An Indian, a Swede, and an Australian are waiting to cross the street... This is not the beginning of a knock-knock joke. I was standing at a corner of the magnificent Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona a week ago. By my side were two friends — a Swedish writer and an Australian painter — both in a hurry to get to an art gallery across the street. We waited, watching a stream of slick cars and bikes whooshing past us. Cyclists glided in front of us like ballerinas. Giant double-decked tourist buses came and went. Suddenly, the traffic thinned and I darted across the road — as we usually do in Delhi — and made a run for it. Instead of following, my friends stood still. They stared at me with horrified fascination. The Swede mouthed an exclamation I couldn’t understand. The Australian pointed at the sky and rolled her eyes like I had missed a sign from god.
A couple of minutes later, all was explained. I should have waited for the street sign to turn green before hopping across. Pedestrians don’t spot a gap in the traffic and rush in, heart in hand, hoping to make it to the other side in one piece. The sign says it’s ok to walk, you walk. Crossing the street is not a gamble. Not a matter of survival of the fittest. Pedestrians are not let loose in the jungle with nothing to see them through but their wits. “Doesn’t work that way back home,” I explain. Traffic is king. The pedestrian a lowly worm. If you get run over by a bus or a speeding car, you have no one to blame but yourself. Our streets, they are not meant for walking!
Are they meant for driving then? They could be if we — as a sovereign democratic republic — decided it was a good idea to follow traffic rules. Why do we mistake jumping a red light for an act of bravado? Why take such pleasure in overtaking fellow drivers from the wrong side and racing ahead as if you are Michael Schumacher’s evil twin? Why do horns blare on our streets like a national choir gone mad? If you are in the minority that sticks to the rules while driving, chances are you will lose your grasp on sanity pretty soon. Because following the rules is not the norm, drivers who do are a species under threat. Act like a pumped-up Neanderthal on the street and you are golden. Follow the rules and you lose.
Our traffic troubles are symptomatic of a deeper malaise. We are experts at blaming a broken system. Wherever we gather — at puja pandals or five-star lounges or the chaiwallah’s — we count the ways in which the system fails us. Self-appointed experts hyperventilate about it on television 24/7. They rant against corrupt politicians, inefficient officials, indifferent bureaucrats.
We let the sound of their righteous voices seep into our consciousness and become the soundtrack of our daily lives.
Of course, the system is flawed. You have to be an imbecile to argue otherwise. Things don’t work as they should. And the fault lines widen everyday. But no god is going to descend from the heavens and save us from this mess. If we are serious about turning things around, a moment of introspection is on the cards. May be we could start from the streets. How hard is it to figure out that the system only gets a step closer to complete annihilation when we break traffic rules? How hard is it to remember to stick to a lane or stop at a red light?
In Barcelona, traffic keeps flowing gently and pedestrians breathe easy. Will it ever in Delhi?
A collection of the author’s short stories set in Delhi will be published by Harper Collins in December 2013