The day I first arrived in Delhi over a decade ago, the rickshaw my friend and I were in tipped over and landed both of us on the floor. It still bothers me slightly that I can’t remember whether or not we paid the man for our few successful metres before running away; it wasn’t his fault he lives in a mad, mad country of unstable vehicular reality and impressionistic trajectories; he would have preferred to have remained upright, too.
It’s a cliché to mention the state of India’s roads; the chaos, the madness, the fatalism of everyone involved, the wandering pachyderms, the goats, dogs, pigs, the skinny bovines dawdling among tuk tuks and the honking of drivers, but (as with even the most personal of digestion adventures) roadside views remain an endlessly interesting topic for dinner conversation.
It quickly becomes clear that the use of the horn in India (as in much of Asia) is quite unlike its use in England or most other western countries. Rather than pressed as a sign of affront or emergency expulsion in dire circumstances (you slam your hand on the beep when you realise the lorry which hasn’t seen you is about to clip your bumper or pull in in front of you), the horn in India is a constant. Its meaning is less alarmist, more matter-of-fact; it doesn’t mean ‘watch what you’re doing!’, it means ‘watch what I’m about to do’. The horn says ‘Call me crazy, but I think I’d like to be in your lane, so rather than pull in behind or in front, I’ll simply merge into your lane horizontally, and I’m actually doing it right now – hope we don’t die – sorry not sorry la la la.’
In Vietnam (especially Hanoi), I was told to see the mopeds as water; they weave and flow and as a pedestrian you simply walk and hope they divert around you. My friend stood frozen on the pavement, unable to see a route from A to B across the violent wash of metal and zipping rubber, and we both learned to simply GO. It’s very graceful – a graceful noise and self-abandonment – and works. No one wants to kill you; they work around your straight lines. The worst thing is to be unpredictable. If you hesitate, or falter on the roads, you ruin it for everyone. Improvisation can’t work around a chaotic base line; your direct steps are the rhythm which the drivers’ symphony is altered around.
Yet, in these places, road rage seems non-existent. Every few seconds something happens that would cause in England a driver to slam on his brakes, step out of his car and shake a fist at the perpetrator. Unthinkability is the name of the game; feel like pulling out in front of ten bikes? Brill. Want to stop suddenly on a highway to rethink your route? Totally up to you. It’s fascinating to me to watch how unaffected by the actions of others Indian drivers seem. Their faces are as serene as their actions are quick; it’s inspiring. (I always find a lack of road rage an essential trait in a man, incidentally. What’s more boring than anger at the mistakes of others? I have a friend who simply chuckles to himself softly when drivers try tricks and fail to get ahead when merging, etc., and it’s one of my favourite things about him.)
There are many ways of getting from one place to another here in India, from elephants (something I would no longer feel comfortable doing, though I am glad to have experienced it in the past both in India and Thailand; feels too much like animal slavery to me now) to local buses (open sided in the sweltering heat [heaven when moving with a breeze, hell when stopping to let people on or off, or for 15-20 unexplained minutes only after which you realise you could have got off and bought water/snacks], squeezed next to a beautifully saree-d woman who tells you that the Kerala backwaters are below sea level and completely flooded during monsoon season, that she is from a local place that sounds like ‘Coconut’ and who gives you within 5 minutes the hand-written mobile number of her brother who is a driver and who I can contact for any help whatsoever within India if I have any problems with anything ever at all anywhere whatever I like. She is disappointingly replaced after a while by a man who sits heavily down next to me grunting an offer of water (albeit a surprisingly sweet and promising start), which I refuse, but then falls asleep leaning heavily against me and with his bare foot pressed against my leg [he doesn’t feel a need to wear shoes]).
One of the most spectacular methods of traversing I have witnessed was at Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. I went to a night ceremony, which is a daily ritual and an absolute honour to experience. Each night, the statue of Shiva is put to bed with the statue of his wife, Parvarti (under the guise of her manifestation, Meenakshi). This bed chamber ceremony represents the gods’ need to rest at night, and is a way of seeing them off for a good sleep. Their refreshment is encouraged, too, throughout the day; they are woken during a daily morning ritual and given fresh clothes, revamped and revitalised to renew them for another long day of inspiring their devotees.
It’s only right, of course, that he should have to travel to her. Meenakshi waits for Shiva in her shrine, and he is conveyed while she waits for him to come to bed, which is made of pure silver. At 9.15pm each evening (though the time can widely vary; even the gods here are whimsical) his imminent escorting is first signalled by bells, then by the frantic, excited calling of holy men whose role it is to ensure that things go smoothly (I think). He is wafted down the halls of the temple, laps the glorious temple room, where he pauses to be serenaded by musicians, passes the shrine of Ganesh, his son, stopping there to ‘say goodnight’ and to be fanned once more (you only get the tiniest possibility of a glimpse through the curtains under which he is hidden, which blow and slightly part in the breeze; the possibility of a sighting builds excitement). He is followed by hundreds and hundreds of Hindus, who want to bid him goodnight and wish him good rest, and to receive the boon of his presence; the temple is packed with colour and urgency, with men who prostrate themselves at the places he has touched and women who go halfway; both picking up any remaining jasmine flowers which are strewn among the mandalas patterned on the floor at high-energy points, fashioned with the ash from the constant burning of incense. I found the whole thing enormously moving, and also something of a life goal; I wouldn’t mind this level of ceremony each time I decide to retire to my marital bed.
‘The king was childless and sought an heir for the kingdom. Shiva granted him his prayers through an Ayonija child (one born not from the womb). This child was three years old and actually the incarnation of goddess Parvati the consort of Shiva. was born with fish-shaped eyes and an extra breast . It was said that the extra breast would disappear when she met her future husband. She was named Meenakshi, (meaning fish eyed) from the words meen (meaning fish) and akṣhi (meaning eyes). Meenakshi also means “the one who has eyes like that of a fish”. Fishes are said to feed their younger ones with their eyes, similarly goddess looks after her devotees. Just by her sight our miseries disappear. She grew up to be a Shiva-Shakti personification. After the death of the king, she ruled the kingdom with skillful administration. In one of her expeditions she went to the Himalayas and there, on seeing Shiva, her extra breast disappeared. Many of the gods and goddesses came to witness their marriage.’
I love a good love story.
I am trying to take photos with my eyes rather than always with my camera…. But the following are some hastily-snapped mobile-phone glimpses, unedited and frantic: