These streets, they once confused me. A riddled grid, with no familiar landmarks to give me a sense of north or south. And although I drove them with a compass attached to my wrist, I was always, always lost. My trusty map, battered, torn and worn from over-use now barely holds together but still holds all the answers. If only I knew where on the map I am. Street signs are hidden or over-rated but if you live here long enough you know the streets like you know all the rooms of your house. No thinking required. Driving whilst honking, dodging, searching and looking, perplexed me. Frustrated, I was convinced I would never be able to find my own way around without getting lost. It is now six weeks since my arrival and I am still learning the streets but I know my way to the places I frequent. I even know a few different routes. Some street names I know but many I do not. I just know that they lead me to where I want to go and where I want to be.
Here, the streets are where life takes place. All day, all night, there are people, animals, activity, life. Air conditioning is a luxury the majority do not have. Concrete and corrugated iron houses are hot even with a ceiling fan. The streets offer a cool but dusty oasis. People sleep here, wash their bodies and clothes here, cook, sit and beg, talk to neighbours and friends, build things, sell fruit, vegetables and fish, urinate, spit and even dump their rubbish here. Goats, cows and street dogs roam freely, sometimes even pigs. This is their terrain. The traffic clogs its width from dawn to dusk, moving or parked stationary but never quiet and never orderly. Road rules rarely apply. Priority is based on size. Don’t argue with oncoming buses and trucks in “your” lane, just get out of their way, pull off the road if you have to. This is not a fight you want to risk. There is but one goal, and that is to get yourself to your destination any way you can. Leap frog other road users. Get yourself in front. But for all the chaos the dodgem traffic creates, there is surprisingly little speed in the city. The limit of 20 kilometres per hour is more or less abided by if not more liberally interpreted as 30 kilometres per hour.
Driving in morning peak hour, I feel alive, connected, part of the action of this town. This is where the energy is as everyone starts a new day. Bus loads of happy, shiny, children on their way to school create the most chaos. Girls with neatly pigtail plaited hair with big blue bows and boys with oiled hair, almost all of them with decorated foreheads, red spots and white stripes, fill the buses to the brim. Stopping to allow the children to exit, they take up precious space, forcing the traffic to squish together to go around them and sometimes creating a temporary one lane parking lot when there is too much oncoming traffic.
Children, fortunate to have their own bicycles, pedal to their own rhythm, turning out from side streets in front of traffic as if they own the road. Side by side they take up more valuable space on the road, oblivious and careless to the traffic swerving around them. Elderly bicycle rickshaw drivers steadily pedal their heavy loads, passengers or boxes of goods or furniture. Watching them, I feel weary and part of me longs for deep rest, to be free of a heavy load. Cars, scooters and motorbikes dodge the old rickshaws as well as the holy cow often standing in the middle of the road at the most inopportune time. And every morning there is Laskshmi, the elephant, plodding towards the temple on her way to work.
Women, clad in brightly coloured saris, walk the side of the streets, baskets, pots and other heavy parcels balanced easily, even elegantly on top of their heads. They, too, move steadily, not rushed, more obstacles to dodge. Along the canal road, dozens more women sit along the side of the road with their small catches of fresh fish laid out for sale on upturned boxes or sheets on the ground. The fishy stench announces their wares for sale long before their small stalls come into sight. Opposite them, other ladies sit on the ground behind bunches of bananas, guava, apples, pomegranate, custard apples and mangoes laid out for sale.
Sometimes I drive these streets, my purple scarf wrapped around my face and neck, in an often futile attempt to prevent the ever-present dirt kicked up by trucks and buses and cars landing on my skin. A flimsy barrier it may be but it doesn't block out life. Every day, I ride these streets with an open heart, grateful for the dirt, the chaos, the colours, the sometimes unusual sights, the people, the cows, the energy and for this period of time to be on these streets and part of this Indian life.