Wild India

21 May

I’ve just come back from India.

Aouda, from Jules Verne's Around The World in 80 Days

From Around The World in 80 Days

India has always been the inspiration for my childhood’s favorite adventures. The jungles of India grew dense and lush in Kipling’s imagination, its red city gates guarded by turbaned, mustachioed men. It was here that Tolkien’s war Oiliphaunts were born, and where fathers from England went to leave their Little Princesses behind. It’s where explorers disappeared, Mughals rule, and condemned widows needed rescuing from funeral pyres.

Everything about the India I’ve grown up with is wreathed in intrigue and opium, cloaked in deep green forests, gleaming with rubies and sapphires, where man-eating leopards run free. It sounds of tinkling ankle bells on thinly veiled dancing girls, the music of a charmer’s pipe. It perspires every exoticity that the Western imagination can conjure about the mysterious East.

I had hoped to get a glimpse of the wild India of my storybook heroes, but unfortunately the wildest thing I ever experienced during my very short stay was the traffic.

Lucknow Traffic

Lucknow Traffic

We spent a day on the road, driving seven hours from Lucknow to Agra. The highways were a jumble of brightly painted ten-wheelers, overloaded vegetable trucks, tractors, motorbikes, tourist buses with gawking ferenghi. Towns we passed had narrow streets where pedestrians weaved in and out of traffic dressed in saris of every color imaginable, enviable moustaches, pristinely wound turbans, golden nose rings, foreheads dotted with red kumkums — all seemingly oblivious to the white heat of the Indian summer blazing outside.

Biking

Biking

They say that when driving in India, you need four things:

Good eyes, Good horn, Good brakes,

and Good luck.

Honk

Honk

I believe this. It’s really a lucky thing that there aren’t more accidents on the highway than there are.

Swerving into the tiniest openings, overtaking speeding motorbikes — even the most daredevil racer would balk at these opportunities to one-up another driver. Still, there must be some unspoken road rule about giving way to an overtaking vehicle when it becomes clear, from its frenzied horn-honking, that it’s about to be obliterated by the counterflow.

It’s chaotic, but organized. I mean, I see their point — who needs traffic rules when you have good judgement?

Close shaves in India have nothing to do with moustaches

“Close shaves” in India have nothing to do with moustaches

Our driver was impressively calm and efficient for the duration of our trip. Once, while overtaking, he slid our van back into the right side of the road with the precision of a neurosurgeon, only a split second before the oncoming container van would have surely smashed into the front seat. He never flinched once. He would have put The Stig to shame.

In fact, driving on the bits of uncongested highway seemed to bore him, much so that he sometimes looked as if he would fall asleep with such easy driving. It was a shame he did not speak English, nor I Hindi, because I really wanted to ask lots of questions. I tried anyway.

Compared with the drive to Agra, the cobra I saw on the street seemed almost tame. (It probably was.)

Cobra Commander

Cobra and friend

And in that long, dusty, bumpy, break-y roadtrip, my window seat offered me a small glimpse (about 330 km. worth) of what makes India a place of such mystery and wonder.

The sweeping vastness of the Mughal kingdoms and the calm rivers that cut through them. The mosques, the churches, the towering monuments of godesses with probably as many hands as there are religions in India. The red desert dust that sweeps over everything that sits still. The tyrannical sun. Bustling towns of beautiful, hardworking people who are proud of their cultural heritage. The wayward cow that turns into an obstinate roadblock. And of course, the swashbucklers that carve out a seven-lane queue out of a four-lane tollway.

I was able to see the wild India of my adventure books, after all.

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