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Crossing the Street in Jaipur

May 1, 2013

The activist and author reflects on childhood memories and the traffic of India’s Pink City.
Image from Flickr via Eric Parker

Barely twenty-four hours after my wife Angélica and I arrived in India, we found ourselves recklessly jaywalking across one of the busiest avenues of Jaipur.

We should have known better. By then, as guests of the Jaipur Literary Festival, we had been driven through the city several times and had witnessed the swerve of infernal traffic, even at 4:00 a.m.

We should have known better, but we were ready to savor firsthand the hazards and delights of India and decided to impetuously plunge into the whirlwind. If scrawny cows flicking their tails nonchalantly, darting dogs, withered grandmothers carrying babies or dragging toddlers, crippled boys on crutches, flocks of gossiping eight-year-old school girls, grown men strolling hand in hand, a bridal procession complete with drummers and priests—if these pedestrians and all sorts of animal avatars—could manage to navigate the havoc without a scratch, why shouldn’t we give it a go?

What we saw as an adventure was obviously considered by the citizens of India ambling along with us as the most banal and safe experience, so certain of their rights and privileges that most of them hardly looked back or to the side as they waded into the Sargasso sea of speeding machines.

In that inaugural crossing—probably less than a crazed minute in total—we met, skirted, dodged, forestalled, blocked, and averted every conceivable means of transportation on wheels—and from all eras of humanity. Twenty-first century models of sleek cars vied with carts pulled by oxen or by laborers, moving along as they had been for thousands of years. They advanced upon us with apparent deadly intent, competing with trucks, buses, tractors, taxis of all sizes, three-wheeled rickshaws overladen with passengers, some fueled by pedals and others by a sputtering engine. Gigantic barrows overflowed with vegetables or textiles or tires, and propelled by aching male muscles, above all a plethora of rusty bikes and trikes and motorbikes, crammed and brimming and spilling with men, women, and children. Plus a couple of camels (I kid you not!) and a horse spurred on by a turbaned man in full military regalia who seemed to surge out of some exotic film set in the times of the Raj. And all of these perils (have I not mentioned improvised contraptions made from an amalgam of gears and engine parts and battered chassis?), all of them rushing at us, not from one direction but against the flow of traffic as well, from the left, from the right, from the median, from every potential chaotic direction, zigzagging in and out, weaving their way with implausible speed and plausible dexterity, accelerating to occupy that last millimeter of space and braking just in time to avoid a dreadful collision, all of this in the midst of the most hellish din of trilling bells and honking horns (trucks in India have garishly written on the rear the invitation to PLEASE HONK HORN). But none of the drivers, to our astonishment, insulted the other drivers or any of those blatantly sauntering in front of them, nobody proffered the slightest reproach for traffic violations that would have brought forth a bouquet of slurs and imprecations in Mexico City, Manhattan, or Rome. Nor did any of the pedestrians seem to mind that a fast-tracking vehicle had been about to permanently maim them, if not worse. They continued on their way in the most unruffled fashion, calm as can be, often chatting with other foot-travelers as if they had been sitting down to tea with one another on a quiet terrace, with no risk to limb or life whatsoever.

To step into traffic on a typical Indian street is not to enter a world of violence and fear but rather a beautifully choreographed ballet of bodies and vehicles, all of them somehow subliminally, sublimely coordinated so as not to touch each other—akin to friezes teeming with gods in a Hindu pantheon.

Once we escaped that first passage unscathed, it was this sense of normalcy, this unusual lack of aggressiveness, that ultimately seemed most alluring. Other crossings in the days to come would confirm this impression: what we saw as an adventure was obviously considered by the citizens of India ambling along with us as the most banal and safe experience, so certain of their rights and privileges that most of them hardly looked back or to the side as they waded into the Sargasso sea of speeding machines. It was as if they were confident that they would not be run down, secure in the knowledge that their fellow citizens were not out to get them.

And they were right.

