In the middle of a four-lane highway under a peepal tree sits a temple of Kali, goddess of destruction. Nine in the morning, in the crowd of office goers, bullock carts are in a rush to reach the mandi. Camels, elephants, cows, buffaloes, and hens all feel at home here. People get up, do their morning rituals, have tea, and talk to friends. Indian roads for a long time have been better suited for life than motor cars.
Here farmers make temporary home for their produce. You can find the freshest fruits and vegetables at busiest roadsides. Truckers take breaks: this is their second home. Priests after their morning archana in nearby temples sit at the roadside as messengers of god. In their colorful ghagharas, women walking in a queue and trying to balance a bundle of woods or water pitchers adorn the edges of these roads.
On these roads, young men with nothing but entrepreneurial spirit sets up shop. This is where pre- and postindustrial India meet. They run assembly lines on the roadside. They collect and chop old tires: they collected from ‘car and truck’ repair shops alongside these very roads or just fell off. They load their bullock carts to take them to nearby kilns where it is used as fuel. If you are on one of the roads leading to a heritage building, you can shop for some of the finest antiques from your car while sipping some tea and eating some snack from roadside ‘dhabbas’. Like aroma of cooking food at home during meal time, our roads smell of jagery, beetel juice, and deep frying.
If you have an opinion on a current political situation, or a student who does not agree with the college policies or authorities, this is where you can voice it. You think taxes are too high, you do not wish to pay toll, you found out that a politician took a bribe, or you do not want a road to run through your village swallowing acres of farmland, come to the road and stop the traffic and you will be heard. Highway ‘bandh’ and road closures for these reasons or more are integral part of our Indian lives.
Getting married? All of us are happy for you, and we will dance on the roads in front of your wedding procession even if that means we may be late for office. Somebody died in your family? We will walk a mile or two with the procession on the road and offer one or two words of sympathy.
Religion cannot be kept off the roads of India. Trees are sacred to Hindus: you cannot hire a Hindu to cut them down to clear the way for the road. There are hundreds and thousands of temples, mosques, gurudwaras, ashrams, and other religious institutions lining the roads. Road is where you come to find your future: stop by the trees where astrologers will read your horoscopes or have parrots to speak for them.
Building a highway or a road is by nature a violent act but here India unites. This is where democracy finds home. We live on both sides of the road. On one side of the road is our railway station or our hand pump, and on the other side are our schools. You build a wall alongside our roads; we will cut a hole in the wall and sprint across. This is where most of the literature has been born. Rudyard Kipling in his very popular work, Kim, which centers around India’s most popular and historically significant Grand Trunk Road, said, “Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims -and potters – all the world going and coming. It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood. And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles – such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.”
On these roads India slows down. On these roads India picks up speed.