Friday, February 23, 2018

Gaddhe mein sadak

A few days ago, I had decided to visit my ancestral home in eastern Uttar Pradesh. As the taxi neared our destination, I was re-introduced to that sardonic phrase: Gaddhe mein sadak.

It is hard to translate. The nearest phrase I can think of is ‘road-pocked hole’, an inversion of ‘pot-holed road’. It has been a while since I had encountered such a road. People often threw the phrase around in places around Delhi or capital cities like Lucknow, but the first time I truly understood what ‘gaddhe mein sadak’ means was in Bihar, over a decade ago. One hour out of Patna, it became apparent that I wasn’t travelling on anything resembling a road. The surface had been washed away entirely, leaving a series of uneven pits. Whatever remained of the tar road appeared like garnishing, sort of like chopped walnuts on top of a bowl of lumpy kheer.

Now, in Uttar Pradesh, I was confronting a similar road. It came as a bit of a shock after the highway, which is quite smooth. Too smooth, in fact. The driver had been complaining that the new method is dangerous. Tyres slide too easily; braking the vehicle takes longer. Apparently, the new roads being constructed are made of cement rather than tar. It is being said that some of these new roads are entirely concrete. There is no under-layer of pebble or brick. Drivers, he said, are concerned about such highways since everybody moves at higher speeds and being able to brake quickly is vital. But then, who consults drivers when road construction is sanctioned?

This time around, I personally felt the pain and danger of the too-rough road that connect various towns and villages. Whatever bits of tar and pebble yet remained create uneven edges. My foot turned over one such edge, I lost balance and next thing I knew, I was hopping around with a sprained foot for the rest of the week.

Along the way, I also discovered the unexpected benefits of traveling in over-packed tempos, which are the primary mode of transport in these parts aside from state transport buses.

The thing is, the road is awful beyond description. In a relatively empty auto-rickshaw or tempo, you’re swung about and shaken wildly no matter that you’re holding onto something for dear life. Your neck and spine is at risk. Your head gets bumped hard against the metallic frame of the vehicle. You could be jerked forward so that your knees smash into the floor of the tempo.

However, when there are six or sixteen (I counted; there were sixteen people. I will write more about how that went another day) in the tempo, you are all packed in so tight, there is no longer any question of anyone moving. I found myself safely squashed between two elderly ladies on right and left, four ladies seated across and sundry gentlemen and children in front and on the back seats. No matter how bad the road was, however the tempo lurched about, my spine was as upright as it would have been in a straitjacket. I suppose that was something to be grateful for.

First published here:

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Maulana Azad and azaadi

Today is Maulana Abul Kalam Azad's death anniversary. I knew very little about him, except that he was one of the tallest leaders of India's freedom struggle. While researching something else this year, I came upon a booklet, a convocation address delivered by JP Narayan in 1966. Here, he describes Maulana Azad as 'father of speech', and speaks of the wonders of his oratory thus:

"At this point, my mind goes back 46 years to a memorable day in January 1921, when at a vast concourse of men in Patna, I listened enthralled to a stormy petrel of the Non-Cooperation Movement, who though young in years had magic on his tongue. His name quite appropriately was Abul Kalam Azad. Incidentally, at the same place there was also held in a corner an over-flowing meeting (there were no loud-speakers then) addressed by another young man, about whom all that was known was that he was the upcoming son of the great Pandit Motilal Nehru. It was the fiery words of the 'father of speech', however, that had set fire to the waters of the Ganga that flowed pacidly by."

Maulana Azad was President of the Congress, in 1941, when he was arrested after the Quit India movement was launched. I have been looking through newspapers of the time and what I found remarkable was not just that so many people were willing to court arrest towards the cause of independence, but also that so many of them found creative responses to news of the leadership being arrested.

