Maine’s crumbling roads have nothing compared to the lack of infrastructure on the Indian subcontinent

Did you read the recent reports about Maine’s crumbling infrastructure? I did, and it worries me too, but nothing compares to the lack of infrastructure on the Indian subcontinent.

My husband is traveling in Asia right now. First to Taipei for business, and then home to India to see his family. A few weeks before he goes home each year, he starts to get nostalgic for the food, his friends and family, and the places he grew up– Meerut, a 5000 year old city north of Delhi that has never been burdened by infrastructure despite its millions of inhabitants, and “the farmhouse,” the village his mother came from and where her family still lives. I visited both spots and we were married in Meerut. The farmhouse village is amazing and colorful. I expected to feel as if I’d gone back in time–but not seven centuries. The farming is still done with bullock carts. Yes, there are some modern updates, but they still put the sugarcane into a simple extractor by hand. The women kneel in their kitchens cooking over a fire pit in the floor. I see why this is where Raj loves to be. It is peaceful yet bustling, and truly a world apart.

Not every part of going home to India is great, however. I usually get a call from Raj soon after he touches down in Delhi: “Holy s#! I can’t take it. The drivers here are insane. I was shouting at the taxi driver on the way home, so my mother laughed and slapped me. They say I’ve gone crazy but I can’t deal with the roads here!” I was glad to hear it (not that his mother smacked him but that he was seeing things as I had).

Well, who can deal with the roads there? The Indians who haven’t left can, of course, but I couldn’t. Before flying to Delhi, a friend who had been there advised me not to try to “see” for a few days. I didn’t know what she meant until I arrived. Then the incomprehensible juxtapositions that smacked my eyes brought her words into focus. The camel resting on the side of the highway. The huge, incessantly honking Tata trucks painted as if for a parade. The wooden horse-drawn wagon carrying modern, brand new swivel office chairs piled high. A family of five on a motorbike (The mother, infant, two year old and five year old all helmetless; the law requires dad the driver to wear one).  The neatly uniformed school kids studying–studying–in the back of a truck in the midst of all this madness.

It was too strange, too jangling– and too frightening to take in. The concept of a “lane” has not yet been invented. So too, “the side of the road one should stay on” is a vague approximation. Besides, I had enough to absorb inside the car. Raj’s mother, grandmother, grandfather, cousins, uncles, and aunts had all come to meet us at the airport. Then nine people piled into one small taxicab for the two hour ride back to Meerut. I had just met his mother, and her sweetness and charm won me over at once. We had no way to communicate but that didn’t seem to be a problem, which was great since we were about to get a whole lot closer on the way home. I guess my friend should have told me not to listen for the first few days as well because everything I heard was strange and incomprehensible as well–the relative who had just been bitten by a monkey who snuck into his bed, for example…This was Brave New World, indeed.

After a few days at home in Meerut, Raj and I ventured back to Delhi so he could show me the capital. We “took a bus.” I put that in quotation marks because the Indian version of taking a bus has NOTHING to do with our conception of this activity. For one thing, the buses do not actually “stop” at the Bus Stop. It should be called “Sort of Slow Down, Kind of Out of Traffic. Jump On If You Dare.” They do dare. Helpful citizens lend a hand since the driver isn’t going to actually stop moving. He’s too busy honking and carrying on a conversation with the person directly behind him. (Facing forward is NOT a requirement for driving in India, btw.) So, thanks to the kindness of strangers, families are dragged onto the moving vehicle. The child who almost didn’t make it is scooped up at the last second, safe from the wheels about to crush him. No one has batted an eye.

We then jangle on our merry way until a rock is thrown up and smashes the windshield. I’ve never seen a bus window get smashed. The spider web cracks slowly spread over the whole front pane but the driver either didn’t notice (still facing backward) or this just did not rise to the level of a Big Deal. Probably it was the latter. A few “stops” later (more heroic rescuing from the citizenry—nobody dead on this ride yet!), the window crumbled and fell into the bus. This also did not seem to be an issue, though it did prompt the driver to pull off to the side. He hitched up his pants and kicked the broken glass out the door into the street, and without further ado, we continued our jaunt, now windshield-free. Huh. What in Delhi could possibly be as interesting (or as nerve-wracking) as this ride?

A few weeks later, we ventured north to the foothills of the Himalayas. I thought his mother was being overly fussy before we left—she really didn’t want us to go and raised this and that objection. But boy oh boy, did I wish we had heeded her. The bus trip to Delhi was a child’s carousel ride compared to this journey. I had hoped to take a “Super Deluxe Bus” which looked like an old, rundown greyhound, but at least bore some resemblance to buses I had known. Raj, though, thought that was unnecessary so we opted for the cheaper and more rickety option. Not Smart. This driver seemed to be in a contest to get us as quickly as possible from Meerut to Manali (all while discussing the race with his friend sitting behind him). What was troubling on a wide street outside of Delhi became utter insanity on a tiny one-lane switchback road. Our lives plummeted off the side of the cliff at each reckless hairpin turn (at least in my mind).

Since most people napped during the long, horrific journey, they never knew the service I provided us all—for it was my erect posture, fingernails in the seat back, and desperate prayers that delivered us. God knows it couldn’t have been the lackadaisical driver who seemed to have made his peace with Fate, whether he met her at the next teashop or at the bottom of the cliff. Good God, what possesses people to be so carefree? I asked Raj if buses ever crashed; everyone’s lack of concern puzzled me and led me to suspect that perhaps this whole endeavor was safer than it seemed…I hoped in vain. “Oh, of course they crash,” Raj said. “All the time. Last week a wedding bus went over the cliff on the road to Simla with the groom and his family. It’s karma.”
I took this in slowly. It’s Karma? I thought. It’s karma? Not lack of guardrails or lanes or the inattention of the driver? Hmm. Karma…that’s an easy answer, I guess, but not one I really want to resort to. Well, maybe my prayers countered their karma. As Raj is fond of saying, “Could be.”

Do other people have crazy road or travel stories, here or in other countries? I’d love to hear them. May your superhighway or road-less-traveled be safe and smooth.

Catherine Ahlawat

About Catherine Ahlawat

I grew up in Maine, am a teacher and an actor and have lived in New York, California, Vermont, and Italy (where I met my husband, who is from India). We were married in his hometown, and naively thought the cultural differences wouldn't be that big a deal. (!) I write about my experiences as a mom, as well as about what it has been like to bridge such a great cultural divide in our marriage.