Life in the Express Lane
Work took me yesterday to Chandigarh, a planned city of about a million forming the capital two states, Punjab and Haryana. The 56 year-old urban dream of idealist prime minister Nehru, Chandigarh is now one of the wealthiest places in India--highest per capita income, one of the best standards of living, etc. The city that Le Courbusier laid out is determined to live up to its progressive founders. Well-ordered streets meet roundabouts, traffic lights are obeyed and seatbelts worn religiously. Chandigarh was the first Indian city to ban smoking in public places, and it has one of the best health systems of the country--especially of the northern states which tends to lag behind the wealthier and better run southern states. Modernist architecture crops up in the oddest places, almost as frequently as a Gaudi structure in Barcelona -- a boxy red-lit cube of a lighthouse on Sukhna Lake , a statuesque wind turbine, and cement egg-shaped rubbish bin. With the tiny cars jammed chaotically together in lots, it could be Italy (however like everywhere in India, signaling while driving requires heavy use of horn). Even students drive cars--only a few rural chaps, riding in from the Punjabi countryside to sell corn on blankets in the European-style plazas, travel by bicycle.
Struggling with lingering stomach malaise, I couldn't fully appreciate the Chinese-Thai fushion food at Noodle Bar, in Sector 26--the city is neatly divided into 4-block districts--but the Biggie and Mos Def playing perked me up (10 years later, "Miss Fat Booty" has still got its kick). With the flat screen TVs embedded into the blond wood wall and casual-chic crowd of young modern Desis this could have been London.
One of highlights of my 18 hours in Chandigarh was the journey. How much Amtrak has to learn from the Indian railways! Let's put aside Amtrak's obsene pricing structure or limited routes (the poorest villager can get a seat on an Indian train to cart potatoes across the state--any city, any state). Rich people, too, travel better by train in India. Accustomed to riding trains here in 2nd class (a car with rows of 3 sleeping bunks, stacked to the ceiling with teaming families), my eyes were opened wide by the famous Shatabi Express, where I rode in an "executive" class that is available on few other routes. Guests on this Acela-caliber class do not have to uproot themselves to purchase overpriced pre-packaged food at a cafe car. On the Shatabi, uniformed servers offer several courses on trays with real silverware--included in the $17 rail ticket. There was tea, cornflakes, hot rolls, and then the main course, veg cutlets or omlette. Tea time arrived again. The Times of India, Hindustan Times, or Hindi language papers were offered. Fresh pinnapple or orange juice was served in glasses before passengers disembarked at their destination, a comfortable 3 or 4 hours later.
As the train leaves before 7, the green Haryana fields were veiled in thick mist. Blue and maroon turbans--Punjabis is home to many Sikhs--peeked above the plush recliner seats as passengers snooze. Closer to Delhi, mobile phones began sounding and expensive suits were smoothed out. Meetings were scheduled in a masala mix of Punjabi, English and Hindi. Briefcases were located, drivers met.
Civilization ended as everyone joined the conjested Delhi streets once again. Children and crippled old people paste faces to the car windows of the wealthy, staring and staring and staring. Perhaps the disembarked Sikhs, like me, were missing Chandigarh's wide, orderly streets with the feeling of possibility and progress.