Anyone who has driven in Hyderabad, or has been a participant of some kind in what passes for traffic here, will empathise with the daily frustrations of dealing with bad road etiquette, the total absence of lane consciousness, the aggressiveness of large and small vehicles, and the absolute belief that one's schedule and need to reach a destination supersedes every other person's. Until recently, I was able to block out the madness by losing myself in a book, safe in the back seat, while my driver battled the daily cruelties of the city's streets. About a month ago, my driver decided to move to greener pastures (and possibly, a more interesting route to navigate each day) so I was back behind the steering wheel and had to leave my set of unread novels in the back, so I could concentrate on the road ahead (not that I had at any point planned to bring my reading to rest on the dashboard).
I face a fairly long drive each morning. Twenty six kilometers each way, through the thick of the Secunderabad commercial district to the broad Bungalow lined avenues of Jubilee Hills (fast giving way to shopfronts of the haute variety) and the otherworldliness of Hi-Tech City, by the last lung-space of the Botanical Gardens and finally across what used to be a peripheral village now swallowed by the city. When I reach the gates of the University, my odometer has just ticked past the twenty fifth kilometer and I speed past the last one to make it my class on time.
I distract myself from the traffic and the rude drivers by looking at the screaming signboards along the way, the missing apostrophes and bad spellings on the posters populating the median, and the sale notices that keep popping up in unexpected places. There are also the poor pedestrians, resigned to their fate along the margins of the roads, waiting for the rare motorist who will spare a few seconds to allow them safe passage across the street. But this can't hold my attention long, and besides, I do need to heed the happenings on the road ahead of me and behind me (and of course beside me, as my car has suffered from the closeness of scooters and autorickshaws).
So I turn on the music. And the meditation begins. The inside of the car is transformed into sanctuary, a bubble that insulates me from the desperation and the pettiness of the street, from the noise and the rudeness that it seems to inspire. I begin, then, to function at two levels. A part of me keeps in touch with the road, paying attention to the stop and go signs, the switching-lane signals, and the flashing lights that demand that I move aside. Another part of me retreats into the envelope of the music.
What do I listen to in the car? It's an eclectic variety, ranging from the Monkees to Dido, from Lata-Rafi duets to Farhan Akhtar playing the rock star, from Joan Baez to Indian Ocean. And as the songs shuffle across the soundscape, they bring along with them memories, pictures from different segments of my life, occasionally drawing out images that I had given up for lost. The Monkees, for instance, a group from the late sixties (Davy Jones, an idol in my eight-year-old eyes) can take me back to Calgary, Canada, with "Daydream Believer" just as quickly as Simon & Garfunkel can transport me to a football stadium in Atlanta, August 15, 1983, opening their act with "Cecilia", or Joan Baez's Diamonds and Rust recalls the smoky haze of college, the dreams and loves that seemed at the time to hold the promise of forever.
When my iPod switches unexpectedly to a more recent chord, perhaps something put in by my daughters, I am forced back into the present. The shift is not entirely unpleasant, as it allows me to share the aural memories of my children and through these, something of their perspective as well. The Scientist by Coldplay reminds me of Achala's time at Valley School, and her schoolgirl fantasies associated with the song, while Dido takes me to a more contemporary hopescape, one that seems, somehow, to occupy a space in a small seaside cottage in an artists' village. And of course the extravagant aspirations of Iqbal or Chak De give me a little insight into Ananya's sporting ambitions.
And then I always come back with a smile to the comfort of the Beatles, Moody Blues, and the occasional Springsteen number, reminders of youth and good times. I wonder, sometimes, as I involuntarily break into song and nod my greying head in time to the beat of "Come Together", whether the person in the Honda City in the next lane is just a bit worried about the sanity of his neighbour.
The music is what makes my 52-kilometer trek more than bearable. The parallel journeys into memory and imagination blanket me from the daily struggle with the traffic and the noise and the rudeness. Instead, I find myself in that dark New Jersey bar with the Piano Man, or with Ringo and company in the Octopus' Garden, or better still, somewhere Across the Universe with Lennon....