Earlier, happiness meant owning a car. Now, it's finding a spot
I have been living in Chennai for 10 years now – I had arrived just in time to watch the city transform. Had I come a few years earlier, I would have been too old-time a resident to notice the changes; had I come a few years later, I would have landed amidst the change and would not have noticed it.
The thing I loved most about Chennai when I came to live here in early 2001 was my street – a clean and tree-lined stretch of road where you could only hear silence even though it's a stone's throw from the cacophony of T. Nagar. No matter what time of the day, the street would be empty, and when viewed from either end, would resemble an elongated arbour. I would often climb down my house and stand on the street just to meditate on the silence and listen to the birds – it made me love Chennai.
Today the same street resembles a parking lot. Throughout the day, cars and bikes are parked on either side, not only narrowing the once-handsome street but also causing traffic jams each time two large vehicles come face to face. The street that, not too long ago, had no traffic now witnesses frequent jams! Now that should give you a fair idea about what's going on in the rest of Chennai – considering that nearly 1,000 new vehicles hit its roads every day – and in other cities as well.
Time was when buying a car brought you happiness and gave you a sense of achievement. It was one of the milestones of life – once you crossed it, it meant you were on the road to prosperity. But today, we even have cars that are specifically made for the common man – the idea is no one should be without a car. And so, overnight, the meaning of happiness has changed. It's finding a parking space that now brings you joy and gives you a sense of immense achievement. (Possessing a car, on the other hand, only reminds you of the number of instalments that still remain to be paid.)
Today when you go to watch a movie at a multiplex, parking the car turns out to be a greater event than the movie itself. Once you are home, the scenes that play in your mind are not from the movie but from the parking lot. And I have lost count of the number of times my wife and I had to abandon the plan to watch a movie simply because a sign at the gate of the mall would read: Parking Full.
And yet, we watch wide-eyed the advertisements for cars, little realising that cars are slowly making us unsocial. It's just a matter of time before we completely stop visiting people or inviting them over: we can park ourselves on couches, but what about our cars!
Isn't it time we had companies that manufactured parking space? I guess it won't be very long before some enterprising companies actually begin doing that. And if that ever happens, you don't have be a rocket scientist to predict that space will cost more than the car. Imagine watching on TV a commercial selling space – how do you show a thing that cannot be seen!
This column is, in fact, inspired by an incident that took place last evening. The wife and I were at the basement of a mall, snaking along the rows of parked cars, trying to find a slot. Following us was a line of cars, in search of the same elusive thing. Suddenly my wife, who was driving, spotted a narrow vacant slot that we almost drove past.
“Quick, quick!” she told me, “Just get out and stand right there while I back the car.” Her idea was that if I stood there, I would automatically lay claim to the vacant space. Even as I considered whether I should actually do that, the car behind us slithered into that spot. She has not been talking to me since.
Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, 17 September 2011.