Monday, 13 July 2020

V is for Voyaging

Transport and communications set the pace of a country, forming its natural heartbeat. In the West, fibre optics and satellite links define the characteristic speed of the nations; the speed of light. With a telephone system so unreliable as to be unusable for long-distance calls, it is transportation which provides the pulse for India's national clock. As a result, the country becomes one defined by voyages.

Paradoxically, the larger distances are closer together in time. The Indian airline system is relatively efficient, and allows you to travel quickly between most major cities. Getting a ticket is another matter; and in any case, the cost for the majority of the population would represent an impossibly high proportion of their annual income. It is as if air travellers moved in a world of their own, untouched by the realities of India. The sealed compartment of the aeroplane voyaging high above the dusty earth is its own metaphor.

At the next level, there are the trains. They form the backbone of the country's transportation system. Indeed, without the extensive railway network, modern India would probably not continue to exist at all. The infrastructure created by the railways is a vital economic resource; without it, the country would slip back into the dark ages. For the network to function even half-way efficiently, it must be managed centrally. Which in its turn requires some form of nationwide organisation, and the existence of a nation. The railways act as the string which holds together the bursting parcel of India.

Trains serve the major cities and towns. Outlying villages rely on buses. Just as the plane is alien to the vast bulk of the population, so the bus is very much of the people. The battered juddering hulks which lumber along dusty roads are the mobile analogues of the ramshackle stalls in the markets, and the patched and poor houses. Like so much at this end of the economic spectrum, buses seem to be held together more by faith than by structural design.

Buses are also found within towns and cities themselves; but as the cities get bigger, the buses become less efficient. Like stranded dinosaurs, they can only look on helplessly as the smaller and more agile beasts weave in and out among them. The new urban mammals take many forms, from familiar ones like taxis, to the stranger centaur-like bicycle rickshaws.

The bulbous-bodied taxis, looking like something out of Britain in the 1950s - which they are - occupy the same place within the city as planes between them. They are relatively luxurious, fast, and prohibitively expensive for most people. The rickshaws are the trains, widely used and ideal for everyday purposes. At the top of the range are the yellow and black moped rickshaws with their reckless drivers and constantly bleating horns, followed by the human-driven bicycle version. And it is the solo bicycle which forms perhaps the commonest method of mechanical transport in India. Everywhere there are numberless shoals of them, swooping in and out of the traffic like minnows. If a symbol of India's modernisation were needed, it would be not the atom bomb but the bike.

A Partial India A to Z

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