If you run an online search for good roads in India, you might come upon a question someone has asked on Quora: Why aren’t the roads in India as good as the roads in Pakistan?
It is, like all things India-Pak, a touchy question that draws spirited responses from both sides. People have posted pictures of the best, smoothest highways from across the two countries. There are photos of rain-washed vistas, Marine Drives, sun-kissed or snow-crusted mountain roads. There was Mumbai’s famous sea link and the distinct curlicues of the Lahore ring road. All these roadways looked quite splendid and it took me a while to figure out the secret of their beauty — it was the fact that there wasn’t much evidence of traffic. In other words, roads look great as long as they aren’t being used.
I’ve been thinking ever since about the beauty of modern cities, and our ideas about it. In every pretty picture posted of a great road, there is little or no vehicular transport visible. The photos suggest quiet, openness, easy access. Looking at those photos, you feel you could go anywhere at all, and nothing could stop you.
Where motor vehicles are visible, they have been carefully framed so that you see just one truck, or a handful of cars from a distance on a road that, in South Asian cities, would most likely be choked by a few hundred cars at any time of the day.
The more impressive photographs are taken aerially. But who among us ever gets to look at our roads from an aerial perspective? What we see of our own roads is, in the day time, a sea of car bumpers, and a moving river of light at night. If you want to live the fantasy — an open, empty, wide road, smooth enough for you to want to gulp it down — you have to be out between midnight and dawn, when you can hardly see anything of the city.
Apart from emptiness, there is one more thing that makes roads appealing: nature. Trees and flowers, lakes and canals; water in any form immediately improves the picture. So does a touch of green hanging overhead. Roundabouts and road dividers look positively cheery when blooming with bright pinks and yellows.
Trees and flowers can make any street corner look appealing. Put an untarred road next to a big, green park, and chances are, you won’t even notice the quality of the road’s surface.
Just looking at such photos should tell us how to make urban lives beautiful. We need to plan the city around water, and create large waterscapes in and around the city, if they do not occur naturally. We need to limit motor transport. Above all, we need trees.
It goes without saying, of course, that trees and flowers cost time and money to maintain. It also goes without saying that this sort of expense is not spared in the enclaves of the rich, although a lot of this beauty is funded by ordinary citizens. Delhi is beautiful in late winter and spring, but much of this beauty is limited to the corridors of power — the diplomatic enclaves, the President’s residence, the ministerial bungalows.
On another Quora thread comparing India and Pakistan, commenters have truthfully said as much, that village roads in both countries are mostly bad, that expressways on both sides look much the same, and that the roads serving ‘VIP houses’ are excellent. There is little need to say more. The beauty and limited access of VIP enclaves contain every other truth.
(The author is a writer of essays, stories, poems and scripts for stage and screen)