*                      *                     *

To step into traffic on a typical Indian street is not to enter a world of violence and fear but rather a beautifully choreographed ballet of bodies and vehicles, all of them somehow subliminally, sublimely coordinated so as not to touch each other—akin to friezes teeming with gods in a Hindu pantheon—or as if one found oneself suddenly a guest inside the dancing calligraphy that adorns the walls and arches of many a mosque: curlicues that curve and twist but never intersect.

Indians of all ages have evidently internalized a code of traffic behavior, passed down through generations, the knowledge of when each vehicle is going to stop, when each traveler may continue unperturbed. They must have learned these unwritten laws of civility while very young, a language shaped and programmed by previous bodies and gestures, many experiences of decelerations and near onslaught, a tacit pact of non-violence. Not a contact sport: more like a cricket match with rules of engagement and mutual respect for the adversary.

This does not mean that the roads in India are benign and harmless. The ratio and frequency of traffic collisions in India are, by far, the worst in the world. Over 130,000 people die each year in road accidents in that country, according to the latest statistics (with who knows how many thousand more underreported deaths in rural areas). What is surprising is that there are not countless more victims—that the population has not by now been decimated, with fatalities numbered in the millions.

It’s a miracle and deserves to be called by that name.

*                      *                     *

The miracle has to do with what I want to believe India is most deeply and what hints, perhaps, at the way in which the people of India have forged their identity.

If we did not see, during our ten days in India, one traffic accident, not one, not a scrape, not a crash, not an angry driver or outraged pedestrian, we did witness, however, the police barging into the premises of the Jaipur Literary Festival, and arresting the sociologist Ashis Nandy under the Prevention of Atrocities Act…

I saw in each Indian crossing the street a beleaguered dignity, a sense of his or her own worth, the conviction that each was carrying within him or herself a sacred space, each a temple of flesh and soul that should not be desecrated, which each and every one had to venerate. This was the land, after all, that had generated Buddha and Gandhi and the Jain faith that considers every creature inviolate, the land that had given birth to Ashoka. In the third century before Christ, on the fields of Orissa, this Emperor slaughtered over one hundred thousand enemies—and then repented, making non-violence official state policy, instituting Dhamma, the law of piety and tolerance of the rights of humans and animals.

Over two thousand years later, the great-great-great grandchildren of the Great Ashoka enact that forbearance towards all living things in multiple ways, and do so symbolically, at least, each time they cross the road.

By stating my admiration for what Angélica and I experienced on those streets, I am not blinding myself to the flaws and deficiencies of India, its hobbling poverty, the poisonous contamination of air and water, the remnants of a caste system, the tenacity of rigid boundaries and widespread corruption. Indeed, one could almost venture that what is best in India—embodied in those millions that cross streets and roads every day without getting massacred—comes, precisely, in opposition to a history of fratricide and conquest, of slavery and subjection of women and “lower” castes. It could be suggested that the innate compassion we saw in those everyday lives was the answer the people of India gave to millennia of exploitation: their discreet repudiation of what is worst in that country today.

Yes, India is the world’s largest democracy, but while we were there in late January all manner of disquieting events transpired, starting with one that happened before our eyes. We did not see, during our ten days in India, one traffic accident—not one, not a scrape, not a crash, not an angry driver or outraged pedestrian. We did witness, however, the police barging into the premises of the Jaipur Literary Festival and arresting the sociologist Ashis Nandy, under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, for having implied in a panel that corruption among some members of the Dalit elite was easier to notice because that caste (formerly known as “untouchables”) had been less able to flout ostentatious wealth in the past. For good measure, the authorities also indicted our friend, Sanjoy Roy, the prominent co-producer of the Festival, for having invited Nandy to speak. This came on the heels of protests against Pakistani writers reading their work at the Festival, though threats of disruption were dispelled by a firm stance by the organizers. Last year, however, similar demonstrations against the presence of Salman Rushdie led to a cancellation of his appearance. This persecution against the author of Midnight’s Children has not ceased, of course. During our stay, we heard that he had been blocked from attending a different literary festival, this time in Kolkata. At the same time, actor Kamal Hassan was having trouble in Chennai because his spy thriller Vishwaroopam was being banned by the authorities of Tamil Nadour due to its presumed anti-Muslim bias, “threatening the unity of the country.” A biography about Gandhi was forbidden in Gujarat, because it offended who knows who. No wonder India has fallen to the 140th place (among 179 countries) in the latest Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index.

