Or lessons in negotiating traffic from the animal world
Most first-time foreign visitors to India get terribly excited when they first see a cow on the roads. Its a life-changing moment for many,who have perhaps never seen a live cow,and here they are strolling down the middle of an expressway,or sitting bang in the middle of a major crossroads or on the central verge. Many call their therapists immediately. But like everything in India,theres a mystic meaning behind this phenomenon: foreign visitors are usually also completely traumatised by our traffic and need to be treated for PTSD when they get home. But theres no need for that and cows will show you why. They even work their magic on hard-bitten Indians who try to get run over from six different directions,12 times a day.
There you are,fighting tooth and nail for your place on the road,skirmishing like Vettel and Hamilton,your blood pressure and the red mist rising,and what do you see? In the midst of this Roman arena mayhem,a cow,or a bunch of them,sitting calmly in the middle of the road eyeing the traffic with their huge,lustrous eyes,chewing cud with more sangfroid than any teenager,and desultorily flicking the flies off their backs. Immediately your BP returns to normal and you stop trying to mow down the scooter just ahead of you. But umm,lets not talk about buffaloes.
There are many other animals that share road space with us. Dogs probably get the worst of it and are frequently mashed to pulp,but many are canny. They sit patiently at pedestrian crossings,waiting for the lights to change,and only cross over when it is green and they can take cover behind the few sensible people doing the same thing. Of course,many have the propensity to try and disembowel your tyres while youre doing 70 kmph,but theyre probably fantasising about the time when they brought down deer and antelope in the glorious hunts of yore. Cats usually keep out of sight.
Amongst the big five,the biggest,of course,are elephants. They usually have the same calming effect as cows as they sashay down the road,except that you keep a safe distance from them. One bus driver at New Delhis ITO forgot this as the lights turned green he gently nudged the pachyderm in front of him. The elephant swiveled,raised its trunk and trumpeted,and the bus,driver included,emptied in nanoseconds. Camels,more frequently encountered in the desert states,look down sneeringly at the traffic far below. They may have lovely eyelashes but they have terrible teeth,which sort of puts paid to their superiority. The tonga horses,always an enthralling spectacle as they race,are now few and far between. Instead,we have white wedding mares,which look cloned,clomping behind glittering carriages or carrying blingy grooms on their backs. Most,of course,have been bred like the warhorses of the past,and will stay calm as the baarati band blares,but horses are prone to panic attacks and if yours flares its nostrils and rolls its eyes (because a paper bag has blown in front of it) get off and run. Especially if youre the groom. Goats,alas,in cities are usually only encountered when on the way to the slaughterhouse,so they couldnt give a damn about anything. And monkeys hang out near temples or city parks,waiting to waylay the meek and devout,which really is what the history of humankind is all about. Chickens will gladly run headlong into you,and as for those infernal pigeons and doves youre in seventh gear,wishing you had an eighth,and whats that? A damn pigeon outpacing you easily,fuelled on bajra and with no DRS or Kers.
Maybe thats why we behave like road hogs.
Ranjit Lal is an author,environmentalist and bird watcher. In this new column,he will reflect on the eccentricities and absurdities of nature