Wednesday, October 27, 2004

On the Old Madras Road

On the Old Madras Road
Subir Roy, Business Standard

I have become a little superstitious about roads. Gradually, they have come to acquire in my mind the status of a horoscope or the lines on the palm of the hand, both of which are studied to predict your future. The big difference between roads and horoscopes, and lines on the palm is what the latter are to individuals, the former is becoming for governments, or rather state governments.

When a group of us visited the enchanting forests of Kanha and Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh in the winter of 2002, I didn’t like the looks of the roads one bit.

More correctly, I felt distinctly uncomfortable when there was no road but the driver of the hired cab provided by the state tourism department insisted that there it was and that he was driving down it.

I made a mental note of mentioning the matter to then Chief Minister Digvijay Singh the next time I got a chance to meet him. I was sure I would as I belonged to that tribe of journalists who were quite impressed by his ideas on grassroots development.

But unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to caution him. He was gone in the next elections. Now it is moot whether it was the roads or whatever else that did him in, but the point is that bad roads are a bad omen for a government, a state government that is.

If good roads could see a government through, then surely Atal Bihari Vajpayee with his Golden Quadrilateral would never have lost. Not just Vajpayee, but most of us were sure that the shining face of the dual carriageway, multi-lane highways would convince everyone that it was not just the roads but the entire India that was shining. At the end of the day, the roads didn’t show the path to victory.

This just goes to prove that the rules of astrology are not to be applied mechanically. Different rules apply to different entities and if you think that the fathers of Indian astrology who formulated its rules thousands of years ago could not distinguish between a state and a Central government, you will pay for your modern day arrogance.

An astrological insight is like a premonition. It does not say it is coming but quietly creeps in on you so that you do not know when exactly did you get a particular idea but at some point you realise that it has been growing on you.

This is what I felt when I returned from our puja holidays in Chennai, where we had gone by road in our new car. Now that our son goes to college in Chennai, we thought we might as well have the family reunion there and check out on the state of the Bengali diaspora in the city. The more corporate sponsorships the local pujas get, the greater will be the clout of the local Bengalis.

But at the end of the holidays, the social status of Chennai’s Bengalis was the furthest from my mind. Something more serious was brewing inside me. Bangalore’s roads were a distinct bad omen for its new government. I would have passed this on to the state’s chief minister without an astrologer’s fee if I had ready access to him.

There have been endless rains in Bangalore this year. Hence the potholes, we are told. Let the rains end and they will be filled up pronto, we are told yet again. Within 5 km of the car passing the new cable bridge that adorns one end of Bangalore, the potholes disappear, proving no doubt that the heavens carefully respect the city’s municipal borders, showering not a drop of rain beyond them.

Once you are out of Bangalore, Old Madras Road (the name so redolent of earlier times when some roads seem to have always been there) becomes a dream. I have traversed a fair stretch of the country’s highways and can vouch for the fact that this must be one of the loveliest in a classical old-fashioned way.

It is mostly a two-lane road, immaculately topped, without so much as a single pothole. It winds its way through gentle undulating country turned green by good rain, which must have carefully avoided the road so as not to give it potholes.

The hillocks with their rocky outcrops remind you this is not far from the Sholay country. For the most part, the road passes through sparsely-populated areas and so there are no scurrying children or stray dogs. All of this allows you to do a comfortable 100 km an hour.

But for two small stretches in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the road is mostly in Tamil Nadu, signalling a clear omen that Jayalalithaa has still a good part of her term to complete, which in all likelihood she will.

Closer to Chennai is a stretch of the Vajpayee road — six lanes with median and a hard shoulder to boot — allowing cars to whiz pass slow coaches such as mine lumbering along at a safe 110 km an hour. Thereafter there is the ravaged inside-out stretch where the expressway is being built and finally, of course, the classical crawl from the outskirts into the heart of Chennai.

Considering the tough time that activists have while trying to ensure the preservation of heritage buildings, it seems absurd to imagine there can be a campaign to preserve old beautiful roads.

This is because a road is not simply a road but a part of the surrounding country that can easily get overpopulated and lose its green and load the road with too much traffic.

Or the gods can pour down rain carelessly and indiscriminately, without leaving aside the road as they have been doing in Bangalore, intended, no doubt, to signal an omen that the government will ignore only at its own peril.


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