Monday, January 21, 2008

Water or Power? Power or Water?

India really is a spiritual place. It lets you ponder things that, back home in America, say, you'd never even consider. Like, how many arms is the right number for a god to have? If you paint lanes on the road, and no one uses them, are they really there? And, the one I've mulled over most, what is more desirable: electricity or water? India is kind enough to give you both, one, the other, and neither, all in quick enough succession, and repeatedly enough, that you can test your assumptions. Thank you, India. Currently, water supply has been erradic, and electricity is consistently out from 8:30-10 a.m. and again from 4:30-6 p.m. It's tough to choose. Electricity helps to distract me from the lack of water, but after a while, no matter how much electricity I have, water just seems acutely desirable. And then, sometimes, there's neither, which is kinda hot and dirty...and, obviously, if I had wanted that, I would have just walked out the door.

Which reminds me of the filth of the city. As one walks around, and especially, I think, as one rides, one is assaulted with the utter filth of the city. The sidewalks are obstacle courses of uprooted bricks, the holes they've left, holes that were never filled in the first place, and piles of dusty dirt. I saw a rat run into a sewer hole today. To give you an idea its size, I'll say this: if you took my foot, put padding around it until it assumed the shape of a rat body, then threw a head and a tail on opposite ends, this fake rat you've just created would serve as a nice little hors d'oeuvre for whatever corpulent toddler the rat I saw is planning to eat tonight.

But the filth of the city is really most evident only when one breathes. Each breath is like a game of chicken between your lungs and whatever pollutants you can feel rushing past your lips. It's like that scene in "The Abyss" where they breathe that liquid into their lungs that allows them to use the oxygen in water for respiration. And in each case, the psychology is similar: I don't want to do this, but if I don't, I'm going to die. I've never seen so many people walk around with handkerchiefs over their mouths before (I've never seen anyone walk around with handkerchiefs over their mouth before, actually.)

Oh, a funny thing - doors are not a fully accepted part of Indian transportation culture. Cars, trucks, and taxis have stuck to their guns and managed to retain their rights to doors, but I think it ends there. The train doors never close, as far as I can tell; buses either had their doors ripped off, or are built without them; and auto rickshaws don’t have anything approaching a door, or doorway, or sidewall, for that matter. These are all for good reason …or, at least, for a reason – to accommodate more passengers. Knees, elbows or hands often breach the auto rickshaw/open air divide, and whole bodies hang, comfortably and not, from bus and train doorways.

Not that the vehicles here are necessarily only distinguished from those I'm used to by the things they lack...
Mumbai is also a city of innovation. I, for one, never even realized the entertainment opportunities being wasted in a very common daily activity – backing up. Sure, the buses and trucks that have the piercing “Beeeep. Beeeep. Beeeep.” backup warning signal have irritated me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. But what kind of creative block kept me from realizing what the Indians have not only realized, but implemented. I’m ashamed to say that I would never have thought to produce what the neighbors’ car here has – not an annoying beeping signal, but rather a catchy little electronic ditty. Every time this little Volkswagon Bugesque vehicle backs up, nearby pedestrians and motorists still receive the same warning, but have a little pleasant artistry injected into their day as well! In fact, today, I was humming along to a catchy tune when I realized it was getting louder and louder, and looked up to see myself a few meters from being run over by a happy singing backing up mini-tanker truck...but, I mean, if you gotta get run over...
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