Saturday, December 27, 2003

Traffic muse

I think I’ve spent half my life in traffic. Ever since I found out that all my interests lay on the other side of town, I’ve been getting on the bike and getting to these places. Invariably, it would take no less than half an hour to reach any place. I’ve ridden on so many kinds of bikes: starting from bicycles to motorbikes and the feel of being in traffic has become second nature to me. Since I spent so much time in transit, I had a lot of time to think about things, and I once even developed a whole philosophy based on Taoism related to traffic. I’ve forgotten most of it now, except that it paid great attention to watching the flow of vehicles and anticipating every thing. I’d gotten so good that I could predict which way a vehicle in front of me was going to turn even before they switched on the indicator. I developed rules of safety applicable only to two wheelers; rules such as: always stay diagonally behind the big vehicles such as trucks and buses; never assume that just because the signal turns red that the people going in the opposite direction are going to stop. The cardinal sin was not being prepared for others’ mistakes; one always has to take into account the cascading effect- somebody brakes suddenly and soon everybody’s braking. By always flicking my eyes ahead, always scanning around I try to make sure that I’m not caught off guard. After many years of practicing these techniques, I can now travel in the city almost on autopilot.
So when I came back to Bangalore after a gap of two years, - two years without touching a moped- I was apprehensive about riding the streets again. Traffic in Bangalore is not easy to describe. I remember in Israel, people used to complain about traffic jams, but they don’t realise that even traffic jams are orderly there. In India, vehicles don’t pile up linearly, they are jammed in every order possible, and getting oneself extricated from a jam is really a test of nerves and patience. The two wheelers have an easier time, because they can fit into tight corners and somehow make their way through the snarl, but the larger vehicles, cars and trucks, etc, are simply stuck and have to wait till a space clears up. And the snarl is always accompanied by honking, resulting in an atmosphere more reminiscent of a particularly loud and noisy fair. I don’t know if it’s my impression or the reality, traffic in Bangalore has become harder to navigate. Crossroads that didn’t even have a signal now have a policeman in attendance. A lot of one-ways have suddenly appeared, depriving me of my cherished routes home. Fly-overs have multiplied as well, which can be construed as a Good Thing, but I have my own qualms. And the design of Bangalore-originally intended as a residential city, i.e., a place one retires into- hasn’t helped the explosion of vehicles. Bangalore is simply not designed as a metropolitan city, and now its facing crises that are normally seen in bigger cities. Still, they are talking about a fast local train system, but it has to be above ground otherwise there would too much to dig up, and it has been in the works for so long that I don’t know when it will ever happen.
Despite all these changes, a week on the roads put me right back on track. Maybe riding a bike in traffic is like swimming- you never forget the techniques. You just have to wait and try your hand it for a bit, and it all comes back to you. And the best part is that I’ve rediscovered my thinking time. Like other people use walks and jogging tracks to spend a little time thinking in solitude, I use the bike. In the chaos of the vehicles swirling around me, I find that the thoughts appear just a little clearer and the connections just a little cleaner. Maybe I’ll finally break the writer’s block that has jinxed me for the past two years.