Sometimes, the daily routine of a job, a commute, and an apartment make life here seem familiar. Sometimes, a series of unexpected events conspire to remind you that you’re living on the other side of the world.
Such were my thoughts as I sat at a roadside tea shack clutching a newly adopted puppy while my friend Vedant went searching for some petrol. After he’d convinced me that I’d have no problem holding on to a dog on the back of his motorcycle while he weaved through Jaipur traffic, after we went to a NGO called Help in Suffering that provides care and adoption for stray animals, after we pet the monkeys and peacocks and selected the cutest puppy for him to take home, and after I held tightly on to the dog over as the bike sped over flyovers and the dog threatened to release his urine all over my lap–the bike ran out of gas. Back home, I’ve had a number of close calls, but have never actually ran out of gas. In India, it’s commonplace that Vedant wouldn’t check his gas tank before we left the shelter carrying a new animal.
To the people who ask from back home, I generally just say that life here is different. I resign myself to the fact that no amount of writing or photos or stories can genuinely capture just how different it is. But the best analogy is to compare India’s quintessential vehicle (the motorcycle) with America’s (the car), and how the people of these two countries use them. Americans drive systematically, and carefully, in big cars with crumple zones and air bags. Cruising over smooth interstates and waiting for their turn at four-way stops, they seek to minimize the risk of accident on any given trip. Indians, on the other hand, drive to get there first. They try to reach the top speed on their bikes whenever possible, and honk the horn when others won’t let them do it. They take off their helmets when cops aren’t around; they drive against the flow of traffic and around train-track barriers whenever it suits them. Sometimes, they beep at the people sitting ahead of them at red lights if they think the coast is clear to go.
A ride I took this past Diwali captures this best. I was with my friend Jitendre, and we were late for a puja at his house, so he dropped the normal measures of safety that he usually exercises when I’m on the back of his bike, and sped towards his house through the old city of Jaipur in a way that would definitely get you pulled over in the U.S. We dodged potholes, horse carts, exploding crackers and running children at every corner; at one point he turned so sharply on a muddy corner that I was sure we’d fall over. When we drove right past a particularly large cracker, right when it exploded, my hearing disappeared for a second–everything sounded like I was underwater. Dodging explosions and speeding through the narrow alley, it somehow felt like we were at war. Then we made it to his house for the Diwali puja at the very last second, and his grandfather chanted the prayers, showing me how to give the gifts–rice, sweets, flowers, water–to each of the gods in turn.
This is India. The best way to describe it, I’m finding, is that it’s a country of motorcycles.