Saturday, April 26, 2008

Flying over

In most countries of the world, driving a car is an exact science. There are some folks who try and defy that, but by and large everyone tries to follow non controversial, low-tech rules like keeping to a lane, showing signals, and so on. In India, driving has been elevated to an art form. And woe betide anyone who thinks otherwise.

I learnt driving in Pune and Mumbai in the late 60's, in what may be called the golden age of driving, with the lumbering Ambassadors and pesky Fiats, and my trial by fire, so to speak, was successfully driving through the Khandala Ghats and navigating the 30 degree turn with a gradient of 60 degrees , without frothing at the mouth, while a truck kept accelerating and breathing behind me. Graduate school in the US introduced me to the science of systematic driving. When you overtook someone in the next lane at 65 mph on the freeway, the possibility of him veering suddenly a centimeter next to you was almost nil.

Notwithstanding all this scientific driving training, on my return, I took to driving in Mumbai, like certain law enforcement people take to paperwork from drivers pockets.

The biggest quantum change in driving in Mumbai has been after 4 things entered the picture. Fancy ,faster, more powerful cars, autorickshaws, flyovers, and the cell phone. The smallest quantum change has been in the road infrastructure offered to the citizens.

Recently, over a month, I had occasion to make daily east-west trips across the same set of roads. A new aspect of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation was visible. It endeavours to train its citizenry to face the unexpected.

The Mumbai Metroploitan Developement Authority (MMRDA) is besotted with flyovers. The whole idea is to modify the mindset of the hassled drivers of Mumbai, as they accelerate over strange gradients without lanes, and zoom to the top in a very cheerful mood, amazed at how wonderful the MMRDA can be.

One of the flyovers I frequent often is one that starts off in the midst of an area with slums , disorganized construction debris and buffalo yards and then kind of zooms across, giving you a lamppost view of the whole of Larsen and Toubro establishment, and then suddenly deposits you where you watch stunned as the Powai lake with its extinct crocodiles, construction debris, silt, the Hiranandani Complex with its upper middle class ethos and style, and the ravaged hills, unfold in a wide angled panorama in front of you.

Don't let all this fool you. Life has not changed for the better. The MMRDA, has for several months, presumably for educative purposes, scrupulously maintained a huge heap of debris at an unlighted spot in the left most lane as you descend the flyover. It impresses the hell out of me when I realise that keeping the rubble heap on the ascending part of the flyover would have made it visible from a distance and destroyed the surprise element , that the MMRDA is at pains to introduce, in an effort to keep motorists down to earth (in more ways than one).

And so there are stoppages. While most vehicles screech to a stop , and then , with a mixture of anger,frustration and despair, kind of push their way right, in a orchestra of ticking indicators, there are some people who make creative use of these places, in a way the MMRDA bosses never imagined.

Late evenings, often find couples on two wheelers parked on either side of the heap, occupying what they think is a choice place for enjoying some interesting moments, with a great view of the silting lake, as various diesel trucks, and container trucks grumpily shuffle,sneeze , agitate, and manoeuvre in the next lane , worried about the unavoidable traffic jam at the end of the lake.

For a country that drives on the left, rules and normal thinking demands that one overtakes from the right. However, maybe as a tribute to the MTV Roadies show, and as an expression of the awareness of the selective myopic vision of the law and order set-up, today the two wheeler non-easy riders. charge in from the left, regardless of buses at bus stops, alighting passengers, embarking passengers, and basically, anybody. It is not unknown for alighting passengers to alight from the front of the bus, with a pose reminiscent of bharat natyam, one hand outstretched, palm facing the motorcycles, the other hand clutching the bus rod, one foot stretched in the front .......with a pleading expression on their tired faces.

The MMRDA also shows great creativity in placing barriers in the middle of a road where some digging is being done. On the same road that I frequented on my trips, one encountered amorphously dug deep ditches of undefined shapes and sizes, surrounded by easily movable metal barriers resembling clothes dryers. Not one for losing an opportunity to make money through advertisements , these barriers were emblazoned with the word "SUVIDHA" . (Faciility). Out of all the things that they could advertise , like cellphones, nearby malls and the like, the choice here was particularly apt. (SUVIDHA is a well known department store in Dadar , a suburb 20 kilometers away). Should you miss noticing the dug ditch, this would be a SUVIDHA(facility) for descending into the nether regions of the earth below Mumbai.

And what can you say about cellphones ? Never has something been used so well to deceive people. Extreme left lanes of flyovers are used today to stop your two wheeler, and attend to calls , telling someone you are twenty miles away from where you actually are. " Hands free " facilitated phones have given a new meaning to speaking to yourself, and i have often marvelled at the sudden profusion of people on two wheelers seriously talking with
elves on the highest point of flyovers (great connectivity), as 500 vehicles whizz past in an hour next to them.

But I deeply admire the autorickshawallah, who parked his axle damaged vehicle next to the heap pf debris on the flyover peak, and napped away amidst the rubble, enjoying the cool night breezes from the lake. The heap was a wonderful barrier from other vehicles, he slept in the sort of fresh air he never inhaled where he lived, and he must have , after the repairs, been tickled to trundle down the slope of the flyover in a natural attempt at starting the autorickshaw, sitting double-seat with his mechanic friend, as they made their way early morning to a wayside stall for cutting chai, quite close to one of the sophisticated star hotels in the area.

This is just a single flyover. It has shape. It has character. And like for any character, it has its flaws. And it continues to be used heavily, heaps, rubble, and all.

It just occurred to me that the ultimate objective of the managers of the city is to make it like say, Shanghai, HongKong, or even Singapore. With its intricate history and successful use of "flyovers, I just hope no one here is thinking about becoming Los Angeles. The overpasses, underpasses, networks, ramps and the like offer unlimited scope for MMRDA's czars who are bent on educating the citizenry with their innovative objects on flyovers.

I shudder at the impending and looming disaster.

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