I used to reach my workplace hot, bothered, irritable... Now I get there relaxed and smiling. It has all changed.
I commute regularly from Thiruvananthapuram to Neyyattinkara, a municipal town further south of Kerala’s capital city, towards its southern border with Tamil Nadu. I use one of many modes to get there: motorcycle, bus, bicycle, even once, walking, but usually I drive. The distance along National Highway 47 is 20 km, and the average driving time an hour. Often it takes longer.
It is tough. I drive when the traffic is at its heaviest. This will be a six-lane highway soon. We are sure of this, for they have been saying that for several years. But right now the road is narrow and the traffic heavy. Someone tries to get one car ahead and everything jams.
I used to take these drives pretty seriously. The car ahead was my Everest, which I overtook because it was there. The car behind was my mortal enemy.
But it has all changed now. The drive has become relaxing, the car is now my place of meditation. I’m not sure when exactly it changed, but I know how. It is Time at work, the maturation process, wearing down the sharp edges. I used to reach my workplace hot, bothered, taking it out at outpatient assistants and whichever patient came up first. Now I get there relaxed and smiling.
I notice more things along the way: school kids waiting to cross the road, the elderly man trapped between lanes, preening teenagers at the bus stop. Sometimes at the bottom of a rise I watch a phalanx of motorcyclists flow downhill, sunlight glinting off helmets and iron horses, a Mongol horde on the rampage, breaking formation around a bus and regrouping in front.
Halfway through I would sight the Man Who Runs, my Forrest Gump, running fast, wearing a lungi, lithe body sweat-glistened, a wild look on his face. I don’t see him nowadays. Perhaps he stopped one day, as Forrest did, and is relaxing in his mansion. More likely, died of sunstroke.
The policemen are familiar landmarks. One had a huge paunch and could barely move. He is gone now, probably convalescing after a heart attack. Rambo is still there: tough, athletic, but soft-hearted. He is always helping old women cross the road. So is the young man who manages traffic in front of a women’s college, but his women are younger.
Religious places are hazardous. At one place they throw coins out of passing vehicles. People have been blinded by these missiles. I had a five rupee coin crash into my helmet once. At another place at the apex of a curve, devotees stop their vehicles and transact religious business. I am wary about divine wrath on that curve. At festivals they take out huge processions. Important people manage these processions. They do allow traffic to pass intermittently.
Political festivals are more dangerous. The Important People are angrier. If you are not obedient you can get roughed up. I like hartals, though. They are a unique contribution to the green movement.
Our leaders pass by sometimes. We hear them come a long way off, police escorts and sirens slicing the traffic. They hurry to make policy and we give way, happy to play our humble part in the democratic process.
Accidents are common. Most involve kamikaze motorcyclists. When they crash it is never their fault: “I was riding slowly. He did it.” I know just one person who claimed responsibility for his accident. His head and limbs were swathed in bandages. He seemed irritated about something. “I was drunk, riding my bike. The phone rang. I picked it up. I don’t remember anything more.”
I go with the flow now, stick to my lane, and avoid overtaking. Oddly, the travelling time remains the same. I stop to let people cross the road and smile tolerantly when someone forces me off the road. When someone tailgates me I let him pass. I ask myself, do I need to know this idiot? No. So I wave him on: run along, brother, till the next car.
My car is pockmarked with dents. They are a point of pride; I carry them around like an old boxer his scars. Recently I was driving home one night when something crashed into my rear. I got down. A drunken man lay writhing, his motorcycle beside him. He soon scrambled to his feet, got the motorcycle upright and went his way — without a word. This sort of thing happens so often it isn't worth repairing the damage.
I read somewhere that the average man lives a thousand months. I have less than five hundred left. Two hours of driving a day adds up to three years inside a car. A depressing thought. Venting and fuming and honking may shorten my car-time by a day. But the adrenaline will kill me before my thousand months. No deal, then. Now I hold my peace on the road.