Alan Rodgers and the “Essence of Indian Fatalism”

Ever since I learnt of the passing of Alan Rodgers, my teacher and friend guiding me as I took the first steps on the road to becoming a professional ecologist, I’ve been thinking of writing something to commemorate his life, especially since I am unable to join other friends and family in any collective mourning/memorializing. But its been difficult to articulate much – in no small part because there are too many strong memories, from a time when my brain was probably really laying down a lot of wires and connections (unlike now), too much to put into one essay or blog post. How can one distill such a remarkable person, esp. someone who had such a strong influence on the course of my life, into a few hundred words?

Yet, here’s a strong pleasant memory triggered by something I just read (quite unrelated) – a lesson from Alan about the rules of the road, quite literally, and well before I ever got behind the wheel myself! One of the great pleasures some of us shared during the early years of the MSc program at WII was to drive around much of northern India with Alan, often in the FAO Toyota Land Cruiser he drove alongside the Land Rover that was our class’ official vehicle. And he was, by far, the best driver we had, whether cruising @5km/hr through national parks counting mammals on vehicle transects or spotlighting for nocturnal wildlife, dashing along the insane highways around Delhi, or navigating through the other high-density “wildlife” (cows, rickshaws, pedestrians, bicycles by the million) of urban jungles like Meerut! Some of the staff drivers of WII, who came from the hills around Dehradun, became really excellent at wilderness driving and spotting wildlife, while one or two even learnt to navigate the urban jungle – but none came close to being as assured and in control as Alan driving in all of those habitats! And I, perhaps unfairly more often than some fellow students, was privileged to ride “shotgun” on many an occasion.

I’m remembering one such occasion, when I had caught a ride back from Delhi to Dehradun in Alan’s cruiser along with Shekhar Singh. For some reason the conservation (which, it shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows either gentleman, was just nonstop) – actually turned to driving itself! While crawling through the human/bicycle/cattle traffic in one of the teeming towns along the way, someone (probably me) asked Alan about his experience driving in so many places in the world, and how India compared. He made a very astute observation about the key distinction between driving in India vs. in a western/developed country: “In the west,” he said, “driving is simple because all you have to do is drive your own vehicle, while in India (and Africa too, by implication) you are not only driving your own vehicle, you are also driving every other thing moving on the road” – every car/truck/auto/rickshaw/bicycle/pedestrian/cow! It took me a while to fully understand, because I hadn’t learnt to drive yet, that he was talking about how in the west, everyone for the most part follows traffic rules, so you just have to make sure you do the same and you are fine focusing on driving your car only. In India, on the other hand, you have to mentally compute and anticipate the semi-random movement of everyone and everything else sharing the road with your car! If you are reading this, but haven’t ever driven in India, the video below should give you an idea of what its like! And so, having learnt to drive in southern California, and having lived much of the past two decades in the US, I am yet to take the wheel in any populated place in India! And am in no hurry to change that either – especially after reading this.

As was often the case with those two, that conversation turned funny and philosophical when Alan swerved to avoid a pedestrian casually sauntering into the middle of the road, and Shekhar observed: “That is the Essence of Indian Fatalism: Step on to the road, and hope for the best“! I’m sure they would both have shared a good laugh over this video too:

[youtube RjrEQaG5jPM]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *