It’s full tilt tumult out here in Jodhpur's Old City, a shock of human, animal and machinery tangled together in what looks like a monumental argument. The alleys leading away from the hotel are obviously too narrow for cars, this is my fragile conviction about to be upturned, because that’s exactly where we are headed. In a regular-sized car that just won’t fit. But it does.
It’s all utterly impossible, like magical realism, and everyone coming in the opposite direction, flanking us on all sides, clings improbably to the skittering surface of it all. I pull my elbows in, then my knees. I’m relaxed now, the way you are when the body dies and you’re floating above it looking down and benignly observing the chaos.
Faces take ages to pass mine, proximity locks us into awkward moments of such startling intimacy. I can lift my hand and casually scratch someone else’s chin. A young man in the back of a tuktuk sees me, waves delighted, gazes into my eyes with such a lingering recognition, I am sure I know him. As a moment, it lasts forever.
Beyond the hectic miracle of the Old City we pass through several unmanned gates. A sign proclaims “Home of the Quiet Professional”. I want to ignore it, everything else seems so odd and this is just overload. But in the end I can’t resist, crane my neck, scan the sidewalk for clues. Here is order, high walls topped with razor tape and broken glass. These Quiet Professionals are the Scorpio Special Commandos, they are one of many military units, all with equally evocative names. Here on the outskirts, the city of Jodhpur is grimly prepared for invasion by its Pakistani neighbors up north.
We have such a dignified, safe driver but it doesn't matter, no-one else is. No-one on the single lane ‘highway’ is in the least attached to traffic rules of any kind. The idea of separate lanes for vehicles moving in opposite directions is a scrawny, undernourished concept that might well be dead. Throw in suspiciously supine dogs and looming, immovable, holy cows and it seems no one is going to get out of this alive...no-one except the cows. Screaming in the backseat is probably the most appropriate response. I multiply this interesting and terrifying forty minutes by eight, approximate time by road to Jaipur, and doubt I’ll make it, wondering what else there is to do when that is not an option.
Every time a small polite scream escapes, Michel looks at me crossly. “You’re insulting the driver”, he says. And I’m at some garden party? I look back. Around the next corner he gasps audibly as a truck loaded at least four times higher than its length catapults towards us sending us careening into oncoming traffic.
Three little bottoms narrowly miss instant surgical removal as we whip back onto the side where toddlers sit playing in the dirt, backs to the thundering traffic, their bottoms right on the asphalt of this badly nibbled edge of road.
I am delirious and probably enlightened by now but nothing will slow the pace. Every blind corner produces another truck flying black tassels and carrying top heavy towers of something ominously lopsided wearing a tarpaulin. The driver confides that you can’t afford to let your attention flag for a single second. He mentions he’s underpaid and I hope he’s not apathetic and hankering for a better incarnation. I think seriously about throwing large denominations of rupees around in a last ditch attempt to reignite interest in the challenging, underpaid present.
Several lifetimes later we hurtle onto a proper highway. Six lanes, the driver says proudly. Four more chances at survival, I think, as we roar up the onramp past someone hurtling down it just as confidently. There’s an endearing concrete island separating the traffic heading to Jaipur from those wanting to get away. Turns out it's symbolic of nothing. It even has a shrub or two on it but this does nothing to dissuade rusty bicycles, tuktuks and perfectly respectable compact cars from choosing to drive into the oncoming traffic. Some people just find traveling against the traffic less trouble. It’s a blithe decision, seemingly casual, confidently righteous.
We slow down over a bridge and I watch two young boys on an oversized, rusty, old tricycle, topple slow motion down a steep verge. My alarmed face appears at the back window but there they are safely on their bare feet, hands on skinny brown hips, laughing. They appear immortal, playing an otherwise fatal game on the highway of death.
We stop for samosas and homemade green chutney at a vast, echoing place built for tour loads of foreigners. I cave into pressure and buy a copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s, ‘Lowlands’, only to find, when I open the sealed bag, that the $10USD price tag has more to do with persistent blank pages than a screaming deal in the middle of the dusty Rajasthan plains.
The highway is a moving mass of heavy lifting.
Spice colored trucks, saffron and cardamom, visibly buckle under the weight of towering blocks of raw marble and granite heading, at breakneck speed, to Jaipur to be cut and finished. Everything is bearing down on everything else, mercilessly. Saris and bikes and trucks and us, flowing like corpuscles in a bloodstream. In the center of a fallow field in the dying winter sun, a woman in a red sari sits meditating. Dusty goats mill about.
Mopeds, like spindly ornaments, weave between the heavy trucks trailing sequins and diaphanous, jeweled-colored saris. Sandwiched between the driver and the inevitable froth of sari, balanced precariously side saddle on the back, there is at least one child, sometimes two, and a grandparent. Above us the carved, ivory spine of a Jain temple winds along the very top of a shadowy ridge.
Here in this diabolical mess of unbridled chaos everyone seems happy to flirt with destruction, vie with death. Yes, I should think, only a lucky few will make it out of here alive. The whole thing is like a scene from Mad Max.
A tractor accelerates past us decorated with flames of crimson, saffron and green. Three women in bright saris, flashes of bare skin, balance on a thin rear bar, their arms stretched high above their heads, hands glued to a rickety iron railing, all that stands between them and becoming a momentary smudge of color on the thrumming asphalt.
At regular intervals we stop at toll booths covered with deep ridges like ancient strata on a rockface. It’s only when we see the exposed concrete reinforcing that we realize that this must be damage caused by the approximate approach of the loaded trucks breathing heavily alongside us. The heavy metal frame around the toll booth itself must be a giant crash bar to protect the precarious humans inside.
Now we are almost there, the Pink City emerges shyly from a cloud of marble dust, and the sun has completely dropped from the sky. A truck pulls up beside us. “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Anymean” it declares, in uneven handwriting along it’s corrugated flank.
Yes, India. The heady experience of still being alive has made me feel a little drunk. I’d have to agree. There is definitely an air of ‘Anymean’ about this wild story we appear to have moved through unscathed. I reach over and give it a tap on the impudent chin with my index finger. India, you are our imagination unleashed. No wonder there are so many lives and gods, and arms and monkeys and elephants and Bollywood an’ all. You simply can’t contain yourself, can you?