edge barriers were broken. I had heard of farm animals straying on to this road resulting in horrible accidents. Do the authorities not see it? I am sure they did going by the signage that dotted this stretch. We in India love our signs. Our signage is not designed to be actually read but serve the purpose of being mere disclaimers. Max speed limit 80km/hr said one…and if you broke this the same authorities equipped with speed guns would bring you to book. Does 80km/hr or 50mph qualify for an expressway speed? We shall build you a road but we do not trust you to use it for its engineered intent. The signs squawked such messages at regular intervals.

We were passing Lonavla, a popular hill station that lay midway between Mumbai & Pune. We had reached this in a fairly acceptable time of 90 minutes and estimated that at this rate in another hour would touch Pune. Then the bus slowed and swerved and making some acrobatic turns wheeled into the parking lot of a rather bright shiny structure. It was a diner owned by the bus company. Apparently this stop was mandatory and was called fuel halt. No bus required to be refueled over this distance but we love our euphemisms. The passenger wallets could be further lightened in the name of convenience. 

People hurriedly made their way to the washrooms and these are areas that have definitely changed for the better. Bright tiles and fairly clean would be the state of most public toilets in these areas but don’t bet on the taps to have running water always. Power outages are frequent and hence the water tanks may or may not get filled.  Hence despite the seemingly clean interiors and better privacy you can still be hit with a stink. It is peculiar to all public toilets in India. We have developed an auto response for holding our breath and letting go at the same time to achieve relief. Yoga is after all an Indian art form and all of us have an inbuilt chip that programs us for superior breath control while we enter our public lavatories.

A cup of tea set me back by Rs.15 and picking up that cup ambled along looking at all that was on display here. It was a visual merchandiser’s paradise. Everything from newspapers, magazines to sweets fudges and even blankets were available here. Yes it was a comfort to see that even on the highway one was not without the familiar brands and consumables that make life bearable for us in the city. After a cool 20 minutes of stoppage the journey resumed.

I dozed off for a while and woke up to see us approach the city from the outside. The first sign of progress is rapid construction and announcing this is the billboard. One after the other they started hitting my line of sight. Reputed builders of the city of Pune announcing projects in places like Wakad, Bavdhan, Aundh, Sus Road, NIBM Kondhwa which to people who know Pune were once villages on the outskirts. These have now become the extended suburbs of the city that is exploding and for want of space is absorbing all that is available around. Two really large developments called Magarpatta and Lavasa were being sold as intelligent cities. But what grabbed my attention were the names on these projects. Windermere, Meadows, Lakeside Chalet, Maple leaf, Whispering woods etc stared at me from the hoardings. Whatever happened to Indian sounding names? Names like  Matru Chahya, Vatsalya, Sneh Vihar ,  Sindh society, Sanewadi are beginning to look like names from a bygone era. Shedding our desi flavor seems to be the flavour of the season. For the world traveled home buyer the new names establish an immediate connect with his global footprint. So what if the Lakeside Chalet is nothing but 3 swanky buildings hosting a multitude of 2 and 3 bed apartments overlooking a culvert with flowing grey waters of the city sewers. The corporation is soon going to redirect the flow of sewage to another spot and then the waters here will be clean is the promise on which the development is marketed. Buy it now as it is going cheap and given the property price appreciation, Lakeside Chalet is completely booked with hopefuls who wait for their clean water view.

While they wait thus after moving into their new apartments, for work they have to travel to the other end of the city. Not to worry,  their developer has told them,  several new flyovers have been constructed and a few more planned. Travel is going to be very easy. In India the flyover is a unique structure and is like no other bridge in the world. This is a decidedly Indian recipe and I recall a friend of mine referring to it as the hump. Hump, now what is that? Have you noticed how Indian flyovers are uniquely planned for a single signal or a junction?  The cities have no dearth of great minds that can reorient the city and its roads along streamlined flows but then who shall work around the bureaucracy. To compound it is a unholy nexus of the encroachers, local politicians, the cops and city officials who allow this mess to fester. No laws can work around as the encroachers have a legal recourse cannon called the ‘Stay Order’. When this is fired all development started can come to a screeching halt. The matter moves to court and nothing moves after that for several years. The flyover has literally been an answer to the prayers of these developers as they now don’t care about the mess below. They fly over it. It is a wonderful solution that suits everybody. No one has eliminated the traffic snarl on the roads, we flyover them to the next junction. We speed over in parts and then go bumper to bumper in others. The Indian flyover is uniquely designed to take you faster to the next traffic jam. The journey time could have reduced but now we have more affluence and hence more cars dot the roads. Well dressed executives sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of their automobiles with either their laptops, blackberries, or the outspread pink financial newspaper, stuck in a jam is a common enough sight. On the way back from work they have FM radio jockeys for company belting out filmy numbers interspersed with loud commercials.

Progressing we are and the pace too is rapid; but our style of progress is distinctly Indian and needs to be understood in its own perspective. This was my thought as I got down at the bus stop that was once called Parihar chowk and now is “McDonalds – Aundh.” 


dotcomgirl said...

Fantastic and so true. Enjoyed the "foreign" comment. I felt like I was on that bus.... hats off!

Please do write more often.... missed your posts!

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

:-) Thank you DCG, had a great time actually doing the journey and then writing about it.

Soul Images said...

Excellent take. I like it! Forces me to reflect, albeit with a smile in parts :)

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

Thank you Gau...if it does then the purpose is served.

eleanor said...

Liked the phrase,'Isn't it like foreign...', so true about the kind of people who say it ! It takes a bus journey to the auto hub of India, to let creative juices flow !

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

welcome back Eleanor...so very true about some phrase or words being the trigger to a thought process