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
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
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
any stress!Traffic, despite police efforts, remains unruly
and reckless. Rarely is anyone stopped for violations, which in
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
an accident or fight about getting through these crowded
streets, even though I cannot imagine safe travel on tight and
roads outside the cities. In 2001, fatal auto accidents took
lives of one Indian every 6.5 minutes.
Cars come in all varieties:
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
vehicles on the street. They zigzag among cars, people,
bicycles. They go where no other vehicle can go. All you have
to tell the driver when and where you need to be.
to negotiate the price at the beginning, if there is
no meter or if the meter does not work. Even though they have only
seats on the back of the driver, they usually take as many
passengers as they can accommodate, especially if they are small
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
perfect conduit for inhaling exhaust fumes as they
and trucks. Some rickshaws are a source of most of
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,
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
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.
practice of daily drawing of flowers on the asphalts with
the chalk is a constant reminder that life can be constructed with
and liveliness, even in the slum streets where you find more
of these drawings each morning >>> See
Ali Akbar Mahdi is a Professor at the Department of Sociology
and Anthropology in Ohio Wesleyan University. Homepage.