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'That is your problem'
Negotiating a few odd personal interactions is not the main priority for a visitor here. More pressing is going three blocks without getting killed. It's a toss-up whether two feet or three wheels are more perilous. An auto rickshaw trip (a.k.a. tuk-tuk) is a remarkable ride, although if it happened at Disneyland you could probably sue for millions. On Indian roads everyone is engaged in an endless game of tandoori chicken. Nobody wants to give an inch, everyone is leaning on the horn, everybody is crammed together like sperm in a test tube, and just when you don't think there's space for another vehicle your driver suddenly hits the brakes as a rambling cow lurches in from the left. Why not? At least their horns are the silent type.
Sometimes the confusion pays dividends. Today I was on a bicycle rickshaw passing through one of the Jaipur city gates. Just ahead was a sort of cargo bike with a flatbed full of burlap sacks. My driver scooted up behind it and, reaching down to a hole in one of the burlap sacks, pulled out a handful of the contents — peanuts, which he then offered to me. Air Canada doesn't even do that on domestic flights anymore.
India, as Indians love to point out, is the world's largest democracy. Yet being here can be like gazing into the abyss, an alternate reality of ultimate chaos — things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world and all that. Understandably, such talk can make Indians rather defensive. Some, like Shankar, whom I met outside a Delhi temple as we watched a group of poor families receiving leftover temple offerings, will lecture on the failings of the West. "You no longer believe in God," he told me. "That is your problem. So your families break apart."
But others will make the simple remark that I hear from a shopkeeper in Udaipur as I stand on the stoop of his store, squeezed over by an astounding crush of people and smoke-belching vehicles that jam a narrow lane created long before the invention of tuk-tuks and Toyotas. It's a line that acknowledges the near-constant chaos and difficulty while implying that, after all, things do work out well enough — a line delivered with a shrug after the man takes note of my incredulous reaction to the traffic jam playing out before us. "This is India," he says.
Steve Burgess, who writes a regular column for The Tyee, has just returned from India and other destinations. You can find his first article on Bangkok in Pique's March 7 issue.