City City Bang Bang, Columns

Highways of Change?

Roads feel a certain way. Every highway has its own character, its own little quirks. One gets to notice this best when one drives down the same road regularly, but infrequently. As a document of change, the road is quite articulate and travelling year in and out on the same road is instructive, for it helps frame change sharply.

The same does not quite happen in the train for the landscape around railway tracks changes far more slowly. For one, unlike the highway, which is constantly subject to change, both through neglect and design, railway tracks are lines drawn into eternity, and even the landscape around them has an air of settled finality. The rhythmic movement of the train lends an air of comfortable predictability to the experience. The outside is a visual backdrop that rattles by without drawing any attention to itself. On the road, one notices much more and reacts more immediately to a constantly changing context.

Of course, along with the road, one changes too. From a time when the bus was the primary mode of travel to one where becoming in a squished passenger in a squashed car felt like heaven. Then, the car stopped getting stuffed with people, it stopped overheating and breaking down at routine intervals and air-conditioning, that divine human invention made its way into our lives. With time and greater comfort, one also grew more impatient with the slightest inconvenience, so overall, the grumpiness factor in the car did not change significantly. We found newer things to grumble about. Something called legroom, which is never quite enough. And suspension, which is too hard or too soggy.  And of course, other drivers who are cursed colourfully for being reckless road hogs, even when they drive exactly as we do.

In my own case, the road one is most familiar with happens to be the one connecting Delhi with Nainital. From a time when it was a thin rope apologetically wriggling its way through the landscape to now, when for most part, it is a four-lane assertion of self-confident authority, the road has come a long way. Passing through crowded market towns (Hapur and Moradabad in this case) was a nightmarish prospect that was much dreaded and the crossing of which produced celebratory relief. The obstacle course- two major and 2-3 minor level crossings to negotiate, one of which could sometimes take hours to cross. Of course, the logic of level crossings in India is that the most obnoxious behavior gets the most reward. The hunt for toilets was often white-knuckled as the women present in the car could testify. The men, of course, went anywhere. Petrol pumps were very few, and on some stretches, a single miss was enough to guarantee disaster. There were a few places to eat- usually dhabas, some celebrated, others dodgy, the odd shabby government tourist facility, and one enterprising entrepreneur who set up a large complex, complete with almost clean toilets, and a wide choice of attractive but mediocrely cooked food. An option that was usually favoured was to carry packed meals. This meant that a shaded spot by the side of the road was found and an elaborate meal laid down on some bedsheets.

Of course, the modern has brought with it, its own set of obstacles. The level crossings have virtually disappeared, but they have been replaced by the equally diabolical device called the toll booth. A toll booth is a breakdown in conversation. It is an invitation to collapse. A spectacle of chaos, argument and in some cases, gunfire. People cut into lanes, honk impatiently at the vehicle in front, and find reasons why they are too important to have to pay the toll. Of course, the builders of highways rarely account for the fact that when fast moving traffic encounters a dead stop, a pile up is inevitable. As a result, the time saved by building better roads and eliminating level crossings is frittered away in the time we take to pay for all the above improvements. The toll booth takes away what the shiny new highway gives, and progress is successfully thwarted.

The toilet situation has improved significantly, and this is a big improvement. However, the availability of toilets and the usability of said facilities are not always aligned. There is a curious Indian indifference to toilets, and it is not uncommon to come across spanking new structures that stink gloriously. For women, every new toilet experience is an expedition into the olfactory unknown, and the person who goes first becomes the reluctant pioneer for the rest.

But overall, with time, the highway journey has become easier., Although most journeys continue to be punctuated by sights of impossibly mangled vehicles even now, four-lane roads have made travel a little safer. Some of the comfort also comes from being able to leap over reality- flyovers that skirt the issue, and bypasses that take the long way around nowhere. Unlike an expressway, which skims over reality and sidesteps habitation and where all dialogue with the emotional landscape of the country ceases, traditional highways in their spruced-up avatar, produce a hybrid form of reality- some intense contact with civilization peppered with long periods of abstinence. But even with these, over a period of time, highways make people disappear. Eventually, everything becomes a blur of metal on tar.

The highway experience has become more ordered, within the bounds of the kind of order India is capable of producing. It has gained in comfort what it has lost in texture, but on the whole, things are far easier. The time it takes to reach the edge of the urban has stretched significantly. Reaching the great wide open, with fields luxuriating in space without getting hemmed in by a building of some sort now can take close to a couple of hours. But the feeling of release when one does finally hit the open road, continues to be as exhilarating as it always was.

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