Hoofing it in Hyderabad
In a big City in India, it helps if you’re a gymnast if you want to use your legs to move around.
I am from Montreal, where we tend to ignore traffic lights and love to jaywalk, but nothing prepared me for the perils of traversing a major artery in an Indian metropolis.
Recently, I was in south India doing research in villages on empowerment of poor Untouchable caste women. In between bouts in rural areas I lived in the teeming city of Hyderabad where I would type up my notes and hang out at an Internet cafe.
Roads in the big cities of India are chock full of every kind of honking vehicle flying by like whirling dervishes with all the parts falling off.
Only the odd bullock takes its time, sometimes all on its own, unhitched from some stone-filled cart that is careening down a hill and about to crash into some poor guy’s fruit and vegetable pushcart.
In a big city in India, it helps if you’re a gymnast or an Olympic runner if you want to use your legs to move around. Otherwise, try wheels. There are no crosswalks and the red lights are ignored, where there are red lights.
Here was my experience one night in Hyderabad trying to cross the street to a favourite restaurant: I step out into on Himayathnagar Road in between several motor scooters that treat me like a post on a slalom trail.
A lurching auto rickshaw on three wheels is coming straight for me, and I have never I say never, seen any vehicle put on the brakes. If they have any. They’re probably in shreds, because this country uses things until they disintegrate.
I stand there like a freak, smack in the middle of the road with all these crooked metal carcasses attached to wheels zigzagging around and tell myself it’s a good idea I made out my will before I left Canada.
And what is that camel doing loping around that corner with a kid on its back?
Look left, look right, and—everyone is wrong. Oh yes, that’s because they use the left side of the road. Do I run now? Right after this truck that just grazed my arm?
Now a bus with 10 people bulging out the door is advancing fast. Jump. Now! I am suddenly sprawled across the snout of a mosquito rickshaw.
I am used to rickshaws hanging around when I am walking down the road, thinking I might want a ride, as persistent as beggars looking for coins, but this driver looks as though he would rather not. I grab wildly at the side of this misshapen moving insect and scramble in.
“Take me to the other side of the road,” I yell to him. “Minerva Hotel,” I holler. I am going back to my room. The hell with dinner. I’ll order in. He is turning around in the centre of the road.
“Minervaaaa,” I yell.
He doesn’t get it. Okay. I’ll let him take me wherever he feels like. But now he is standing still and we are about to be crushed by a million rushing locusts. I jump out.
“Oh Lord Shiva!” (That’s the god of destruction in this country) “Help!” A bus nearly ran over my feet. And here comes this rather small kid pawing at me for coins.
How did this kid get into the centre of the road? He looks about 5, although I know he’s probably 8, maybe even 9. Maybe I should pick him up, and take him to the side of the road before he gets mashed.
What am I saying? Maybe he should take me to the other side of the road. I have a 100 rupee bill in my pocket. Better be charitable now before I meet my maker because I think Lord Shiva has it in for me.
Here, kid. And I shove this bill at him. He is small and looks innocent but he knows a 100 rupee bill when he sees one. It is only three bucks Canadian, but it’s five days’ work if you’re a child labourer in the fields.
He smiles up at me. Enough to melt anyone, except the zoo on wheels is about to melt us both if we don’t do something. I grab his hand hoping he is better at leaping at the right time than I am.
We are running together to the other side of the road, and his bedraggled-looking mother is on the other side, holding a baby.
And there is this big crowd standing there watching. Because what was this funny-looking lady with an over-heated face, and faded brown hair, in semi-Indian clothes doing in the middle of the road with this kid?
I made it! I look up and see a place called Croquette. And I know they have big fat pieces of chocolate cake with lots of icing. And fresh fruit drinks. I let go of the kid’s hand, even though I feel he’s some kind of saviour. I need a friend. And he could be it.Maybe he would like a drink, or a piece of that chocolate cake.
I struggle up the steps to this coffee shop. There is a guard at the door to keep out thieves or weirdoes. I hope I don’t pass for one. I step inside and slump into a chair.
This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail on Aug 4, 2005.