Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Public GPS

O bharatiya janta (Indian public), may your insatiable thirst for consulting absolute strangers never be quenched and may your sense of direction improve to the point of being only slightly dubious. But, most of all, may your ability to have impromptu debates at the drop of a Gandhi topi and reach some sort of motley consensus never erode.

Google maps, iPhones, and Jane (the English Received Pronunciation accented woman inside my car's GPS) have helped me navigate the behemothic country called the USA for the past year. I have enjoyed the feeling of being somewhat self-reliant which comes from being able to drive down from New York to Boston or to Virginia with less than five wrong turns per journey, each of my errors sending poor old Jane indignantly 'recalculating' my route.

But now that I am back in my beloved 'Dilli', I have had to get around without the GPS and the omniscient 3G internet on my iPhone. Note to fellow 3G addicts: the withdrawal symptoms aren't too bad (I jut find myself turning on the iPhone about five times a day and then re-realizing, with crushing disappointment, for the billionth time that the 3G isn't there for me anymore).

So how do I do it? Am I just the yellow-livered babu who takes 'autos' (short for autorickshaws, the notorious three wheeled scooters that careen around Delhi perilously ferrying the populace around while reacquainting them with the idea of a God) from point A to B instead of taking on the labyrinthine city? Well, sometimes, but when Leah isn't with me, I usually am foolhardy enough to use the buses of the city that I am no longer very well acquainted with. By now, shrewd reader, you must have formulated the obvious question in your head: how does Pranay know which bustling bus to board?

The answer, my dear reader, is in the question. These buses are bustling with the motliest crew of characters which ranges from whirling dervishes to pan chewing, toad like businessmen to thin, file-clutching men who always look like they are headed to their first day of work to women who always seemed to be appalled by me to dubiously debonair men with well oiled hair and imaginatively coloured shirts that are opened till the third button to sage looking mullahs with their resplendent beards and awesome skull caps who look like they have the answer to life, the universe, and everything to maths geeks who actually do (42) to sadhus who are constantly keen to hand out some sort of powerful benediction that'll forever change your fortunes, make you handsome beyond compare, replace your lost locks, and may even make you immortal...for a nominal fee.

Yes, it's the people of Delhi who form a living, breathing, organic, and not-entirely-infallible GPS.

Consider my recent foray to Delhi's Gaffar market which is located in an area named Karol Bagh. At first I was tempted to take an auto, but the demands of a hundred rupees for the trip made me recoil and made the idea of a perspiration drenched bus-ride more palatable. Buses in india don't operate the way those in the west do. For one, their doors are always open which may be as reflective of the traditional Hindu attitude towards guests as it is to India's disdain for danger: "We drove out those bloody Brits, what hazard could this open door in a bus weaving around the streets of Delhi at breakneck speed possibly pose to me?" Moreover, our buses have conductors who seem, invariably, to be teenage boys wearing terribly dirty undershirts. These marvelous creatures begin yelling the oncoming stops of the bus as soon as it stops

Conductor: Jangpura, Nizamuddin, CP, Rajender Nagar
PS: How about Karol Bagh?
Conductor: No.
PS: But that guy told me you're going there
Conductor: Come aboard.

I didn't realize it then, but the 'come aboard' meant 'your funeral'. After boarding, I waited for the driver to have a therapeutic yell at a passenger for some imagined slight before asking him how to get to Gaffar Market

Driver: *maintains gloomy silence*
Conductor: we don't go there
PS: *panicking now* what should I do?
Passenger 1(one of the open shirted debonair tribe): rajender nagar is your best bet
Passenger 2( a hardworking Muslim kind): yes, it should be close from there

Mollified, I sat down and watched the familiar sights of Delhi whizz by. Every ten minutes, though, I'd go up to the conductor chap and made sure he remembered my existence and told me when to get off. As the stop came nearer, I migrated to the front of the bus and made some nervous enquiries regarding my future.

Passenger 3 (a man of ironmonger proportions): where did you say? Gaffar Market?
Passenger 4 (a possible monozygotic twin of Jabba the Hutt): No worries, get off at the next stop and take it to 101.
Ironmonger: don't be bloody silly, the 101 will not take you to Gaffar Market!
Jabba: What rubbish! My family swears by the 101.

Some more indignant words were exchanged on the matter as I looked on helplessly. Just as it looked like Jabba would leap onto the ironmonger and put his considerable mass to murderous ends, a fifth passenger, an earnest young lad who looked like he had entered the real world for the first time, tremulously offered his opinion: He could just take the 211.

