So it’s been almost a month since I made the eastwardly migration from Delhi to Jharkhand. Somewhere in there I seem to have stumbled into that time vortex multiverse where two parallel passages of time convince you that you’ve only just arrived, but have all subsequently spent the last ten years at your current location. For the most part Ashutosh and I have spent our weekdays working and on Sundays take time to explore what Ranchi has to offer. Lonely Planet puts it like this: “For travelers there’s not a lot of interest in the city and it’s not really on the way to anywhere.” Regarding the city itself, that’s about right. It’s quintessential urban sprawl. Fortunately, we seem to have proved ourselves more resourceful than the average “traveler” and have managed to find some charm sprinkled about this industrial outpost. And as it stands, Ranchi continues to grow on us.
I work at an organization called Krishi Gram Vikas Kendra (KGVK). They’ve adopted a method called TVM (Total Village Management), taken largely from the corporate model TPM (Total Production Management). TVM is as it sounds; KGVK does a bit of everything in the rural community. And, relatively speaking, they do it well. They face what often feels like a Sisyphean, Herculean or (insert Greek deity subjected to some sort of hardship) task of aiding and generating livelihoods to some of the poorest, most marginalized of India. Yet they’re making a tremendous dent, their impacts are real and quantifiable, and they’ve proven to be able to adapt along with the rapidly changing economy and landscape here in Jharkhand.
Speaking of rapidly changing landscapes, let’s talk about driving. I’ve driven on 5 continents in the last 3 years, none of which compares nor prepares you for the calamity unfolding here on a daily basis. Please forgive me if I make some sweeping generalizations that may or may not resonate in the rest of the country.
Back to business. Do you have… a car? Or maybe a bicycle? Or maybe an 18-wheeler? Rickshaw? Motorbike? Tank? Between 0-4 feet? Are you a cow, chicken, or something in-between? Well bienvenidos aboardo! Any and all are welcome here on the roads of Ranchi. Dogs? Yeah, I guess so but you should prepare for martyrdom.
Driving for me here is kind of like salsa dancing. It’s intricate, complex, and beautiful to witness, but me join? No thanks, I’ll probably pull something and injure those around me. Attempting to cross the street, I feel like I’m frozen in fear at the base of an escalator during rush hour, mesmerized by the passing metal linkages as if they’ve suddenly turned to lava, with a line of unsympathetic commuters rapidly piling up behind me. Driving here, I just don’t get it. In fact I don’t think that anyone really does. There’s nothing to get. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Driving here isn’t a tangible or teachable skill; it’s a lifestyle choice requiring a certain calmness and a steely resolve to leave your fate in the hands of the universe.
So now is a good time to tell you that we have recently sequestered a motorcycle. Not just any motorcycle, an Enfield. “The beast” as Ashutosh puts it. I’ve also recently realized it would behoove me to learn to ride it. It whispers sweet nothings to me from the parking lot, soothing my anxieties and promising me good times and adventure. Personified, it reminds me of Clint Eastwood. It’s geriatric and sounds like it hasn’t stopped smoking Lucky Strikes since his tour during the war. Having just come out of retirement, it’s not going to let some punk kid boss him around, so he’ll go ahead and shift when he feels like it. Ashutosh is teaching me how to ride and understand the roads. During our lessons I feel like I’m talking to a life coach. “You must be like a tree that’s withstood the test of time. Flexibility of mind and spirit. Become that which…” Wait, are we still talking about driving? Did I just have an existential moment trying to kick-starting our decrepit friend? Who am I? Needless to say, if I ever hope to survive out there on the rough and tumble streets of Ranchi, I must become a better student of my surroundings. It’s a tall order to be sure. I’m still in awe of Mr. Khan, the man who drives our bus to work and in whose hands my life rests on a daily basis.
I even wrote him this poem while on the bus last week during a particularly heavy day of traffic:
Every morning at my stop, at least ten minutes late
You come screeching to a stop, a new hitch in your gait
Belching your smoke, old steward at the door
You beckon us aboard, as your gas pedal hits the floor
In-out in-out you weave through the traffic
Imagined details of an accident, all but too graphic
My adrenaline rising with each risky pass
softly I whisper a prayer, as Mr. Khan hits the brass
But day in and day out, somehow we all make it!
Emerging from our rusty fuselage, a new life-lease we will take it
So best luck in this dance, dear maestro, new friend!
Because this dance with the devil, could well spell our end
Most of this has been a joke, but I’d be lying to say that I haven’t spent many a bus ride in quiet contemplation. Why, in a place where respect and passivity (my conjecture) are valued so highly, are the roads so crazy? Why does every bus, rickshaw, and semi come equipped with a square kilometer of colorful paint, frilly lace, and religious symbolism? This isn’t unique to India, but I guess it’s just a bit more pronounced in such a populous country. It seems that in a place like Jharkhand where things can at times be wound so tight, driving is like a group therapy session. A venue to vent those frustrations accumulating in your daily life.
I can’t in good faith write a post like this and not mention the true tragedies that unfold here on a daily basis. Strictly speaking volume, India has the highest number of vehicular mortalities in the world (The per capita leader is Kenya). Many are children. Critics point to failed legislation, poor infrastructure, and a lack of enforcement. Although those are clearly major shortcomings, tracing the roots of the issue is also an anthropological and sociological exercise as well.
Regardless, I’ve found that these two-lane highways are an example of the many truly symbiotic relationships one can witness here in India. It’s also one of the most poignant examples of a truly frenetic city and a look into a place where peoples’ needs are expanding much quicker than the infrastructure that supports them.