Am I just playing the role of the ignorant multicultural tourist misinterpreting all the signs? Or is it possible that the way people cross those streets and drive those roads contains a spiritual blueprint for the future, the stubborn persistence of a culture of survival and solidarity…?

These and so many other forms of fanaticism and attacks on freedom of speech (including the Internet, which is drastically policed for “inflammatory” statements) are regularly reported, at least, in the Indian press, and once in a while in the foreign press, especially if they concern Salman Rushdie. What is silenced in Salman’s country, however, is the more drastic war being waged against vast groups of citizens on a gigantic and largely invisible scale.

Noted journalist Sudeep Chakravarti told me and my fellow panelists, Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, about the oppression and mistreatment of the Naxalite and other minorities of India, a land that he sadly calls “fractured” in one of his books. I had been following the story for years, primarily through the writings of Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy, who has focused her activism on the plight of the Adivasi, the aboriginal people of India who number close to one hundred million rural dwellers. Forests and mountains and waterways are being plundered by governments and corporations, leaving countless citizens displaced and homeless. For decades, I have been supporting a campaign led by Kailash Satyarthi to retrieve kidnapped children (or youngsters sold into slavery) who labor under inhuman conditions in thousands of mines, farms and factories—the most egregious cases being in the carpet business, where tiny fingers weaving exquisite patterns help manufacturers increase exports. And did I allude to rampant child prostitution?

All this comes in the wake of a crime that has shaken India’s conscience: just a month before our arrival in that country, a young woman and her male companion were attacked on a bus in Delhi. She was gang raped and bludgeoned so badly by a bunch of joyriders that she later died of her wounds, provoking outrage but also pointing the finger at the incessant brutality that Indian women must face in their land.

Perhaps the streets of India can provide a model for how that society can overcome its most flagrant defects. Am I reading too much into a few episodes on the thoroughfares of Jaipur and other cities in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh? Am I just playing the role of the ignorant multicultural tourist misinterpreting all the signs? Or is it possible that the way people cross those streets and drive those roads contains a spiritual blueprint for the future, the stubborn persistence of a culture of survival and solidarity, a form of humanity and kindness that the powerful—manipulative politicians and newly enriched moguls, greedy corporate executives and big name Bollywood stars and, above all, the swelling numbers of a recent middle class—need to make theirs, apply to their own behavior and daily lives?

I have a personal reason for wanting to believe that there is hope for India and maintaining faith in its many tomorrows, a confidence that comes, in my case, from a deeper place than a mere socioeconomic analysis or anecdotal evidence garnered from a quick trip to that country.

My hope derives from my own distant childhood, when my existence was visited by a small Indian boy called Roy. Of that I am sure, though his surname remains uncertain and flickering in my memory: Bahana or Bahama or something sounding very similar.

His father, like mine, was one of the first functionaries of the recently formed United Nations. At the end of 1947, his family, like mine, moved to a neighborhood in Queens called Parkway Village (it can still be found off Grand Central Parkway), artificially isolated from the planetary (and New York) madness, and close by Lake Success where the UN’s headquarters were temporarily located. Roy attended, as I did, an international school, along with kids from every continent, young ones of every color and creed, chirping in a multitude of languages, an experiment in coexistence that was supposed to serve as a laboratory and mirror for the sort of harmony that the new organization had been born to provide to a world traumatized by the Second World War and the horrors of a colonialism that was slowly winding down. We moved to Parkway Village, after all, thirteen months before the Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in Paris in December of 1948.

So there was the expectation that the children of that rainbow of countries would embody peace and love and mutual deference.

Instead, we worshipped the gods of war.

