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Streets of India
Photo essay

Ali Akbar Mahdi
September 21, 2004

For a traveler from the United States, a striking feature of Indian streets in Chennai, especially in the downtown areas, is its congestion: people, cattle, pets, cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, and ox-drawn carts of all sorts. Add to this: dust, dirt, piles of garbage, smoke, unpaved and damaged roads, and, in the summer, deadly heat with high humidity! >>> See photos

Street sides are full of vendors selling goods and food of all kinds: from "bhel poori" to "biryanis" and curry meats, from toys to artifacts, and from household goods to herbal medicines. A challenge in these streets, if you are walking, is the uneven sidewalks, which are often in disrepair. Not looking where you put the next step can be a source of disappointment and fatal injury!

Some streets are burdened by permanent residents on the sidewalks: homeless families and individuals who sleep where they can find a flat base for rest. Panhandlers and young children trying to sell you gum, candies, and cigarettes roam streets without any fear from police. Walking on the streets, you are amazed by the mere number of people, wheels, and animals moving in all directions, often in a chaotic way.

Although drivers worry more about getting to their destination than the safe passage on the road, they are amazingly skilled enough to avoid near accident situations without any stress!Traffic, despite police efforts, remains unruly and reckless. Rarely is anyone stopped for violations, which in most cases are often settled on the spot by bribery. Indian traffic is marked by equal opportunity, every soul or being there has its own place and respect.

Drivers, riders, pedestrians, and wanderers write, rewrite, negotiate, and settle rules as they go, all with an amazing speed and ease. Moving around the city, you rarely see an accident or fight about getting through these crowded streets, even though I cannot imagine safe travel on tight and inadequate roads outside the cities. In 2001, fatal auto accidents took lives of one Indian every 6.5 minutes.

Cars come in all varieties: European, American, Japanese, and Korean, and in all forms: old, new, and broken. Covered three-wheel scooters, known as rickshaws, with a seat for two people on the back, are the most common and fastest vehicles on the street. They zigzag among cars, people, and bicycles. They go where no other vehicle can go. All you have to do is to tell the driver when and where you need to be.

You are better off to negotiate the price at the beginning, if there is no meter or if the meter does not work. Even though they have only two seats on the back of the driver, they usually take as many passengers as they can accommodate, especially if they are small and not fussy about sitting tight.

In addition, you see them used as a truck, carrying mattresses, luggage, and other household equipments. While they are great for one or two persons to get around, they are a perfect conduit for inhaling exhaust fumes as they tail buses and trucks. Some rickshaws are a source of most of the smoke since they run on improvised fuel -- often a combination of lubricant oil and kerosene.

During the hot and humid summer days, the polluted air and the environment are major sources of breathing difficulties for people in the streets. Many people wear masks to protect themselves against the polluted air and thick dust. Masks used for this purpose are varied too, often indicative of social stratification: handkerchief, fabric, paper, construction masks, and expensive designer masks.

Despite all these challenges, it is fun walking in Indian streets. For a Middle Easterner, there is something familiar in the Indian street. Bargaining is everywhere. Social etiquettes are not too different from the Middle Eastern ones. Persian words are all over the place and used in Indian languages commonly. Middle Eastern cynicism, both social and political, is in abundance. Religious symbols are displayed openly on people's faces architecture, cars, and walls.

The city streets are lively, resourceful, and exciting. The energy released by people and objects in these streets is infectious! The aroma of Indian spices, the beauty and colorfulness of embroidered Indian saris, the warmth of a hard working people, and the visible hardship of life for so many poor Indians are all a source of hope and excitement for this largest democracy on the earth.

A common practice of daily drawing of flowers on the asphalts with the chalk is a constant reminder that life can be constructed with beauty and liveliness, even in the slum streets where you find more of these drawings each morning >>> See photos

Ali Akbar Mahdi is a Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in Ohio Wesleyan University. Homepage.

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