National Geographic : 2008 Oct
man like Rakesh, with a wife and four kids to support, every rupee counts. When I visited his home on a dusty side street in Ahmadabad, all four kids-two boys and two girls ranging in age from three to 18-proudly demonstrated their contribution to the family finances, retool ing brushes on the living room floor for a local textile manufacturer. "In this family, ifyou don't work, you don't eat," said Rakesh. A tough, funny, straight-talking man of 42, Rakesh is built like a former boxer-right down to the punched-in nose-but you'd be wrong if you mistook his machismo for recklessness. This is a guy who's been driving trucks profes sionally for 22 years. He values his reputation as a safe and sober driver. "Of the drivers on the highway tonight, I'd bet that 90 percent are high on something," he says-hashish, liquor, or doda, a tealike mixture of opium and betel nut that many drivers use to stay alert, but which also clouds their judgment. Still, he pre fers driving at night, when it's cool and the GQ is freer of the human and animal traffic that can slow a driver down or cause an accident. It's not unusual, on a six-lane superhighway, to find oxcarts, water buffalo, motorcycles, and the occasional line of trucks and cars coming straight at you, in your lane, driving the wrong way because it's shorter or easier or perhaps because they're confused. Goats graze the median strip, and traffic is often held up by sacred cows, the only users of the highway that seem oblivi ous to the danger flying around like shrapnel. Towns cut in half by the highway are espe cially dangerous, since crowds of pedestrians cross in the face of oncoming traffic, which almost never breaks speed voluntarily. In some of these towns, congestion is so bad that the GQ comes to a standstill, and the fundamental laws of Indian traffic, which resemble those govern ing swarms of bees, take hold. To cross a busy intersection is to catch a glimpse of the Indian character: enterprising, creative, pushy, ener getic, relentless, and surprisingly good-natured. As you wait to cross, you're aware of a con stant push around your edges, a jockeying for Laborers haul sand and gravel dredged from the Tansa River, which contractors sell to roadbuilders north of Mumbai-an industry that supports hundreds of villagers, along with workers from other parts of India.