In my home’s immediate vicinity, two bands of little gangsters quickly formed. On one side, the Scandinavians grouped together, joined by a stray Brit and Canadian. On the other was the horde I belonged to, a loose coalition of kids from Latin countries like France, Mexico and Argentina (my nationality back then). Stones, sticks, fists, clods of dirt, and a hail of multilingual curses sullied the earth and sky of that paradigmatic interethnic village. And whenever the weather contributed to the mayhem, snowballs filled with rocks. Even now, I bear some slight sliver of scars from those encounters. The battles ordinarily ended up in a draw, unless, that is, a muscular and large Liberian girl (or was she from Nigeria or Kenya?) devoted to our cause joined in—then a rout of the “Northern” boys ensued.

I would limp home bleeding, thirsting for the next encounter. My mother, ever the sweet peace-maker, banded together with other mothers to start up a series of teas where their urchins could sip hot cocoa and share homemade butter cookies. We endured this ceremony of amiability, fuming silently, hoping our foes would get sick from indigestion and be unable to return to the combat zone. That’s where we’d hasten to a few hours later, the warriors who had been falsely munching side by side soon engaged in the fierce togetherness of bodily struggle.

Of all the children, only one refused to participate in our rites worthy of Lord of the Flies. Roy, our small Indian friend, would not only exhort us to stop the bloodletting but all too often walk straight into the fray, trying to separate the two bands with his body. And once in a while he managed to stop us, shaming us into slinking back home rather than subjecting him to our violence.

Then, one day, he no longer came to the battle.

I think it was an afternoon. I can’t remember the year or the season, except it was not winter. I must have been eight years old.

My parents took me aside with a look on their faces I had never seen before.

Roy is dead, my father said, his voice breaking. My friend had an ordinary appointment at the dentist’s—merely a back tooth that needed to be extracted. He had been given anesthesia and—the details are not clear to me now, whether it was an overdose or if he was allergic or… the exact circumstances mattered less than the shock of hearing that my friend had died.

It was the first death of someone close to me that I can remember.

Along with the terror that all such disappearances produce in young children—so I can die, my mother and father and sister can die, here one day and not here the next, one second you’re breathing and smiling and the next, the next, how can it be?—along with that enhanced sense of my own mortality, and the precariousness of every living creature that surrounded me, came the puzzlement about justice and the bite of arbitrary fate. Of all the children, why Roy? Why the most gentle among us? Why the only one who did not believe in hurting one another? Why the champion of peace rather than one of the savage warriors? And how to honor his memory, how to make him part of my memory, our memory?

After Roy died, the battles ceased. A few months later, in fact, one of my most ferocious adversaries, a Danish kid, moved into the house next door and we became the best of friends. We never referred to Roy, but he must have joined in our games in some way and been present as we watched short 8mm movies where Mighty Mouse saved the day. He must have smiled as we played Monopoly and safari and cards and kicked a soccer ball around in the backyard.

Sixty or so years later, I finally visited the country that had created a child like Roy. With Angélica, we crossed the streets that he could no longer cross, that he never went back to, that are still, in some way, waiting for him, the people he came from and who are perhaps following his example, inadvertently hoping to learn from him.

Maybe we were not hit or hurt because he was holding our hand. Maybe he is holding many other hands as they venture into the traffic and turmoil of contemporary India, guiding their bodies to a better future.

I don’t believe in God or reincarnation or the return of the dead.

But if my friend Roy is alive anywhere, it is on the blessed streets of Jaipur.


A Chilean-American citizen born in Argentina, the novelist and playwright Ariel Dorfman has written works in English and Spanish, published in over fifty languages. His plays, performed in more than 100 countries, include Death and the Maiden (filmed in 1994 by Roman Polanski), Purgatorio, and Speak Truth To Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark. His poetry, essays, stories, and novels have won numerous international awards. Currently a Distinguished Professor at Duke University, he and his wife Angélica divide their time between Chile and the United States. A human rights activist and contributor to major papers and journals across the world, his latest work is the memoir Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile, a sequel to his bestselling book, Heading South Looking North.

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