Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Life and the Road: Celebrating the life-affirming principles of India’s streets

Speak with the expatriate white folk living in India, an NRI, or similar people, and you will invariably hear an unending litany of complaints about the state of our roads and the manner in which people drive. The situation is described as uncivilized; chaotic, annoying, life-threatening and deadly. And indeed, from time to time it may be. India does have a rather high level of deaths from road accidents. Figures suggest that almost one Goan dies every day on Goan roads, no insignificant figure. I would however, like to present an alternate view of our roads and notions of transport by contrasting two perspectives. The first is one that sees roads and transportation from what I would call a life-affirming perspective, the other the death perspective.

The thoughts expressed in this column occurred to me as I drove through Panjim city, an unwilling occupant of a Tata Safari. Hulking above all of the other traffic in the city, the driver sitting next to me was impatient to unleash the power of the vehicle on the road. Unfortunately, the rest of the universe seemed to conspire against him. People crossed the road, cycles meandered from one lane to another, other vehicles wove in and out of lanes. Life in all its manifestations was spilling out onto the streets interrupting the realization of his dream of smooth and speedy traffic. Slowly negotiating through the crowds was not an option, a speedy movement away was the goal.

What we have here is exactly the conflict between the life affirming perspective and that of death. One perspective seeks the roads as the space to make connections; commercial, social, even amorous. It stresses connectivity, and asserts that time is not of essence. On the contrary, a surfeit of time works to cement these connections. In this happy street scenario, the driver too is invited to participate; smiling, squabbling even, encouraging an obstruction out of his way. Moving, but always engaging as he does so.

The dominant logic regarding roads however sees roads as potential highways. In doing so, it unfortunately asserts a logic of disconnection. Roll up your glasses, block out the external environment, (don’t forget to turn on the AC!) and move speedily from one point to another. The road is the space to indicate your power, and the vehicle and its speed the manner to indicate it. To be sure, if the driver of the Safari bought the death perspective, it was not the driver to blame, but the situation that he found himself while sitting behind that driver’s wheel. The machine is constructed to push life aside and head resolutely towards its destination. We are encouraged through so many mechanisms – advertisements being one major force – to understand all roads as highways. Vehicles and transport are to be understood primarily in this manner. It is little wonder then, that we have so many deaths on our roads. The roads have been constructed to kill, not just physically, but socially, culturally and economically as well.

We should remember the international origins of the modern highway lie in the history of the German autobahn. Wide and smooth, they were built to facilitate automobile travel and to exclude older forms of travel. Though embraced by the Nazi administration, the dream of the autobahn seduced all of the industrial world, since it promised the realization of the industrial dream. In this dream everything (including humans) were seen as machines, worthy of existence only if they could produce to feed the economy. Habitations were seen as production centres where humans worked as machines, or tended machines that produced. Roads connected one production centre to another, and the landscape, no matter how challenging, was to be domesticated to aid this larger project of production (and consumption). The fervour with which the industrial world embraced the idea of the highway suggests to us that the fascist dictatorships of Europe were only the more pernicious forms of industrial society. There is something terribly wrong with the industrial model itself that demands the death of social relations, and shoves aside the slow and the weak. This internal logic is made manifest for us to read through the design of highways and the manner we are urged to consider all roads, highways.

For those familiar with the grand highways of Europe and the US, you will know that there is no life around these highways. Indeed the life that dares enter these zones winds up dead, as roadkill. The commerce on the highway is in the form of the anonymous hospitality of corporate chains, serving uniform, unhealthy food. There is a pattern here we must not miss.

In India on the other hand, as so many of these Europeans tell us, we don’t have highways. We don’t have highways since life in all its glory explodes onto these zones and domesticates these potentially cold, anonymous, dignity-denying spaces. The accidents that we see on Indian roads are the result of the inevitable conflict between these two perspectives. It is a conflict between those that affirm life, and those that have decided to run over it. The accidents are also the logical result of the death perspective, that is built on a negation of human values and of human unpredictability. When human error does manifest itself on these highways, or even roads polluted by the autobahn logic, the number of deaths are catastrophic. These deaths are the most evident cost of the industrial common sense that insists on a machine existence.

From within the death affirming principle of industrialism, surely our roads are a huge mess and a death trap. However, if we embrace the life-affirming perspective it is possible that we would begin to see roads, vehicles and travel from an entirely different point of view! Civilization at the end of the day needs to be geared toward the recognition of life, not its negation.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 2nd Sept 2009)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, very interesting post, greetings from Greece!