A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Sunday, March 15, 2015

TOF and the Pothole

Good-bye winter wonderland
The fingers of a gentle rain have begun to massage the delightful piles of snow with which the South Side has been so lately graced. To these we bid a hearty adieu. Even Mount Mattersnow, a/k/a the neighbor's front yard has sensibly diminished. Along the motor roads, the snow and ice have receded, leaving behind as memento a bumper crop of potholes with which to ambush the Axles of Evil. Proceeding out Line St. (which does not actually mark the city line) and turning onto High St. (which actually does climb a promontory before descending precipitously into the Borough of Glendon) the Incomparable Marge wove adroitly among these snares for the unwary. Every puddle concealed a potential pitfall (or should that be "potentially concealed"?) Some of these potholes had names and appear on maps.

But TOF recalled another pothole in another place, one which needed no freezing and melting to call it forth from the vasty deep. This was a divot in a street in Chennai, T.N., India, that truly deserved to be called "Mr. Pothole". and this with the utmost respect.

Napier Bridge in Chennai
In Chennai, one does not rent a car and drive oneself as might be done in Paducah or Roaring Fork. Indeed this suggestion made in all innocence by yr. obt. svt. drew looks of horror from his host, the eminent Raj, and this for two reasons. The first is that it would be suicidal to do so and no map known to the cartographer's art would be of any assistance. Roads in that city not only refuse to go straight, but they wind through a fourth dimension so that one is never entirely certain of which direction he is headed except by the position of the sun -- and even that may be unreliable.

The second, and more important reason, is that drivers of motor cars belong to a lower caste and no important visitor could be allowed to degrade in such a manner. There is a sort of aggressive servility among the folk of India and the drivers fiercely guard their rights and privileges. A hotel guest is not allowed to carry his own computer bag as he walks to his car. Someone will take it from him with bountiful smiles and walk with him the few steps to the car and hand it back. (The doorman of the Chola Sheraton was named Nagarajan, or "King Cobra". And now you know the origin of the sobriquet "Nagarajan the Ironhand" in the Journeyman stories.)

But TOF digresses.

St. Thomas was buried here
Beach Road runs north and south out of central Chennai just where Faithful Reader might reasonably suspect it to run. The beach itself is huge and pure sand and in the warm season is inhabited by more people than some smaller Member States of the UN. Here and there stand statues of important folks in Indian history and unknown most anywhere else. Except for Gandhi.

On the southern stretch, toward Santhome, stands the Basilica of St. Thomas, where the apostle lay buried before the Syrians came and carried his body back to the Middle East. (The southern cone of India is up to 20% Christian.) It was at San Thome that the Great Tsunami finally died, just short of the big iron cross on the grounds before it reached the church.

Beach Road innocently begins its journey
But northward, the road runs through twists and turns designed to confuse visitors and throw them off the scent. Past Ft. St. George and Georgetown then through the endless turns of Royapuram and past the Port of Chennai and the Fishing Harbor. Along this stretch are whole villages of grass huts just off the beach, some with electric lights. The people living here are very dark and look a lot like Melanesians. Their dhotis look like sarongs. India is very diverse. TOF saw folk of all persuasions: black without being African or even of African ancestry, Oriental without being Chinese or Burman; and even one who looked that he forgot to get on the boat when the Raj closed up shop.

The black folk in the grass huts were fishermen, and TOF saw wooden fishing boats that must have been like the ones that once plied the Sea of Galilee. They fished standing up in the boats and throwing nets overboard, usually at night. TOF speculated that the fish can't see at night and the fishermen spot them because of the nightlights the fish carry. Several of the boats TOF glimpsed on shore bore the name "St. Peter Fisherman Society, and wondered if perhaps they were fishers of men.

Container trucks from the Port. Please to observe the potholes.
The container trucks from the Port, painted yellow and decorated with colorful birds and flowers, as manly truck drivers prefer, bear across their crest like a great unibrow the name of their company, often in Tamilian squiggles, sometimes in Hindi script, but also in English: "Shree Shiva" for example. TOF saw one truck named "Jesus is Lord" and given that it was coming directly toward the car in which he was being ferried, TOF thought he might have the opportunity personally to verify that fact.

Lanes, and even directions, are somewhat notional on the streets of Chennai. The road was three lanes north and south. Unfortunately, these were the same three lanes. They were shared by cars, trucks, auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, ox-carts, cows, and the aforesaid container trucks from the Port of Chennai.

This is called a "flyover." Indians use them in preference to
intersections. The crossing of two such roads is one of the
signs preceding Armageddon.
Naturally, this resulted in occasional traffic jams, said occasion being pretty much now. On one particular day, TOF's driver decided to head inland away from the traffic, which was then at a stand-still. The first rule of the road in Chennai is that if you see an empty stretch of road, you head immediately into it, no matter where you destination. (This is basically how three lanes of northbound traffic and three lanes of southbound traffic becomes three lanes of non-traffic.)

This brings us back to the subject of potholes.

Typical traffic flow: sedans, auto-
rickshaws, and a few motorcycles.
Abandoning the Beach Road and its northward extension meant abandoning asphalt paving. The side street was dirt in most places and in the only places it was not dirt it was mud; and in the places where it was not mud, it was water. (Can we say "monsoon"? We knew we could. These had recently ended, but their memory lingered on.) And so turning down a side road off the side road, the driver came before a Very Big Puddle, as in: it filled the entire width of the street. The puddles pictured with the truck, above, are to laugh, ha-ha. They could not even suit up when this sucker was in the game.

The driver stopped. He studied the puddle.

Then he started forward. The car inched into the puddle. It went down, and and then down some more. The pothole concealed by the scrim of brown muddy water was not the size of Meteor Crater, AZ, but relative to TOF's ride it was sufficient unto the day. Deeper went the car until the entire car was in the pothole. The water lapped the floorboards. TOF raised his shoes and cowered on the back seat, determined like the captain of Titanic to go down with the ship.

Then the car lost traction.

The driver applied corrective measures; i.e., he gunned the engine fiercely and spoke disparagingly to the pothole. He even tried backing up. The car rocked and settled into the mud. The tires spun. The car went nowhere.

This being India, there were 853 people of various ages gathered around watching. This is the national sport of India.¹ The watchers all jumped into the pothole, organized themselves into a spontaneous work-gang, and pushed the car forward. Traction was regained. One more push and... the car lurched out of the hole. Everyone clapped. Largess was distributed to the now wet, muddy, smiling bystanders, who waved cheerfully as we drove off.
1. most popular sport. Well, cricket is; but no one understands cricket while standing around watching stuff is more easily learned. It is most literally a spectator sport. The second-most popular sport is running after over-crowded buses and leaping on board while the bus is pulling away. The is done by young men trying to impress young women, and they will actually wait for the bus to pull out just so they can demonstrate their prowess at this. If you miss the jump and fall in a pothole, you lose.

This is a rule in India. You will never find a friendlier or more helpful folk than Indian bystanders. TOF once saw eight people helping a man change a tire on his car. (Look, someone has to hold the hubcap, the spare, each individual nut, etc., right?)  TOF also saw a family of five riding on a motorcycle, but that is another story. It looked very much like this one:
The one TOF saw was in downtown Chennai

Which returns at last to the Great Pothole of High Street. You call THAT a pothole? TOF laughs at such potholes, ha-ha. 

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