Manic Social Body

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

TrafficThe traffic jam has become a peculiar construction in relation to the Global South. As I began writing, I wasn't sure what to focus on when looking at the traffic jam. Where does one go to find it? To the city of course. Can one touch it, taste it, smell it? Yes to all of the above. In methodology, should one speak about the everyday possibilities of tiny jams? Or should one traffic in images of the big thing as it were, such as the one in Beijing that lasted more than ten days and was endlessly tweeted, facebooked, and hyperlinked? An article in the Wall Street Journal dated August 2010 reports on this modern-day wonder:

“A 60-mile traffic jam near the Chinese capital could last until mid-September, officials say. Traffic has been snarled along the outskirts of Beijing and is stretching toward the border of Inner Mongolia ever since roadwork on the Beijing-Tibet Highway started Aug. 13. As the jam on the highway, also known as National Highway 110, passed the 10-day mark Tuesday, vehicles were inching along little more than a third of a mile a day….Other cities around the world face similar congestion headaches. The worst are in developing countries where the sudden rise of a car-buying middle class outpaces highway construction. Unlike in the U.S., which had decades to develop transportation infrastructure to keep up with auto buyers. Still, Beijing beat out Mexico City, Johannesburg, Moscow and New Delhi to take top spot in the International Business Machines Corp. survey of “commuter pain,” which is based on a measure of the economic and emotional toll of commuting.”

Of course, this is not a new “developing country” story. Too many cars, and too little road, which then naturally extends into the argument, too much government, and too little capital. The story of the traffic jam becomes an oft-told tale. And the kind of great traffic jam that I refer to performs a very interesting function. It is a spectacle that obfuscates the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated mass, a type of never-ending present. But of course, as anybody who has been in any kind of traffic jam will tell you, it does feel like a never-ending present.

How does one then not add to this literature on the spectacular “failures” of cities in the Global South? So I turn then to a quotidian autoethnography, or in other words, the social life of traffic as I remember it in the city of Pune. Pune or Poona, the eighth largest city in India was where I began fieldwork long years ago. The scapes I inhabited were the night, the roads I inhabited were empty. I experienced traffic as mainly its absence. During my various stints in the city, I rode scooters and motorbikes. For the longest time, Pune has been a town, a hardy moon to Bombay's brilliantine, a town of students and retirees, of wonderfully temperate weather and bicycle commuters, and a city of two-wheelers and bad riders. A friend of mine who had lived all his life in Pune once told me this story of riding to Bombay on his motorbike and being pulled aside by a traffic policeman who scornfully rebuked him for being a Pune rider. In other words, he noticed how my friend followed no rules.

As of March 31, 2014 there were around 20-25 lakh two-wheelers on the road in Pune. I read the figures, and I saw the statistics. But I wondered how this translated in terms of the people who facilitated this entry into the traffic space of the city and were required to manage it. So one morning at 9 am, I boarded a rickshaw to the Road Transport Office (RTO) near the main Pune Railway Station. The offices would only open at ten but the gates were open and I sneaked in to take pictures. I went in, photographed some signs, walked around and was approached as I attempted to leave by six men. “Madam do you want to take pictures? ” they asked in Marathi.” I nodded saying I already had, and asked them if they would mind answering some questions. “You aren't a journalist, are you?” they asked. “Not at all”, I said. “You might get us in trouble later”, they said. This last only made sense because they were touts, or in other words para-legal functionaries who facilitated the process of obtaining learning licenses. My main interlocutor was a man I call Nitin who was more than happy to take me aside and answer questions as I tried desperately to keep up with everything he said. The other five men stood around peering over my shoulder to see what I was writing.

When I interviewed him, Nitin had been working for eleven years as a facilitator around the RTO. He explained his business as being one of helping people circumvent cumbersome State processes. According to him, people had a choice. Either they could repeatedly go through the process of submitting papers, dealing with the officials, and appeasing their quirks, or they could come to him. He described the RTO officials thus: “They are whimsical. Quite mad. They tend to fight. If you argue, they say, ‘Are you the RTO, the police, or are you my father?' It is better to not deal with them.”

