Friday, June 8, 2012

A Walk in India's Streets is a Walk in Her Shoes

By Danny, ILR '13


Simon purchasing a jasmine garland from a street vendor. 

When we arrived in India, I knew the place was different than anything I'd ever seen or experienced before in my life. The difficulty for me, however, was quantifying those differences. Where my home in Cincinnati smells of fast food and cut grass, Mysore smells like black diesel exhaust and jasmine flowers. Where Americans generally trust unfamiliar sources of food and water, I could afford no such luxury in Mysore. While SUVs in Ohio thump out one of forty top record hits while cruising from strip mall to strip mall, rickshaws in Mysore hobble over uneven pavement to the tune of sitars mixed with synthesized bass. Nothing matched up with my home, and the most interesting, subtle, and yet entirely obvious difference between Indian and American life is the cultural conceptualization of the most basic element of any city: the road.

Dr. P. K. Misra, one of our lecturers at SVYM, first pointed out to our group the way in which Indians view the utility of the fifteen feet of paved space between buildings. America, he stated, builds streets with the express purpose of channelling traffic from point A to point B in the most efficient manner. On the other hand, Indian roads serve as a gathering space for all types of transport and interaction. When I first walked with several of my friends to Hebbal, our local shopping district, I noticed a lack of street signs, traffic lights, and road signs, and an abundance of motorcycles, rickshaws, buses, cows with owners, cows without owners, sheep, stray dogs, and people. Instead of driving on the left or right side of the road, all forms of traffic meander peacefully through the obstacles created by the presence of others. While it remains somewhat unclear to me how exactly pedestrians are not killed by any of the aforementioned vehicles, I have found that simply by walking through any place along the edge of the street without making any sudden movements nearly guarantees safety against the whirr of zigzagging traffic. For me, a street is a place where people wait in an airtight metal box until they've reached their destinations. For India, the street is still not the destination, but it doesn't attempt to water down the journey with air conditioning and a backseat DVD player. It's a culture that doesn't try to escape its realities, harsh as they at times can be. That's the real ground between India and the America with which I'm familiar, and I'm glad to be navigating it – rickshaws, farm animals, stray dogs and all.

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