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We’re standing on the street corner watching traffic coming from every direction. I crossed this intersection, which has neither lights nor stop signs, many times when my wife, Louise, and I were in India a decade ago. Now, it’s going to be the first street crossing test for our little band. It’s too bad that we have to start with such a large challenge, because crossing Bangalore’s streets on foot (or, for that matter, in a vehicle) is extremely dangerous.
Louise and I have returned to Bangalore to give a workshop in mediation at the National Law School. We’ve brought three other trainers with us, all friends who have never been to India before this trip. We asked them to join us because, in addition to their contributions to the training, we believe that they will be up to the challenges of traveling in India, including crossing streets where rules of the road don’t apply. I’ve found that the guts and skill it takes to cross streets is symbolic of an adventurous, flexible attitude that is most beneficial in all aspects of living and traveling in India. It requires trust that, underneath the apparent chaos, there is some underlying organization or rule. Crossing streets in Bangalore is a spiritual experience.
The prospect of imminent calamity on the Bangalore streets reminds me of the work Louise and I are doing: teaching peaceful ways to resolve conflicts through mediation. India has always been a place where opposites like peace and violence, or destruction and creation, are closely connected.
Ten years ago, I was instructed on street crossing by the son of our landlord in Bangalore who thought that it was the most important thing that he could teach us about the city. Now, standing on the corner with my three neophyte friends, I am thankful for the knowledge!
The practice of dealing with these gauntlets on a daily basis is connected with, or at least parallels, the greater life lessons that I learned while I was in India the last time. For instance, the Buddha’s teachings about meditation apply directly to our daily challenges. He could have said, “When you consider crossing a street in Bangalore, this is more easily and safely done if you practice conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment.” My contribution is the realization that the voyage across these busy roads is about “flow” and about relationship with others, and even a little about love. How could anyone love those wild truck drivers bearing down on us as we weave through the layers of traffic, marching purposefully across the street? I can, and I do. Crossing streets and dealing with the other frustrations that are inevitable for any travelers in India are more meaningful because they are a part of my search to understand myself, connect with others, and open my heart.
An Indian friend, who is a spiritual person, believes that the seeming chaos of the street traffic is really part of some deeper heart connection that Indians have with each other. He feels that this must be the case, or there would be many more accidents than, in fact, occur between the crowded, breathtaking, tail-gating, weaving vehicles of India. He told me this when I was a passenger in his vehicle, at the very moment that his driver backed down a major Bangalore thoroughfare, going against traffic. If he’s right, then entering into this maelstrom as a pedestrian also means becoming part of this web of connection. The very act of stepping off the curb to cross the street gives us the essence of this phenomenon, whether we understand it or not. To succeed, we must be aware and attentive, like meditators, or mediators.
The young lawyers Louise and I will teach in the workshop are poised to join a profession that envisions its role as helping disputants to a conflict to fight more effectively, to win at any cost. Through the process of mediation, a different course for resolving disputes is offered. Parties to mediation learn that underneath the apparent issues they present, there are possibilities for deeper understanding, fairness, and co-operation. Like the apparent chaos of the Bangalore streets, there is an underlying order and connection. As the parties to a mediation begin to understand and trust this, they are more able to find win-win solutions to their problems.
I’m ready to shepherd our group across our first major street. Louise admits that she “is a little rusty.” As we start across, I realize that I’ll have to grab her hand and give her the familiar yank that she always resents. When I gaze at the test ahead, it’s evident that the traffic has increased significantly and that there are many more Japanese and Korean sub-compacts on the road, along with innumerable scooters and motorcycles. This avenue, where one-way streets become two way streets and angles other than right ones make it feel as though vehicles materialize in the intersection without warning, is much more challenging than I remembered. When we lived here before, we marveled at how wide the intersection was. You had at least a 100-yard dash if one crossed diagonally. Now, the traffic fills every nook and even drifts into places where the pavement stops and pedestrians like us stand.
I glance across the street to our destination, Tivoli Gardens, that wonderful spot where Louise and I often ate breakfast. We are going back to our favorite place for chai and idlies. I see that the dusty outdoor section of the restaurant, where we always sat, is now squeezed between two new high-rises. Even the giant, centuries-old trees, which give it a natural feel and provide much needed shade, have been overwhelmed and minimized.
It is time to make the crossing. I notice that my friends are huddled together a short distance away from Louise and me. They’re animated in their conversation, feeling the excitement of their first morning in India, and completely unaware of the adventure ahead. I yell to them, over the roar and revving of engines surrounding us: “We’re going over there.” I point across the street to the two buildings and the now inconsequential trees between them. There’s a flicker of recognition on Debbie’s face that there is something challenging that must occur before we reach that far place. Norm and Michelle still seem in some kind of reverie. “We’ll need to get across this street now, and it’s a bit dangerous,” I say, to get their attention.
Norm looks out at the chaos in front of him, and in his inimitable joking fashion says, “I think not!”
“Well, that’s where we’re going for breakfast,” I answer.
This seems to sink in, and our group of friends moves, almost in unison, close to where Louise and I stand. By doing this they have immediately comprehended one of the skills necessary to make it to the other side—safety in numbers. Just when the moment is right, we set forth.
Their first street crossing makes me confident that my friends will not only survive but flourish in India. I am impressed when I see that they quickly realize how important it is to have present-time awareness during this passage. I know that they will be good team members as they instinctively coordinate the crossing, walking in tandem, continuously in contact with one another and reading each others’ signals as we face and sometimes dodge oncoming traffic from many directions. I’m proud of our team. These are people who can be counted on to deal with whatever will come up.
We enter Tivoli Gardens, all of us exhilarated and ready for something a little stronger than chai. Immediately, we run into Mr. Manohar, the manager of Tivoli, who had served us efficiently and admirably the last time we were here. We start to make the small talk that is the basis for the external part of our relationship. Mr. Manohar tells us that another high-rise will soon take over very spot where we are seated. This means that the next time we come to Bangalore, Tivoli Gardens will be no more. On the modern glass building that will take its place, where offices of IBM and Microsoft might be located, there will surely be a sign, because that is the “Bangalore way.” It will read, “Past location of Tivoli Gardens.” All that will be left of this place is a plaque, meaningless to people new to the city.
Changes have come to Bangalore, in the form of high rises, more traffic and congestion. The impermanence of Tivoli Gardens, like so many old Bangalore landmarks, is especially poignant for me, as I consider the adventurous street crossing that we have made to reach this place. Where are we all going as we move incessantly from A to B, all the time facing the chaos and conflicts that are seemingly inherent in our lives? Does being alive mean that we must reconcile ourselves to disorder and turmoil?
Right there, in the dusty, shrinking, ghost of a place called Tivoli, I realize that my love for Bangalore and India is strongly intact. Sitting in that throwback of an eatery, I gain some perspective on how I have changed from the person who lived in India 10 years ago. I’m certainly interested in the ways Bangalore has been altered; but more importantly, I’m seeing the changes through the prism of my own growth and experience.
Attempting to negotiate any big city’s traffic is dangerous. Indian traffic is unique in a way that confirms its spiritual dimension. It has helped me learn things that I never set out to learn.
Joel Wallock is an attorney and mediator based in Aptos, Calif.