Nitin's account is very much in keeping with the popular understanding of the State as irrational, irascible, and opaque. However, what he did not talk about was his very role and interest in producing the notion of the RTO as one that does not want to give people access to the roads. As the person most equipped to straddle the space between the State and the vehicular population, Nitin actively and profitably produced a recalcitrant RTO, which according to him attracted a large number of complaints from applicants. Seeking to communicate people's frustration with State functionaries, he declared, “The Government office does no work, but thinks itself to be the State”.

It is important to note that Nitin and his mediating cohort actively also produce the kind of traffic that Pune citizens have learnt to lament, namely, inexperienced drivers and riders. When I asked him about the ways in which the act of his facilitation puts unprepared drivers on the road, Nitin explained it away as the complications created by the inattention of various other State authorities. The police didn't enforce punishments harshly enough, he claimed. Further, in his explanation, the RTO could not afford to refuse or fail people because of the repercussions of such preventive action given an extremely politically influential motor vehicle manufacturing lobby. The RTO therefore had created insufficiently rigorous exams, he added.

Given the State's increasing emphasis on automation, I asked him about the computerization of the test for the learners' license and whether this had made a difference to his job. He explained the process to me, describing how test takers sit in a schoolroom like structure on benches. They have three unnaturally large buttons in front of them. Thirty to forty people take the test together and questions appear on the screen in front of them. As they appear, test takers are required to hit the correct button. Once this test is done, testers' scores are projected off the screen. At the end of this description of a seemingly efficient process, Nitin snorted and said “It's all a Kaun banega crorepati” referring to the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? He continued, “Everybody copies; half of them don't even know how to read, they just look to the person next to them and press the same button.”

There are several trenchant critiques of State that Nitin articulated, both during his interview and through his very mode of livelihood. There was however, another set of critiques that Nitin also articulated through tropes of propriety and good behaviour. In talking about bad drivers I asked him what advice he might give people whose licenses he facilitated. Nitin said, “One must monitor one's own behavior before offering advice. One must be a role model. The young ones are all irresponsible and impatient. They leave the house late and then run green lights and they have no fear. It's this that causes the problem.” Lamenting another aspect of change and traffic, he lamented, “People who used to buy cars earlier had class, now what can I say? Yesterday's beggars are today's ministers.”

Let me attempt to corral those arbitrary bits of montage, nostalgia, and online trawling. Traffic is part of a larger system and direction of change in Pune. Even as most continue to be irritated, and annoyed with its failed promises, not everybody is stuck in the same jam. I wanted my nostalgic city back, and Nitin wanted everyone to behave and be role models. To offer a hint of my undisclosed ethnographic encounters, the chief officer of the RTO wanted construction companies to build good roads, and the publicity officer for the Pune Transport Office wanted people to find their way to the right window in order to facilitate a quicker process sans touts. And yet, there is consonance between middle-class desires for order, Nitin's understanding of a natural separation between those who ought to own cars, and those who are undeserving of said ownership, and the State's formalist declarations of a place for everything and everything in its place. The city that all desire seems to be a city that “works”. Like Rem Koolhass has argued, the city is merely a set of disasters that planners want to avert; there are no visions of city-ness anymore.

So no, we are not stuck in the same jam. Yet, it feels like together, we worry about the direction in which we have all been steered in the promises of a better city. We continue to believe in the ultimate viability of its promise. The physical anxiety created by the traffic jam and the nagging suspicion that the city as a form is both doomed and untenable, is allayed by carping about the societal malaise that is traffic.

To write about the traffic jam in Pune, the entire city must becomes an ethnographic object as one follows the ebb and flow of traffic, its bumps, its grinds, its lack of method or madness, its transformation. Pune used to be a city of two-wheelers, and students. Now it is a city of cars, two-wheelers, working professionals, and students. The jam gives us all a space to complain. The jam brings the problems of the city, its failures, its long-term annoyances into the public space, literally as it were. I might even attempt the hope that the jam is an equalizing space where no one can move. And in this mutual immobility, perhaps there is a rise in sociality. But recuperating the space of the jam as a public sphere must be seen in light of the increasing sparseness of any other. Some of the debates I'm raising may already be dead debates; think about rights to and in cities, increasing seclusionary practices, and State withdrawal. In this scenario, the jam might well be an important live space, and a social body that contains hopes, desires, irritations, and openings.