Driving for God: Taxis and Theology

Religious radiators and godly trucks, sweeping up karma and stifled by dust ­– motoring madness and verdant oases on my first few rides through town.

After many attempts, I reached my contact at the South Asian Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS), who confirmed their phone company was problematic.  On Tuesday the ECC office ordered a taxi, I rigorously checked the passenger seat belt, and was off for a wild 1.5 hour ride.  Only occasionally did I brace myself for imminent collision.  Like my first walk down the street, it was sensory overload again and – sometimes – faster.  To cope with the visual chaos and notice more than a blur, I tried to focus on one thing at a time, such as trucks, clothing, or shops.

Religion is everywhere.  My Catholic driver Thomas had a Jesus statuette on the dashboard, the auto rickshaw driver he asked for directions a “Give glory to Jesus” sticker.  One bumper proclaimed “Trust in Lord with all your heart”, another “Jeses never fails”.  Hindu vehicles display the OM sign like a distorted cursive 30 on their windscreens, and pictures of their favourite god.  Perhaps Krishna sweetly playing his flute amid the strident tooting, or Shiva brandishing his Trident like spiritual bull bars.  Many trucks have a bright signboard over the cab naming a Hindu deity or saint (or “Glory Jehovah Jireh”), presumably to grant protection from the traffic.  To make quite sure, a yellow petrol tanker with a “highly inflammable” sign sported a painted demon face to ward off ill luck, and a design superimposing the Hindu Om, Muslim Star and Crescent, Christian cross – all bases covered!

Radiator, sideboards, mudguards, petrol tanks are all painted, often with the Indian flag colours of green-white-orange, maybe with floral or abstract designs; some are hung with wreaths or tinsel.  Backs of many trucks instruct “Sound Horn”, advice that’s merrily followed by all!  On motorbikes, a wife often sits side-saddle behind her husband, sometimes with a kid (or two or I think once three) sandwiched in between.  One passenger balanced pipes twice as long as the motorbike; bright plastic buckets, stacked boxes or shining metal pots eclipse drivers.  Maybe one third are helmeted.  It is not, however, total anarchy: most vehicles have licence plates and many roads are pretty good.  Most have room for plenty more potholes.

A line of people throw bricks from one to the next across a construction site, others are bareheaded in jandals below bricklayers on a rickety bamboo scaffold.  Adults or children sweeping dust in the gutter – it’s immediately blown back.  The tragic futility of Greek torments in Hades, or the indomitable human spirit?  I wonder if they are untouchables, condemned by karma to sweep streets for generations. A beggar with bowl at a bus stop.  Fly-covered bullocks.  A “National Fancy & Gift Centre” sold “gift, fancy, stationary, plastic, crocry & sports etc”.  Above such shop fronts, crowded with all manner of wares, billboards advertise bulging-muscle gymnasiums, elegant lounge suites, overseas holiday websites.  High-rise Western or East Asian IT buildings, like tinted-glass HP or Intel, tower over guarded gates and people lying on the street.

Past the suspension bridge cables I’d seen on Google Earth, out of town, down mud lanes with wandering cattle, goats, and hens.  My driver, now lost, asked directions from a shop while I hoped a wild-eyed man muttering to himself (the local eccentric, a holy man reciting scriptures?) wouldn’t come too close.  I had sore eyes from dust and fumes.  Then we passed through the compound gates and the scene changed to a serene, green, spacious paradise.  And just in time for lunch.  I met a few staff members, and befriended the librarian, who aspires to unify India’s many theology library catalogues on-line, and collared me for computing advice.

Today I made a similar trip to United Theological College (UTC) in central Bangalore.  Tried my new digital camera, shooting from the moving taxi window – see pics here.  Wished I’d brought the face mask a chemistry department friend gave me as we were jammed in a sea of fumes, stinging my eyes like an over-chlorinated pool.  Past central Ulsoor Lake.  Pre IT boom, Bangalore was known as the Garden City.  One signboard exhorted residents to make it so again.  Then the abrupt transition once more: within minutes from hot noisy dusty street to peaceful garden compound to cool civilized college office!

I had been warned that India demands patience and flexibility.  The night before, the state’s chief minister died and three days of mourning were proclaimed.  This included closure of all educational institutions for one day – no doubt school students danced for joy at the poor fellow’s demise.  So there were no classes to visit and India’s largest theological library was shut.  I watched street traffic (a few horses wandered past, apparently unattended) and read newspapers on the library steps till lunch with the students, including three visiting Germans, who showed me their unappealingly monastic rooms.