100 - Speed Limit
The subject of this post sums up the goodness of Gujarat - a state of India that has been verbally used and abused in political campaigns time and again. I moved to San Francisco 2 weeks ago. To make the exit from India interesting, I, my partner and my sister took a road trip along the west coast of India, driving through Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat. I will save the travelogue for my travel website because this post is about something else.
India is a very complex country in every way. Naturally, things heat up and the country wakes up during the election season. It's been a year and the drama, debate and aggressive arguments are still filling up the time and space of India. In the middle of all this, one place that has been extensively spoken about is the land of amazing snacks, beautiful women and some geographical wonders. My relatives have lived in Gujarat and the media has been very vocal about how the development in that one state is enough to amplify the value of replicating its governance across the country.
These news articles, press conference snapshots etc., were not and are still not reporting any specifics other than roads, employment and factories. Very important factors indeed. But what really motivated me to visit were my relative's words "Oh, you should just spend some time there. You will fall in love with it." The opportunity struck me when I was designing my road trip. In my bucket list Rann of Kutch had been sitting for a very long time. So, the road trip was the perfect way to experience, understand and enjoy the model state of India along with Rann.
On day 3 of our road trip, we entered Gujarat in Vapi - a small town next to Daman. It was after dark and I was very tired of driving but it was inevitable to notice the odd feeling of that place. Once recharged, we got out to go to somebody's house. That's when I realised that the place was so dusty that I couldn't roll down the car windows. Next, I couldn't separate factories from residential set ups. We figured that it was a very small town of factories and it primarily supported the union territories of Daman and Dadra & Nagar Haveli.
Next day, we found that Daman, Dadra & Nagar Haveli were in turn supporting the entire state of Gujarat. Well, at least the thirsty part of the state. Gujarat bans alcohol consumption. The Union Territories that are surrounded by Gujarat however, not only engage in consumption but manufacture tonnes of liquor. Guess the result? Daman is full of alcohol-deprived youngsters from all over Gujarat. Same is the situation with Dadra & Nagar Haveli, and we saw the result in the hospitality industry. Sub-standard, good and excellent hotels seem to have the same price per room because the mediocre hotel has a big bar with cheap alcohol.
While Vapi was dusty, we didn't judge the entire state. After all we were headed to Ahmedabad - the star city of the state. Driving on NH8, our hopes went quite high. It was one of the best roads we drove on, in the entire 16 day trip. Under 4 hours, we exited the highway and entered Ahmedabad. We expected the scene to change. What was unexpected was the way the traffic behaved. Nobody stopped at the stop signal. Let me repeat - NOBODY. For 10 minutes, I was very confused but I adapted and decided to blend. My hopes were still high since we weren't in the city-centre yet. But disappointment was less than 20 minutes away when we saw a chaos like no other. It was dangerous to stop at any signal and it looked like the city was full of color-blind people; the traffic signals were a joke!
That night one of us had her wallet stolen (or lost perhaps) and the next day, we were in a police station trying to get a certificate for the lost DL(driver's license) which was in the wallet. In the 2 hours that we spent there, we understood the kind of pain a non-Indian would go through in Gujarat, if they required the support of the state law&order system. We were asked to write the application for the lost item in HINDI and were clearly told that nobody understood, spoke or knew English. Worse, the certificate was in Gujarati. We had requested that we were driving through different states and a legal document in a regional language may not be accepted by other states. We were politely denied any help in that regard. Thankfully they agreed to stamp the Hindi application.
I have travelled extensively across India and around the world and I think that day I felt like a stranger in my own country. Well, it got even worse.
Few days later, we were entering White Rann - a part of the Great Rann of Kutch which has salt deposits spread over 4000 square kilometres. We had to fill out a permit-form. My sister was writing in the details when a cop nudged her. She had written 'Indian' in the 'nationality' column. What was wrong with that?
Cop : Maydam, Nationality Gujarati ya Non-Gujarati likho (Ma'm, write Gujarati or Non-Gujarati instead of Indian)!
This wasn't religion, cultural background or special assistance column. This was the NATIONALITY column. Our souls were numb for a while because we felt like outcasts; not technically but emotionally.
I am not a patriot but I understand India, where I come from and what this country stands for. This country has helped me develop my taste, build my guards and experience warmth like nowhere else. It has shaped my idea of freedom, my sense of belonging and my desire to explore. Standing in the middle of that beautiful expanse of Kutch, looking at the sun set - my heart was sinking. I have no idea how many Gujarats are growing in my country, I have no clue what some dim wits are organizing in the name of pride, culture and government. I can't reach out to every human being on this planet but I can try.
So, here I am telling you in one last sentence what a place like Gujarat is.
Lip-smacking food, some wonderful people and the only place in the country where you will see a speed limit board of 100; all this encompassed in the suffocating air of robotic employment, ignorant cultural ego and a media-fuelled illusion of progress.