Navigating queues and confusion, repelling autorickshaw assaults, enduring electrical irregularities, and glimpsing coherence in the chaos.
After my shocked retreat from the Indian streets on my first day (see here) I now have a sense of proud accomplishment at navigating the suburb of Whitefield all on my own (see photos), for example to use the basement i-Way internet café. I’m also learning to navigate personal space, which is more spacious in my country of four million than in one of a billion. A few times I’ve been standing in a queue and someone butted in. I gradually realised they weren’t rude, but simply didn’t notice I was queuing because I stood so courteously far back. After figuring this out, I pushed up and purchased a few sugary-milky confectionaries from “Brothers Bakery and Sweets”, and a notebook to record observations.
My notebook has a map of India at the front to identify locations here and a world map at the rear to point out NZ. This is essential. Many people know that New Zealand is near Australia, but some place us closer to the US, and one guy was convinced we’re not far from England. “No, nowhere near England.” “How far?” Not knowing the Earth’s circumference by heart, I was unable to state exactly how many kilometres away, and I don’t think he was persuaded.
20 years ago, they say, Whitefield was nearly as far out of town as the antipodes, a wasteland out in the wops; the British once hunted jackals here. It’s only 26 km away from central Bangalore but the journey takes 45 minutes to two hours, depending on the traffic. The bus costs about 30 cents, but you’re claustrophobic sardines and it’s hard to see through the worn Perspex windows, so you rely on merciful fellow-passengers to know where to get off. Women sit at the front, men at the back and are often keen for a chat. One student clutching bulky textbooks turned out to be an illustrated one-volume encyclopaedia salesman and opened his tome for me with shy optimism.
Autorickshaws charge $5-$7, but three people can share them and they are much more exciting, with better views and faster weaving through narrow gaps. The English, competency and honesty of drivers varies widely. One day I was taken a few blocks in the wrong direction and asked to pay for the privilege. Later I had to direct the driver to Whitefield, one of Bangalore’s biggest suburbs, and he then refused to give change. I’ve been offered complementary city tours, and some of the Americans were stung when a cheap ride turned into an unwelcome shopping trip.
Though I’m not given to expletives, when trying to orientate myself in headache-inducing heat and fumes, and the third yellow hood in one minute blocks my view with “Hello! Sir! Can I help you?” and doesn’t understand the monosyllable “no”, it’s hard not to mumble a “_ _ _ _ (of the milder variety)-off” under one’s breath. Many drivers do smile cheerfully, stick to their meter, and know where to go, however, so I mustn’t slander the whole breed. Prepay traffic police booths avoid problems, giving a fixed price and carbon copy of the vehicle registration and driver number in case of complaints.
On our last trip back to the Ecumenical Christian Centre, the rains had made the road so bad that the auto-rickshaw slithered and stuck and we had to slide through mud on foot in the dark. Whitefield still seemed a wasteland. Last year the ECC sealed the neighbourhood road at its own expense, but heavy trucks broke it up again. On a recent protest against Whitefield roads nearby International Tech Park professionals carried their notebooks aboard a bullock cart, beneath a banner “we have e-connectivity, but not basic connectivity like roads”. At least construction of a subway began recently.
One of our speakers described Bangalore as an electronic city without electricity. Several brief cuts per day are common. One Sunday evening Jabaraj motor-biked me to his small Assembly of God church – I held on tight while he dodged bikes, potholes, cows – where the pastor continued with unabated Pentecostal zeal when both main power and noisy generator failed, merely calling for a candle to read the scriptures. I used the darkness to reach for my insect repellent, as my attention had wandered to monitoring bare skin for mossie attacks.
The problem seems to be partly a lack of official coordination and communication. There is no uniform street signage, which doesn’t help the poor visitor get around, while city, state and government tourist offices each have small amounts of different information. No one has an overview of all transport, facilities and events at once.
So I still have many navigational skills to learn, but I have progressed. I feel like the two villagers in Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance (1995) who moved to Bombay:
On the first day they sat in awe on the stone steps outside the shop, watching the street and seeing a universe of frightening chaos. Gradually, they perceived the river of traffic in the street and, within it, the currents of handcarts, bicycles, bullock carts, buses, and the occasional lorry. Now they learned the wild river’s character. They were reassured that it was not all madness and noise, there was a pattern in things.