Thursday, September 4, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 6

Chennai is what it's called now, but in 1995, that city baking on the Bay of Bengal was Madras. From the moment we stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac, we knew that this was a very different place than Bombay; flat and green, a place of hot sand and coconut palms. In the days that followed, we would see a city of low buildings protected from the street by thick walls, gleaming headache white in stark sunlight. And everywhere we looked the streets were choked with living beings. The city was an ant hill kicked apart; every street just like a shopping mall the week before Christmas, every hour of every day of the year.

The cacophony and the blinding color of Madras diminished as we made our way south on the coastal highway – a long, straight, bumpy stretch that is probably the most dangerous road in the world. Our view of the beaches and low jungle was constantly distracted by the wreckage we passed: crumpled burned corpses of cars and charred remains of minibuses wrapped around trees. An estimated 275 people die every day on India's roads, and the stretch between Madras and Pondicherry is the worst of them. It was the scene of what might be the world's most deadly traffic accident about 10 years ago, when an overloaded bus attempted to pass a truck packed with people coming from a wedding and collided head-on with a gasoline tanker, killing 256 people in all.
The growing number of vehicles, inadequate licensing and enforcement of traffic laws, alcohol and road conditions share the blame for the abysmal statistics.

In a climate with no freeze-thaw cycle, the roughness of the road puzzled me. Then, in Mahabalipuram, I learned the reason. We use machinery to build roads in the West. In India, where the enormous population makes labor cheap, they use people. Where we would use a diesel roller to flatten a bed of gravel, in India it is accomplished by hand, one piece of gravel at a time.

No comments: