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Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sidewalk-ing in Mahe

Mahe (originally Mayyizhi in Malayalam) is a former French colony/territory. This once "francophone" is trying hard to preserve it's heritage, or whatever is left of it, by turning into a little bubble of modern living, very much like its sister territory of Pondicherry (or Puducherry as it is now known). They've built parks, and are currently engaged in turning one of these parks into a harbor/pier that will allow patron to walk along the beautiful Mahe creek (Mayyizhi puzha), while simultaneously attempting to cater to the influx of tourists by having a basic, but world-class, infrastructure in place. To this effect, one of their more recent endeavors on this front has been the setting up of sidewalks, or "footpaths," all around town. Here's a sign telling you to stick to these well-fashioned paths:

Not very visible, but it reads "Walk On Foot Path." This sign is a result of a great Indian invention, one that rivals the creation of the "zero" - Jaywalking. Flouting the availability of sidewalks, not to mention their relative safety, the average Indian is prone to seemingly casually be strolling along the side of the road before suddenly making a dash for the other side. Maybe the chicken joke should really read, "Why did the Indian cross the road?" Or perhaps it should be "How". Regardless, such reminders to stay on the beaten, and often concreted path are always visible. However, having said that and also having been so harsh to my poor Indian brothers and sisters, perhaps there is a reason for this brazen behavior. As my first exhibit of such evidence, take a look at the following picture.

What was the first thing that struck you when you looked at the picture? Well, it has to be the puddle, for sure. But, I hope you also noticed the width of the sidewalk, which in my estimation isn't wide enough to let two people walking in opposite directions to pass each other without some major adjustment from both. In other words, the sidewalk is about one-and-a-half people wide, if you catch my drift. Also, the imposing fence that shields the pedestrians from the vehicular traffic - I suspect it's the other way around though - gives the sidewalk a bit of a being-herded-to-the-gallows feel. Still, at least there is a sidewalk, right? But, what happens when you're happily walking along, and you come across this?

Most of us have been raised to anticipate the end of the world, if only momentarily. I'm not sure, however, that many of us have been raised to deal with the end of the sidewalk. One assumes that even if there was an end to a sidewalk, if nothing else because all well-meaning things must come to an end, that this end would come about in as well-meaning a manner as the beginning. But what do you do when there's a transformer, and some laterite bricks in the way, followed by a 3-foot drop into a hideous, open drain? Well, then we turn on the Indian in us, take our life in our own hands, or place it in Fate's outstretched, eager palm, and step on to the road come hell or drain water.

This is no act of revolt, merely one of survival. Surviving the transition to development. Surviving the indecency of having to live the half-formed promise of modernity. Surviving the diatribe of politics that often results in the situation that is. And this is really our forte. To survive. Indians are survivors. How else do you explain the fact that we are a civilization that continues to exist, in spite of our half-baked forays into the modern world? This too shall pass...or so we believe as we put our faith in the powers that be and take our next step forward. Perhaps that's all there is to this life, very much in the metaphorical existence of the average denizen of Mahe - Sidewalk-ing into the unknown, puddles and all.

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