There is no way anyone can miss India’s newfound economic success. You only have to stand by the roadside and look at the new and shiny cars zooming up and down.
Even in a relatively small place like Pondicherry, in the past if you wanted to see which new models had come into the market all you had to do was to stand by the Ganesh Temple on a Friday evening. As Fridays are considered auspicious people bring their new cars on that day to be blessed and from then on to be protected by the gods. An important part of the ceremony is the ritual which drives away the evil eye. Two ripe lemons are placed in front of the front wheels after which the driver starts the vehicle and crushes them. Having driven away the demons of envy the car is now ready for the road.
Until a few years ago you could see at the most four or five cars standing patiently on the road in front of the temple waiting to be blessed. Today the line extends and covers up the entire length of two blocks. Where ten years ago there used to be a line of beggars today there is a long queue of shiny new SUVs. It makes you feel warm and proud inside. This is new India.
Of course, this new inner glow lasts only for a short while. It evaporates the moment you are stuck in a traffic jam. As it happened to me in the first week of November. I had a train to catch at 10 pm at Chennai Central Station and starting off at 4.30 I knew I had enough time to stop and have bite on the way and still have time to spare. After all it was only a 3-hour drive. Hardly had we reached the half way mark that the car slowed down and we found ourselves at the end of a line of vehicles which seemed to be several kilometres long. After an hour during which we had moved hardly a few metres someone told us that the traffic jam was due to a new flyover which was being constructed in the centre of Chennai. The roads around the site of the flyover were blocked in such a way by building materials that there was enough space for only one vehicle to pass at a time. The cause of the jam was at the heart of the city and there I was, sitting in the car, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by paddy fields, moving for five minutes every now and then.
After five hours I managed to reach the station, having almost lost hope of catching my train. After a nail-biting last leg, during which I had started phoning friends and relatives on my mobile phone to say that I wasn’t coming after all, I finally made it to the platform at a few minutes before ten o’clock where my train was ready to leave.
It wasn’t as if I had been stuck in an ordinary traffic jam where one car waits behind the other, in a neat line, until the jam unblocks. This was a case where the entire width of the two-lane road was packed with cars, buses, vans, autorickshaws, motor-cycles and lorries, gathered in one chaotic mass, where each vehicle was trying to overtake the vehicle in front of it. It was one big jumble which resembled a giant Chinese puzzle where every car was doing its best to make it impossible for the others to make a single move.
Sure India is no more a poverty-stricken country and a proof of that is that there are so many bright new cars on the road, and so much extra cash that people are busy doing up the interiors of their vehicles in style. But we have neither the roads nor the road-sense to use them. So, let us think twice before we pat ourselves on the back. And maybe it’s time to invent a new expression – “a curse in disguise”.