We hired a car to take use from Agra to Kanpur, where I would be visiting the Indian Institute of Technology doing some work for CReSIS for the next week. I was excited to see the countryside. The train had come too late to the station that all we had seen during our ride were the fluorescent lights of houses and passing cities.
Except, there really is no “middle of nowhere” in India. Some is always selling something or chugging along on their bicycle, carrying impossible loads of everything. Even when cities seem kilometers apart and clearly we are speeding past farmland at 80 mph, shacks line the road. Along the way, it was obvious that the rural isolation of Kansas doesn’t translate here. And I have yet to count beyond 10 in between car horns, even in the countryside.
This part of the highway was called the Grand Trunk, or GT Road. It begins in Pakistan and extends all the way to Calcutta. The government recently renovated this road as a part of its Golden Quadrilateral initiative. Last year, I completed a semester project for my metaphor theory course on this road. Riding on the highway completely edified that all-nighter. The term “commuter village,” which Western media coined to describe mass amounts of people commuting on the highway between cities each day for better work, took a new meaning when a multiple buses crammed full of Indians careening between the roadway lines nearly hit us, or us them.
All the way, we saw women sitting side-saddle on motorcycles behind men. They steady themselves with poised, straight backs and dainty hands placed on the motor in back. They remain motionless even as their hair whips from their golden berets and their drivers weave between everyone. Farther off, in the fields, two or three figures in bright red, pink, blue, move through corn or lounge in the shade of a tree. These solid drops of beauty against the red clay brick masonries, the dull brown of the fields, and the cracked grey buildings appear unexpected but not out of place.
While in Kanpur, we took the highway again, this time on a day trip to Lucknow which is a city about 2 hours north. On our return, our driver suddenly stopped. Although the road congestion seems awful everywhere, we have only gotten stuck in an actual traffic jam one time before. Now, a train was coming.
I have never seen this place so silent. Cars idled. A few people roamed about, bored. A beggar in red tatters sat near an intersection, hand extended. When we returned to Lucknow a few days later to catch a flight, he sat in the same place deserted.
The train whizzed past in no time. The minute the tracks bars lifted, every single vehicle started honking, as if on a laugh track. Those unencumbered in the front lines honked for the sake of happiness. Those at the very back honked in frustration. All those in between honked because suddenly they couldn’t wait idle another single minute. We joined into with our own beeping refrain. We twisted into some impossible space between two large trucks, and it was off again into the loud, mad journey of India.