Saturday, March 12, 2011

Streets Watching

Editor's Note: This post's theme music is here. Listening to it is optional because really it's just meant for Jay.

I find the streets in India to be alive with a particular vibrant eclecticism. Three stories from the roads around my office:

Couple days ago I was walking from my office to Ba's house, where I take my tiffin and have lunch most days. My regular rickshawwala Narendrabhai was posted outside my office and when I took off he told me to not walk, that he would drop me. I waved him off because I like the walk, a change of pace from my office coop. But he kept insisting, saying it was too hot to walk that day. I insisted back that it is fine, I need the exercise. So I continue on, and a bit down the road Narendrabhai pulls up next to me on in his rickshaw, again urging me to just hop in. No charge, he is going that way anyway, like it pains him that I was walking. But I hold firm and he speeds off. Fast forward another maybe two minutes, and a white Honda pulls up next to me and the driver rolls down his window. I feel the cool dry A/C air inside. This man is a stranger, I had never seen him before. Unbelievably, he nonchalantly offers me a ride. A complete stranger!

He says it's too hot, it's not a problem for him to take me where I need to go, it's no trouble at all. He was talking to me as if we were friends, which threw me off because he was definitely a stranger. All I could do was smile and thank him profusely, and that I would pass. As he drove off my immediate thought was how hard this city is trying to endear itself to me. At this point it's hate-love. I hate the heat, the pollution, the crowds, and the dearth of taquerias. But I love the people, the relationships, the connections. The warmth that comes from people, the hugs I get from MS kids, the bonding I do with noble friends at Shreeji Krishna. This was another point for Ahmedabad.

Story two is not really a story, just a feature of Indian street life that's interesting: how the public deals with vehicle accidents. Whenever there's an accident, it's pure street justice. A crowd inevitably forms around the vehicles in question, people yell, emotionally gesticulate, and point fingers, witnesses testify, and sometimes physical punishments are doled out then and there. I love how passersby naturally make it their business to get involved. The idea of rubbernecking as a feature instead of a bug is a stark difference between Indian and American street culture.

Final story: a crowd of people had gathered across the street from my office. I went to see what was going on, it turned out to be some kind of group distributing sacks of grain to poor people. There happened to be a lot of blind and handicapped recipients in the crowd, but especially blind. As I was watching the crowd disperse, an observation struck me about blind folks: they always seem to be smiling. Especially in India, where every so often you see groups of blind walking on the streets in a beeline, hand on next person's shoulder, blind leading blind. One possible explanation for the smiling blind is that a blind person is forced to live in complete trust of their immediate environment. Mostly the folks were walking down the street in groups, but one blind man was walking alone. I asked him if he was all right, and he immediately grabs for my hand. Maybe feeling to see if he could trust me, or to make me trustworthy if I wasn't. He asks to take him across the street and flag a rickshaw. When you're blind you're at the mercy of the universe by default, the only choice you have is to throw yourself into it. It takes courage. And also a shrewd strategy is to always be smiling.

I think smiling blind people is evidence that the natural configuration of our face is a smile, since the blind are not conditioned to keep their expressions based on looking at others. When I snapped my first pic of the group above, the lady in front immediately detected that I had done so, despite my camera being silent. I told her I was taking a picture of their lovely smiles. She said in that case I should take another one and this time her team would all show me their teeth:


  1. "The idea of rubbernecking as a feature instead of a bug is a stark difference between Indian and American street culture."

    Perhaps you have to be a CS guy to crack up at that one, but it definitely had me rolling. :)

  2. All our expressions are learnt by looking at others. But smile is the natural state of our people fortunate enough not to have learnt FALSE expressions by looking at others I.e visually handicapped are always smiling.