A few years ago, I found a job just ten minutes from my home. In Bengaluru, where traffic is more unpredictable than the weather, that’s a godsend even for a devout atheist. I was the envy of friends and colleagues. Especially the latter, who arrived at work every morning looking as if they’d hopped off an intergalactic bullock-cart.
For the first time since my school days, I encountered the joys and pains of the pedestrian life. With one significant exception: in twenty-five years, the hometown I once knew as Bangalore has changed more than its name. It has shed the sobriquets that once described it — Garden City and Pensioner’s Paradise — and transmogrified into a Frankenstein’s monster. In this hostile monstro-city of traffic snarls (and growls), I was left on my own to find my feet.
‘Government work is God’s work’ is an aphorism emblazoned on the facade of Vidhana Soudha, the seat of government. The civic administration takes this commandment literally, and leaves everything to the Almighty. Bengaluru’s pride is its salubrious climate, for which the civic administration cannot take credit. What it must take credit for is the anarchy of unplanned construction, non-existent footpaths and absent pedestrian crossings.
From time to time, politicians promise the citizens the moon, and this is one promise they deliver on consistently. The profusion of potholes is akin to a lunar landscape. Every time I step out to tame the streets, I channel Michael Jackson and prepare to moonwalk.
Public transportation has never been this city’s calling card. And this despite the air-conditioned city buses which now have a dedicated lane, ironically, to ease traffic congestion. The metro, a much-awaited panacea to traffic ills, took decades to materialise and remains permanently under construction, contributing more to barricaded roads than to connectivity. There are thousands of auto-rickshaws, but drivers won’t go anywhere except for nearly twice the metered fare, known in Bengaluru lingo as oneandaff (translation: one and a half). Frustrated Bengalureans take matters into their own hands and, ergo, the roads are clogged with private vehicles.
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The government’s most intelligent solution has been to widen the roads a few extra metres every few years amid great ceremony and expenditure of taxpayer money. Now, most roads in the city resemble the Milky Way, especially after sunset when illuminated by the headlights of stalled vehicles.
Space may be the final frontier, but in Bengaluru we’ll make more space for it. Which brings us to the second commandment that sees Bengalureans through every crisis and calamity — swalpa adjusht maadi, translated loosely as “adjust a little.”
Bengalureans have been adjusting assiduously since the dawn of time. A more accommodating people you will be hard-pressed to find. Rule of law be damned, everyone adjusts. Motorists adjust as they jump the lights. Traffic cops adjust as they look the other way. Pedestrians adjust as they are swallowed by manholes. When politicians laugh all the way to the bank, everyone adjusts a little and re-elects them.
As a pedestrian, I adjust a great deal more than I need to. In Bengaluru, buses halt a little before or beyond the bus stops, probably a conscious decision to put commuters’ athletic prowess to the test and ensure that they remain fighting fit. We scatter like chickens when we exit the bus. We bolt like zebras over imaginary pedestrian crossings. We clamber like orangutans over median barricades. We leap like impalas over gaping sewers. As roads become rivers during the monsoon, we rage against the current like spawning salmon, or walk on the water like basilisks. It’s a mystery why Animal Planet hasn’t made a documentary on us yet.
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It’s also a great theme for a virtual reality video game, much on the lines of Mortal Kombat. Did I just give you a startup idea? Oh, you’re welcome. Talking of which, the body count has been going up. Impatient motorists have run over more than a few errant pedestrians crossing the road. When citizens protest, authorities rule in favour of motorists. They raise the height of the medians and fence off the footpaths. The few foot over-bridges don’t have elevators or wheelchair access. At eight seconds or less, traffic light intervals are too brief for pedestrians to cross. The great minds that dreamed up these solutions designed them for cheetahs, not humans. And children and the elderly have been far from their thoughts.
With no help from traffic cops or motorists, pedestrians like my angry self are an embattled class. I’m not just fighting for my rights, I’m a foot soldier fighting for my life. But every time I step out into the street in my battle gear, I feel like the proverbial chicken about to cross the road. And there’s no knowing the answer to how that story will end.