The necks of jabba and the ironmonger snapped, almost in unison, in the poor lad's direction. He now looked as though he wished he'd never entered the real world.

Jabba: Have you gone mad?
Ironmonger: Even this you don't know? The 211 stopped running months back!

By now i was fearing for the poor lad's safety more than my own route. Just as the situation was about to take an irreversible turn, a kind looking Muslim gentleman beckoned me and whispered in my ear.

Muslim Gentleman : Get off the bus at this red light, cross the road under the flyover around the and take the 721 from near the petrol pump [gas station].
Jabba: what did he say?
PS: He recommended the 721.
Ironmanger: Oh, but that's simply brilliant!
Jabba: *begrudgingly* yes, yes, that may even be better than my 101.
Tremulous lad:*relieved at not being the centre of attention anymore* Yes, it'll drop you right outside the Gurudwara!

Thus, a consensus was reached regarding my itinerary and peace prevailed on that wretched bus. I was all but pushed out of the bus by the cast of characters described above and made a quick dash in the direction of the aforementioned petrol pump and made a running jump onto a 721 that I saw halted at the red light.

I got a Rs. 5 ticket from the conductor, an even dirtier looking teenage boy with an even more squalid undershirt. He promised that he'd alert me when my stop came and I made it a point, as i had done before, to keep him aware of my existence. In doing so, however, I betrayed my ignorance of the territory. All across India, this is the cue for the janta to make enquiries and see if there's any way in which they can consult this stranger.

Why they do so is beyond me. Is it simple helpfulness? Is it a form of socialism? Does it make them feel superior for some unknown reasons? Do they feel god will bless their loins and they'll give burgh to their next prime minister if they help random strangers on buses? Your guess is as good as mine. In the end, I don't care what the motivation is. I am just happy that they do it because it saves hapless strangers from a terrible fate. This certainly was the case with me.

Passenger 1: where are you going?
PS: Gaffar Market
Passenger 1:*looking horrified* But that's in the other direction!
Passenger 2: where did he want to go?
Passenger 1: Gaffar market!
Passenger2: And that scoundrel of a conductor gave him a ticket? What robbery!
Passenger 3: How terrible! Get off as soon as possible!
Passenger 4: But make that rat give you your money back before you get off!
Passenger 3: yes, yes, daylight robbery, I tell you!

I think Indians really do enjoy getting indignant on the behalf of each other. Is this because of the "INDI" in indignant? Who knows? Who cares? When you have a bus load of Indians indignant on your behalf, you feel as if you're the corpse of Caesar in Act 3 Scene 2 and the citizenry of Rome is looking to bring your enemies to a nasty end. One of the passengers elbowed his way to the conductor and chastised him for deceiving me.

Passenger 1: Hey, why did you tell him that this bus was going to gaffar market?
Conductor: I thought he wanted to go to Tottunagar!
Passenger 2: Return his money right away!
Passenger1: Such incompetence!
Passenger 3: bloody typical!

When so many people are taking a stand on your behalf, you have to make some weak, but passably outraged statement yourself to justify their much greater ire. So, to appease my defenders, I confronted the conductor and demanded a refund. "That," he said, "is not possible." I didn't want to make a meal of it over five measly rupees so I rushed past the conductor to the front of the bus and got out at the next stop.

By this point, I had had enough of buses and I let the yellow-livered babu within me come to the fore and jumped into a passing auto (after saying a few fervent prayers) and paid the chap Rs. 40 to take me to Gaffar market. As the auto maneuvered injudiciously between trucks and cars, I began to think of the differences between the USA and India in terms of our GPS.

When I think of America, I see it as a massive country with a population density which is too low in most areas to support a public GPS. This explains the prevalence and popularity of the electronic GPS in place alongside a public transport system that, compared to India, seems rather seamless and idiot proof. For most people in India the electronic GPS is out of reach financially. Therefore, like in almost every other aspect of life, we make do with what we have. My recent experience with India's public GPS reminded me of our country's extraordinary ability to reach consensus across lines of religion, language, and caste. It was this maintenance of consensus that helped India retain its spot as the world's largest democracy despite the unanimous skepticism of the world's experts at the onset of this spectacular experiment in governance. It also reminded me of our ability to cheerfully adjust to the imperfections of our developing country with the conviction that these minor inconveniences will not last long. Leah thinks that I am making too much of a single bus ride and am painting a much-too-rosy picture of India. Who knows? She may be right. Either way, I am very happy with the Bharariya Janta.