India 2008: Into the Fast Lane

Courtesy The Guild

When I was a child, people traveled around Delhi mostly by walking or bicycling or taking a bus. India was much poorer in the seventies. On the rare occasion when someone on our street bought a scooter, he would also pay for a religious ceremony. This was largely to bribe God to ward off the evil eye, an often envious gaze that brings on a curse. A pandit would come and light a small fire inside the man’s house. Usually a dozen relatives showed up, and they would sit on the floor and pray. At the end of the ceremony the pandit went outside and drew an evil eye and a red swastika (to invoke a blessing) on the scooter.

While scooters were uncommon, private cars were even more exotic, the sort of thing one saw in movies. The religious ceremony for a new car was much larger. A tent would be put up at one end of the street, and the pandit would get a roaring blaze going. The whole neighborhood might show up. Hundreds of people would bustle around the parked car, inevitably an Ambassador sedan, which, silent and still in the hubbub, resembled a demure bride.

India has changed a great deal. Cars are now everywhere—Fords, Fiats, Toyotas, BMWs, Indian Tatas. Journeys around Delhi that used to take 20 minutes take an hour. Tata recently bought the illustrious British brands Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford, a deal with symbolism that was hard to ignore. Cars and highways, like call centers, have become emblems of the new India.

The old India hasn’t disappeared, though. In fact, one way to see the two Indias is by driving. Start on the new highways and then take some of the old roads that have existed for centuries (and which many Indians still prefer, to avoid paying tolls). Highways, as Americans think of them, are relatively recent in this country. During the first 50 years after independence in 1947, India constructed only 330 miles of four-lane roads. Then in 1998 a right-wing Hindu party took power and, as an assertion of national pride, tested a nuclear weapon and began a 15-year project to build 40,000 miles of highways—including the so-called Golden Quadrilateral, which connects Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Calcutta. Before that, the last time India had a road-building boom was in the 16th century, when the Moghul emperors were knitting together their empire.

Driving the new highways, you pay a toll, use the on-ramp, and things become effortless. There is steady but not overwhelming traffic. Periodically the road rises, allowing you to look down on mud-hut villages, dun-colored farms, and oxen dragging wooden plows. On the best highways, there is the sense you could be in any country. There are rest stops with tarmac plazas, gas stations, and glass-and-steel restaurants that might be found on the New Jersey Turnpike. Only instead of burgers and fries, the smells are of spices from rice and lentils.

After the broad highways, India’s old roads are a shock. If you use them, leave early in the morning, perhaps while it is still dark. These roads are crowded and narrow and uneven, and it will take a long time getting where you want to go. Driving requires complete focus. A camel squatting by the side of the road might suddenly lurch up and draw a cart into your path. Young boys delivering tea frequently run across roads with their kettles. The U.S. State Department warns that in case of an accident, you should abandon your vehicle and escape the likely mob by going to the nearest police station.

While these old roads can be nerve-racking, they are where one finds India as it is experienced by Indians: a tree in the road with a tiny temple beneath it; kos minars, 30-foot towers on brick platforms that the Moghuls put up as distance markers (a kos is just shy of two miles); odd signs encouraging careful driving—do not be rash and end in crash, make love not war but nothing while driving.

In farming areas, you’ll come upon piles of wheat, about the height of a reclining man, in the middle of the road. The women in bright clothes on either side use the passing cars as threshers. After your car bumps over their piles, in your rearview mirror you’ll see them scurrying to sweep up the grains.

Although these two types of roads are very different, to think of them as entirely separate Indias isn’t accurate. The prosperous, Westernized India holds many of the same beliefs as the poorer, more traditional India. Stuck in one of the country’s increasingly ubiquitous traffic jams, you sometimes see a Mercedes sedan or a Toyota SUV that appears to have been covered with graffiti. But looking more closely you see it’s actually those swastikas and evil eyes.

Akhil Sharma is the author of An Obedient Father, winner of the Hemingway/PEN Award.