We may dread getting caught in traffic jams, but what better opportunity to get a closer look at fellow humans and a ringside view of our surroundings, which we take for granted and therefore usually ignore? When the traffic is in motion, the man in the car next to yours is just a fellow motorist, often the object of your anger. Ditto for the buildings you pass by: they are just blurred pictures; you never ever get to pause and take a closer look.
But when you are caught in a jam, the lines on the faces of people in adjacent vehicles become clearer. You suddenly realise they too are fellow humans, capable of the same emotions as you. The restlessness acts like a binding force and soon you become strangers who have just met at a cocktail party. Same for the buildings and landmarks that dot your path: they suddenly come into sharp focus and you begin to notice the signboards and historical inscriptions, such as ‘Established 1869.’
I became a wiser man last Tuesday when protests by Islamic groups against the supposedly blasphemous film made in the U.S. brought traffic on Mount Road to a standstill. Usually the journey from home to office — a distance of less than six kilometres — takes barely 20 minutes, but on that day, it took an hour and a half. It was all fine until the autorickshaw approached Gemini flyover. From there, Mount Road resembled the cabin of an infinitely long aircraft that had run into turbulent weather and whose passengers were now collectively anxious about their fate. An aircraft at least has an aisle, but Mount Road doesn’t have one — not even for ambulances.
Autorickshaw drivers looked at each other and slapped their foreheads — a display of frustration. After slapping their foreheads, they smiled and made small talk, while their respective passengers sat nervously on the edge of their seats, wondering when the stranded vehicles would move. My autorickshaw driver went on talking to me; I understood very little of what he was saying but kept making the right noises — ‘correct, correct’ — just to let him know that I was listening.
Finally, when he threw a question at me, I had to admit to him, in the only Tamil sentence I can speak with flourish: “Ennaku Tamil theriyadu” — I don’t know Tamil. He looked crestfallen and looked away. Freed from the chain of his words, I looked away too. A woman in the adjacent car had buried herself in a book. I waited for her hands to move so I could see the title. It turned out to be the Holy Bible.
Right ahead of us was a bike on which sat two young women. The woman riding pillion had clearly not anticipated being caught in a jam: she wore a skirt, a little too short by Chennai standards, and now kept herself busy pulling the hemline down.
As the autorickshaw inched closer to Spencer Plaza junction, I noticed something that was of interest to me. The history of Spencer Plaza has always fascinated me, and even though I was aware that its original owners also ran a hotel nearby, I had no idea where exactly the hotel was located.
For some reason, I always presumed it to have been long demolished and therefore never looked for it. And now, my eyes suddenly fell on a skeletal building (right on Mount Road), which bore a rusted signboard that read: Spencer International Hotels Limited. The signboard also identified the company as the owner of Westend in Bangalore and Savoy in Ooty.
Maybe I didn’t search hard enough for the erstwhile hotel, but how did the building (now owned by a well-known distillery) and the signboard escape my attention all these years? That’s because all these years, I had been part of moving traffic. But now, I had time to stand and stare. This was one discovery I made without the aid of S. Muthiah’s Madras Rediscovered — and I felt delighted.
The delight was short-lived. At Spencer Plaza junction, the entire traffic was diverted left, into Commander-in-Chief Road. The stretch of Mount Road between Spencer Plaza and the offices of The Hindu — a distance of about a kilometre — had been blocked due to the protests. So I got down at Spencer Plaza and walked all the way to my office, on the way stopping at a pavement bookshop from where I bought a 1950 edition of Pearl S. Buck’s Fighting Angel.
The pages showed no signs of having been touched by human hands ever, even though a rubber stamp on the second page read: Makeen’s Book Shop, 93 Main Street, Colombo. I also picked up a 1961-published English dictionary, purchased by the original owner (K. Venugopal, B.Com) from, as the rubber stamp attested, Moore Market; and a coffee table book on the Ganga. All three for just Rs. 150.
The sense of delight returned once again. I was so glad the journey took ninety minutes instead of twenty.