Offline in India – a reflection on traffic circles

I set off for India two weeks ago, digital camera clutched firmly in my increasingly hot and sticky hand, determined that this time I would organise myself to blog my experiences as I went along. I was headed for what sounded like a very interesting meeting – a workshop at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore that would bring together Indian, Chinese, Brazilian and African perspectives on digital publishing and Open Access. The workshop was indeed fascinating and highly productive, but more of that a bit later in my next blog.

Given that Bangalore is the ICT hub of India, I was looking forward to good connectivity and had visions of myself, grey head and all, typing away among the young tecchies in the back row of the workshop. What became immediately apparent, however, was that connectivity was absent. Like the state of affairs at the iCommons Summit in Rio, where exactly the same thing happened, we had a crowd of high-tech people gathered together in a high-tech place and the wireless connection was down. People who know better than me were muttering dark and incomprehensible things about proxy servers. Some conniving anti-Open Access demon must be out there somewhere, watching us, wanting to teach us well-learned lessons about knowing our place in the developing world.

So there were anxious huddles of email-junkies crouching over laptops between sessions, withdrawal symptoms setting in rapidly. Various hugely qualified people from remote corners of the world and the technicians from the Institute fiddled with my laptop, so that just before we left Bangalore, I could connect to the very good wireless system, by then up and running. After that, nothing – my poor neurotic laptop tried frantically to connect to a network that it could not find and then just lay down and wept. Only in Dubai airport on the way back could it download from a super-slick connection.

Resorting to Internet cafés and friends’ computers, I then encountered Mweb at its dysfunctional worst – or so I thought, perhaps unfairly. Try sitting in front of a computer in Mysore, after days off line, staring at a screen that has ACCESS DENIED!! repeated across the screen in random patterns. At least Google mail worked, so I could scream abuse at Mweb. I gather that I was perhaps being unfair, although it did me good to let off steam. The problem was quite possibly just that South-South Internet connections don’t route very well, I am told, while Gmail is on a US server at the hub of the e-world. Does that means that I will have to learn my place in the scheme of things and tone down my idealism about the potential of ICTs in the developing world? I hope not.

Now that I am back home, and after much wise head-shaking by the quietly competent son (every Linux-using mother needs one or two), the laptop is now happy and connected again, but its owner is prostrate, coughing the exhaust fumes of Bangalore out of her lungs.

India was worth it though, even if I was off line, so here are some brief impressions. Most of all, the traffic! Chaos! Driving from the airport in Bangalore and then everywhere else I went, there is a hooting cacophony of mopeds, rickshaws, buses, lorries and cars, weaving in and out in apparent disregard for traffic lanes and unnecessary interferences like solid white lines. And then in the middle of it all, a plodding oxcart or a handcart loaded high. The weaving. I realised, is done with great precision and a complicated understanding of patterns and space. You have to learn very quickly, even on a quiet campus, to respond to a hoot behind you, stepping aside just enough to let a bicycle or moped past without getting in the way of another one. We are pretty clumsy by comparison with Indians, and grossly unaware of our own body space – aggressive, linear space-guzzlers, I realised. .

At first boggle-eyed and confused by the chaos, I then began to realise that we are very Calvinist in South Africa, obeying the rules smugly -up to a point – neat and tidy (yes, comparatively, even our much maligned taxi drivers) but really aggressively asserting our individual right to our own space, at the risk of killing each other in the name of that right. Indian traffic seems to be a place for negotiation and is a great leveller – that sleek BMW in a Bangalore traffic jam is completely disabled as a status symbol, reduced to lesser competence than the ancient but pristine Ambassador taxi or the family on a moped weaving around it. No-one can go too fast – there is not room. But there is that heart-stopping moment as a maze of traffic converges at a complex intersection. Instead of an almighty pile-up, there is an exchange of glances, a swarm of mopeds and cars stops briefly to give way and the complex pattern sorts itself out. How it is negotiated, I don’t know, but it seems to work. And even when we
met a bullock cart plodding the wrong way down the fast lane of a highway in the countryside, road rage did not manifest itself, just a blast on the hooter, a weave, and we were past it.

There were quiet spaces, too, like the avenues of the Indian Institute of Science, walkways shaded by great arching trees, where the crows swooped overhead ,cawing, in the evening. A lone man pushing a handcart down a suburban Bangalore street calling ‘papaya! papaya!’ Or the beach in Goa at sunset, all sifted light, soft pastels and the warm water of the Arabian sea. There were the quiet and cool colonial lounges at the Green Hotel in Mysore, where yoga aficionados gather, egrets sailing over the Cauvery river in the still morning of a bird sanctuary, a young girl tugging at a reluctant cow at the roadside, or a group of men cross-legged on a verandah wall, talking. In the middle of a rice field, a group of men appear to be having a quiet conversation with their cattle. A cluster of young girls, bright as birds of paradise, crowded around me in the gardens of Tipu Sultan’s summer palace in Sringinapatana, wanting to know. ‘What is your name? What does it mean? Where do you come from? You are beautiful.’ Or a anther crowd of small boys, more precise, “What other places are there in Africa? How much does it cost to get here? How much do you spend in India? What does your name mean?’ And the man in the temple who wanted to know if I had found peace.

And the food – eating curry for breakfast turns out to be very good for you. Delicious, mostly vegetarian food wherever I went, and some crab and prawns in Goa (where my Fellowship colleague, Prashant, complained that even the vegetarian food tastes of fish). In a crowded self-service lunch bar in Bangalore, the food was amazing and cost, by our standards, almost nothing – as do the brilliant cottons and silks.

I’ll have to go back- we need to work on these South-South alliances.

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