Illustration: Shyam G Menon

There is a new rain in town.

You have to walk, run or cycle to feel it.

Actually it is a rain that has been around for long.

What is new is its ferocity.

Unlike climate change which bewilders with its unsteady, erratic nature of incidence, this one has been systematically growing. We do nothing to merit the rain of nature and its life force. Yet we receive it every year, like God sent; sometimes more, sometimes less. In contrast, the new rain has thrived under our active patronage.

I like a morning run or a round of cycling. The number of runners and cyclists has gradually grown over the years. However, what has increased more visibly is traffic. It is a barreling flow. There was a time not long ago when the roads I frequent early morning were relatively quiet. Service roads (a narrow road parallel to an existing big one) featured almost no traffic. The air was clean. Now that is gone. Traffic starts building up from 7 AM. Traffic rules are also broken that early. Engine powered-mobility has scant respect for self-powered-mobility. Might is right. Runners and cyclists on the road have to be careful. Its raining vehicles.

There was a time in my days as employed journalist, when I wrote on the automobile industry. I wasn’t one finding vehicles sexy or magnetic. I wrote on the industry; I did so for a decade. At that time, the automobile industry with its basket of ancillary manufacturers and dependent service providers was the world’s biggest. I have since lost a lot of my fascination. I outgrew it. Further, when I got into running and cycling and had my taste of what it is like to be at ground level sensing a tonne of metal hurtling by, I saw myself looking at automobiles differently.

Like many other industrial sectors, the automobile industry was encouraged with investment sops. I haven’t seen similar encouragement offered in India for the active, healthy lifestyle. Let me be clear: the idea of healthy lifestyle is not to be confused with support for the medical care / hospital industry.  Like the auto industry, this industry too feeds off our purse. I am talking of communities enjoying adequate open space, green environment and easily accessed facilities for sport.

I haven’t seen one city, municipality, district or state that declares itself keen on supporting a physically active, healthy lifestyle for its citizens. States and districts bought into literacy; they have missions to ensure cleanliness. They haven’t bought as well into what constitutes an interesting life. Its like a crisis of the imagination. We put up a hospital with maternity ward quicker than we would anything to make the life that follows birth, interesting. Isn’t that contradictory? We don’t design our environment to be sufficiently engaging. We don’t plan our cities and living spaces for it. Many housing societies have space for a swimming pool. Just that nobody wants a swimming pool when that space can be used for parking. Even then, quarrels erupt over parking slots usurped because the number of vehicles is going up. So it isn’t just new rain. There is the flooding too.

The Indian approach is – money is king. In its durbar, sedentary imagination dominates. That imagination percolates down to everything. Its terrible as theme for life. Merely accumulating money never made anyone happy. Often when I find myself muscled out by vehicle on road, I wonder: does the driver hate me because I am living the life I like? You know what? – I suspect that is the case; especially in cities. Strange as it may seem the few instances I received room as cyclist, were in the hills and mountains. His loaded truck laboring up a steep slope, driver, upon seeing cyclist powering self and baggage on same road with no engine for help, would give a wave. Or a passing car driver would stick his hand out and show a thumbs-up.

On hopes of such moments visiting us somewhere, back in the city, we weather the new rain of an old order.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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