By Jerry Edling and Chris Edling, USC ’05
Air travel, by design, is orderly. The sky simply cannot be a place in which jet-powered fuselages dart at each other like bacteria under a microscope. Safety and good sense dictate that airplanes must be strictly choreographed in a controlled ballet of graceful departures, arrivals and cruising that could soothe even the most fragile of sensibilities.
Perhaps it is the fact that it is the interface between air travel and ground transport that a sense of peace pervades Indira Gandhi International Airport. Arriving in India feels no different than alighting in virtually any airport on earth. First comes the seemingly endless wait for the jetway to reach the plane and the door to be opened. There are the obligatory weak smiles at other passengers as they struggle to bring down their carry-on luggage and hold up the line, the farewells from the flight attendants in heavily-accented English and, finally, a brisk walk to the customs agent, whose nonchalance belies the reality that he controls entrance to the second most populous nation on Earth.
The airport is a sort of cocoon that temporarily insulates the traveler from the chaos he or she is about to experience as the sleek terminal fades from view and the car enters Delhi traffic en route to the hotel or guest house. Gradually, or perhaps suddenly, depending on the route, the swarms of cars, motorbikes and pedestrians weave in and out of each other like runaway double-helix molecules playing chicken with each other. Traffic in Delhi is like a three-dimensional chessboard in which the time limit for each move is measured in seconds. Car to bishop 3, rook to knight 2, and pedestrians are the pawns in this riverdance of vehicles. Yet somehow the dance works, somehow the pedestrians and the vehicles all go on their way. That is the essence of India: it is chaos that works. It is a maelstrom of humanity with 22 official languages that has come together to be a force in world business and politics.
My son Chris visited India almost exactly one year ago. He emailed some random impressions that I now think back to:
“I spent three weeks tramping across India over the winter holidays, an experience that could only be recounted in a Michener-length saga or A.R. Rahman score. Lacking such luxuries of time and musical talent I’ll limit my narrative to a fistful of images, but don’t let the brevity mislead you: India is wild, deep and dimension-bending in a way that media simply cannot impart. To wit: my first glimpse of Delhi from the airplane, the city’s lights twinkling unevenly like a gargantuan candle garden; the Delhi subway crowd that filled an arriving train with such force I could have picked my feet off the ground and been carried, rib-to-shoulder, into the cabin; five lanes of anarchical rush hour traffic flowing around a center-lane accident like river water past a boulder; experiencing aesthetic love at first sight at the Taj Mahal; my oar striking a floating corpse during a sunrise boat ride up the Ganges; dozens of paper kites and a pocketwatch moon hanging over Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest city, at purple dusk; families of five whizzing down choked back alleys on a motorcycle, their saris tailing behind them like linen shadows; Christmas Eve under the Bodhi tree, New Year’s eve on a houseboat in Kerala’s backwaters; a cow giving birth on the side of the road; half a dozen young men casually appearing in my berth for overnight bull sessions on long train rides; tiny Tibetan cafes loaded with saffron-clad Buddhist monks; sharing an intercity autorickshaw (essentially a turbocharged golf cart) with 18 other passengers, the lot of us chatting and laughing into the dusty evening air; the Gaya train station bathroom, which could not have been more horrific if Wes Craven designed it; the electric colors and hot smells of Mysore’s markets; our autorickshaw driver getting flagged down by union organizers and threatened with beatings for breaking a strike (we had no idea, honest); pulsing Muslim and Jain religious celebrations igniting the streets into a fantasia of hues and tones; wiry old men climbing unaided up palm trees to harvest coconuts; massive trash furrows lining train tracks throughout the country, like bumper balloons alongside lanes in a bowling alley; a legion of department store girls bobbling their heads and giggling in unison when I entered, like a choreographed Bollywood film take; eating nothing but rice & seafood curry for an entire week; drunkards publicly beaten at major city intersections; and, without a doubt, some of the most splendid faces to be seen anywhere on Earth.”
Another random impression (based on no empirical research) is that traffic in Delhi reaches one of its pinnacles at Chandni Chowk, a market that dates back to the 17th century. Here chaos extends to taste as well as traffic, for even the paratha (Indian flatbread) fails to quell the spiciness of the dip. No meal in this market is completely peaceful, for the accompaniments include side orders of car horns, arguments and thrumping engines, not to mention the masses of people.
It would seem a blatant contradiction that the homeland of Gandhi should be a place of such chaos, noise and argument; but, as with most things in India, the truth is concealed in the facts. According to the 2001 census, 30 languages are spoken by more than a million native speakers in India. Temples, mosques and churches stand tall in this land of more than a billion people. And yet, these diverse groups co-exist in a sub-continent with a strong national identity and a bright future.
If that isn’t a model for peace, what is?