Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Crooked Roads

My fascination to the crooked roads began somewhere from a photograph that I had once stuck to the wall of my room. It had a riddle that haunted my vacant moods. The photograph had captured a road in the process of negotiating a crooked turn through a dense jungle. Strewn against the tarred background of the road were freshly fallen flowers remaining untrodden by any human traffic. One could almost reach out and pick a few of those fallen petals and feel the fragrance of a bygone spring.

But alas! I could never get a glance of what lies beyond the bend. So I fancy. I fancy all sorts of places sprawling with proud mountains and eloquent streams. An ancient cottage untouched by the ravages of time and termites has a quiet existence. There amidst the lap of this visionary valley is the road threading its course and abruptly disappearing at the ridge of two mountains.

But, such a naïve fancying does not suffice as an apology for the concept of a crooked road. On the other hand there is a thick layer of historical validity in keeping the roads upright, and the notion of a straight road is one of the cardinal tenets of the town planners and of the civilized world whom they represent. Undeniably, there is a certain amount of dignity and grandeur to the straight roads. Ever since the Roman times, the course of a road is to run stiff and not to meander like a stream lost in the shadow of the forests, carrying along their coolness.

To swerve, for the Roman, was a sign of the infirmity of the will. Hence the highways were mercilessly stretched and the legions marched and marched with the iron purpose of conquest. They did conquer and it could be said that about 80,000 kilometers of roads ruled the empire. Like the ebb and flow of a river, the fortunes of the empire were reversed. The very roads that facilitated the legions in their world conquest in turn welcomed new warriors and conquerors in its turn. For all the uprightness of the Roman roads they lacked the touch of the land and the soil through which they passed through.

Yet, the town planners are diehard against letting the roads run their natural course. Straight roads are still their abracadabra for speedy progress. The uprightness of the roads is still their pet policy and insists that the crooked roads are to be punished into straight lines. For this, they burrow the mountains and fill up the valleys, and what remains is a matter-of-fact thoroughfare stretching forth far out of sight. After all these vanity of a human endeavor, the traveler is reminded of his growing alienation from the elements of nature all around him.

He misses the once familiar landmarks of identity that used to reassure him of his destination. Instead, the only thing that engages the mind is an endless regiment of milestones meticulously arranged to tease him out of his wits. It seems a premature rush into the future__a race against time__where the trees and lampposts are hurled back into the past with the fury of a comet. Amidst this whirl of reality and the vertex of the wheels the driver is left glued to the wheel like a dummy without the least motion expected of him. There are no deviations to digress the mind or an anticipation of the fork by the river, instead, a bridge is all of a sudden flung across the waters and the river is at once lost sight of as soon as the vehicle crosses the bridge.

But the story of the country roads has a different plot and setting. Their tale is inexorably intertwined with the lores and legends of the place. They are, as John Denver sang “Older than the trees and younger than the mountain”. They have an antiquity which mocks the historian of his memory. For instance, some of the oldest roads in the New World have their seminal origin from the trail of the mastodons through the forests. Then came the bison through, being followed by the Red Indians as their hunters, and at last the white man who macadamized and later petrified them with tar. Thus goes the story of the famed trails like the Oregon, the Santa Fe, etc.

To set at naught the wisdom of such a path is the proud folly of the modern man. Fled is then the charm of the unseen beyond the curve. But, providentially, the village roads continue to run their age-old course along the brooks and negotiate a gentle bow around Jack the farmer’s barnyard. By the side of the proud mountain they glide as if watching the grandeur of the sight. They are very much a part of the milieu as if sprung out as a fulfillment of the natural expression of things. One never loses the wonder of beholding the cliffs all of a sudden turning by the old farmer’s farmyard. Every drive is a travel back and forth into the time subjecting oneself into the time-honored instincts of the milieu accumulated along the ages.

Such idyllic pleasures of motoring are ending up as vicarious photographs stuck within the four walls, as the one in my room. It is a pining for what was and is not. No longer is trailblazing deemed an inspired vocation as that of the pioneers who made inroads into the hinterlands. Instead, remote villages are waking up to the grind and closing in of the machine.

There are a troop of planners to dictate the terms of the surrender. This entails the building of a direct road to the capitol along with the straightening of the existing ones. The gray beards are apprehensive but the planners are of course infallible and already the bulldozers are rolling in, their arms flexing.
                                                                                                                                      George Manjooran

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