Maulana Azad was arrested on January 3, 1941, at 5:15 at the Allahabad railway station. He was expected to leave by the Toofan Express and stop at Lucknow or Allahabad en route to Calcutta. The details of his itinerary had already been published in the newspaper a day before, so people as well as the British government knew exactly where to find him. He had also sent a telegram to Acharya Narendra Deo, asking him meet up in Allahabad.

Once news of his arrest spread, a public meeting was held in Aminabad Park in Lucknow. One Mr Hariprasad Saksena moved a resolution: “This meeting of the citizens of Lucknow offers its respectful congratulations to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad on his arrest and assures him the country stands behind the Congress.”

A women’s meeting held in Zenana Park also congratulated Azad on the arrest. Elsewhere in Lucknow, students observe a two minute silence to protest the arrest. In Cawnpore (Kanpur), 10,000 students went on strike. Bareilly, Sitapur, Ghazipur, Agra, Meerut, Moradabad, Nainital saw strikes and all these were just reports flowing in from UP. The Benaras Students Federation took out a Prabhat Pheri and congratulated Azad on his arrest. The principal of Rameshwari Girls College declared a holiday in protest and the girls observed a five minute silence. 

In Ghazipur, one Chowdhry Girija Prasad Singh, an honorary magistrate and a big zamindar, tendered his resignation from the magistrateship in protest against the Congress President’s arrest, and also surrendered his gun license and the gun.

I am intrigued by these little details because it is here that we find the keys to our freedom. It wasn't won in a day and it wasn't won by a handful of people. It was won through everyone committing themselves to it and standing up for it in their own way.

Maulana Azad lived to see a free India, lived to serve as its education minister. He oversaw the establishment of free primary education, subsidized higher education and the establishment of highly regarded institutions including the IITs. Leaders like him were needed then and are needed now.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

No lovers of rules

If there is one trait of our citizenry that betrays itself visibly on city roads, it is our tendency to try and bend the rules just a little bit for very minor or even no gain at all, and being willing to generate total chaos along the way, even to pose great risks to our fellow citizens in the bargain.

On the major roads of most Indian cities, there will always be that one guy who will try and drive in reverse for as long as half a kilometre just so he can avoid driving forwards a couple of kilometers and then taking a U-turn. There's a good chance that he will ultimately waste twice as much time doing so because he cannot reverse very fast, and if he does, he is liable to get into an argument or worse, a physical confrontation, which will slow him down even further. But he'll take his chance anyway.

We all know that person who will try to turn a car around a full 180 degrees bang in the middle of rush hour, causing a traffic jam that lasts anywhere between ten and twenty minutes. Then there's the person who will overtake from the right at high speed, full aware that it isn't really safe. Or the person who will stop the car in the middle of the road and just sit behind the wheel, chit-chatting with a friend or saying lingering goodbyes.

People who live abroad and get used to driving in countries where there are fewer opportunities for bending rules, return and find that they can no longer drive on Indian roads with any confidence.

Trying to manoeuvre in narrow spaces is not a bad thing in principle. But there is a difference between driving like it's an adventure sport, where you primarily risk your own life, and traffic adventures where everyone else's life is at risk.

Now take seat belts. I am surprised that I continue to meet drivers who will not wear a seat belt or a bike helmet for safety reasons, but will pull it on as soon as they see a traffic cop.

Sometimes I wonder if this is because we are generally disrespectful of other people's lives and limbs, or whether we just like authority figures. I would like to think otherwise.

My own brother refuses to drive until everyone's belted in, and often he will not allow a cab to drive away until he's seen me belted in at the back, especially if I'm travelling on an expressway. But the honest truth is, I find that I too can be stupid sometimes. I find myself resisting a seat belt when I'm in the back seat. The only reason I wear the seat belt as a front seat passenger is that I don't want someone else to pay a hefty fine on my account. My own bodily safety ought to matter more to me than somebody else's money and, in principle, it does. Yet, in practise, it doesn't.

Sometimes I wonder if my resistance comes from an ingrained resistance to following too many rules. Or if we are all just teenagers on the inside, sulking about being told what to do for our own good.

First published here:

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