Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Driving and India

There are no speed limits on Indian highways. That is not at all similar to Germany where high performance cars flash by at super speeds, leaving judgement to individual drivers. Just the opposite. Driving in much of India is a kind of symbolic representation of Indian society — everyone crowds together (there is, for example, absolutely no concept of tailgating as a bad thing, every car rides right up to the rear bumper of the car ahead), but there is also a known implicit signal system of horn honking and light flashing which, mostly, allows cars to flow. This is a land in which implicit known signal systems allow people to crowd and jostle but at the same time flow and function. Nothing is defined by rules, everything is defined by known and assumed practices.

A sociologist friend explained to us that in the markets you are expected to haggle because that creates a relationship between buyer and seller — this is no mere material exchange, it is a form of social contact during which money and goods change hands. And that is what you see all around, social forms unfolding based not individuals and individual choice, but on intersecting collective identities (boy is that an abstract phrase). For example, a drive we need to take tomorrow should take about 3 hours. But the caste of cow herders is upset that it is not getting as many government jobs set aside for it as the caste of farm workers. So the cow herding caste is blocking the roads to the city we need to reach and we will have to use back roads.

You may think that caste is illegal, or that since Gandhi it has been removed. No, not at all. Instead, in a kind of massive Affirmative Action, some 50 percent of govt jobs, places in the best schools, and other plums, have been set aside for the disadvantaged castes. But that then, as just now, raises the question of who is a disadvantaged class? that is not a matter of income, or certainly race as in America, it is more a matter of self assertion and government assent. Thus the blocked roads.

And today our driver was hit by an auto-rickshaw — a motorcycle pulling a tiny carriage (we were not there). Since the auto-rickshaw is local and our driver is not, it is clear that our guy will lose in the eyes of the local police, so many layers of discussion and negotiation are taking place.

So to return to my opening, this is a land of implicit and understood social interactions based on known group behaviours. But it is also a place where these patterns get jostled out of place and then the social net operates through power and negotiation. In a way that is true of anywhere, but in America our focus is relentlessly on the individual, not the group or even the family. And that is the difference here. We are staying on a farm just now. Our host explained that Indians eat very little processed food ,because at home there is always a mother ,and auntie, a grandmother, a servant to cook from scratch. But just now, as women begin to work in the big cities, living alone, without their families, that is just starting to change. Individualism brings greater freedom for women — and canned food. We are eating wheat grown and stone ground on this very farm, yet as a worker came to the door this morning with a sack of grain, he crouched on the ground, to humble himself before the Sahib, the farm owner.

And we get to watch and observe. We are near to Jaipur where there is a literary festival every January. Our dream is to create a children’s book arm to the festival and bring books, authors, stories from America here.