Thursday, February 19, 2009

crossing roads
Traffic in Delhi will stop at all junctions for 20 seconds every once in a while so that hapless pedestrians can walk across the road instead of waiting for the magnanimity of the traffic constable in the signal cage on the sidewalk or darting through a metallic slipstream risking life and limb.
I am sure all of this is going to fall in deaf ears.

I distincly remember I was defiant as I was once approaching the Ultadanga-Hudco crossing with my darling mom, this was about an year ago when I was in Kolkata. A pedantic empathy for following civic rules made me defiant. Elsewhere I would be just a good samaritan doing stuff the right way; but this is Kolkata my dear friend.

The conventional wisdom suggests the following simple steps to cross such intersections without significant loss of body parts.

1) Spot a physically permissible gap to pass. A valid intersection would be ok but a barrier with a bent rod is equally fine.

2) You cry, pray and beg ... there is no guarantee of life on these streets, but pray so that all the approacing drivers are asked by a divine angel to slow down.

3) Wait ... till they slow down. No point in waiting for the traffic light ... if you happen to be at a crossing ... because it won't ever turn green. After all, on the road it is all about cars; they cost money and ferry men with money.

4) Use your skills of pedastrial jugglery and rush to the other end. The person behind the wheel will inevitably slow down a bit, due to mercy or awe but you can postpone that debate for later. A swindling lane of rapidly changing but varying thickness will emerge between the cars ... think yourself as water, the cars as stones and the sidewalk ahead as salvation. RUN!

This is not hard to master; of course we, the children of this city, learn this trick as a toddler.

5) Make a routine check if you are ok ... if you have time ... otherwise postpone it for the late-night contemplation.

Ma wanted to cross the road just as everyone else does. I wanted to cross the road just as everywhere else it is done. Hudco crossing is one of main entry to EMBypass from north Cal and is extremely well-equipped to fight a mini warfare - traffic lights, guards, guard cages, walkie-talkies, sergeants with scary noisy bikes. An extensive distributed algorithm, enhanced by the wisdom of the traffic guards, makes sure that traffic flows like a smoothie at every juncture. Which amounts to, no more than a 5 min delay at the red light. The incoming and outgoing flanks are too complicated to allow anything better, but cars come in, wait and then eventually go out.

Did I just say "cars eventually go out" ? Right ... this elaborate system ensures smooth flow of traffic, which in the dictionary of Kolkata police (Indian police ? (*)) means vehicles. No bikes please, 4 or more wheels (3 wheeler autos are beyond indictment).

I refused to cross the street like everyone else, hold ma's hand strongly and waited for the signal ... either the one on the post or the one with a pair of legs - really anything would be fine. So we waited ... Buses are not supposed to stop at the crossing. Not a damn for the law but they abide by the sergeant's stare. They don't technically stop but by an immaculate display of acrobatics and timing, manage to fill a completely empty bus. This everytime reminds me of the Olympics relay race; a fraction of a second late and you could be either left stranded on the street or under the wheels. It is really a mystery how everything works. Makes me wonder if we are really programs in some Matrix ?!

So we kept waiting ... There is usually a rule for changing the traffic lights. There is a pattern, and eventually, yes ... theoretically eventually, the light would change to green. Should change to green. I felt like screaming after a while. Could change to green. Doesn't the traffic guard see pedastrians waiting to cross the road ? Forget rules, where hast thou sympathy begone ?

Blah ... after waiting for nearly ... (drum roll beating) 20 minutes, I gave up. I had to give up. I invoked my last rule to break rules in emergency. All kinds of car lanes opened up and I was looking for a magician to change me into a sleek car, any brand is fine.

You see... we are born jaywalkers but even when we try to follow rules, there is so little help from the institution that we are forced back into our slums of disrule. Disobedience is in our blood, our forefathers used that in the pre-1947 days. It will take more than 20 minutes to change the mindset but is anyone even willing to abet ?

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