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Asia Featured Area India Photo Essays

Finding your place in Chaos | Mumbai, India

July 29, 2019

by Sarah Witt

On the express highway that crosses the city of Mumbai, endless lines of cars spit out the resigned annoyance of their drivers in the form of a grey smelling smoke. Right beneath them, between the concrete columns that support the highway, a terrible battle rages. At the intersection of two major arteries, the din is deafening and the situation confusing. Cars arrive from all sides with an unending honking of their horns, their engines screaming as they accelerate abruptly for yet another audacious manoeuvre.

Zigzagging between them, scooters and bikes rely on their nimbleness and a sense of anticipation to gain the advantage in the game. And all in this small world must bow to the threatening roars of buses and trucks. Sure of their strength, these old engines offer no gifts. Everyone tries to impose their own law. Sometimes by cunning, sometimes by force. It is no holds barred in the busy streets of Mumbai.

But the sacred gods of the crossroads are the ones we least expect: the cows. They are comfortably installed in the eye of the cyclone, slumped in the middle of the crossing, annoying and even blocking the traffic. Nothing seems able to disturb their phlegm. Only they manage to escape the frenzy that seizes all others who venture into the crossroads. They observe with indecent nonchalance the fight that unfolds before their eyes.

To this continuous stream of every kind of vehicle is added the wanderings of porters and delivery boys. They pull or push carts where goods accumulate in a precarious equilibrium. Dozens of them tumble down tiny alleyways. They cross the dangerous river of vehicles to rush back into dirty alleyways and feed the innumerable stalls that deploy their goods on every corner left free on the sidewalk.

Pedestrians try to walk as best they can, but even constant vigilance will not spare you from the hustle. The moist heat and the saturated air full of toxic vapors exhaled by all these vehicles make the atmosphere oppressive and overheat the spirit.

The posture of the observer is not particularly compatible with the alacrity of the locals. I choose to strategically place myself on an open piece of ground at one foot of the highway. Wedged between the four lanes, I can now contemplate the show in relative safety.

I have great difficulty following in real time what is happening in front of me. My eyes are constantly attracted by a movement, a noise, an action: too many things happening at the same time so that I can’t concentrate on just one. No form of regulation seems to apply to these streets, other than that which is specific to each individual. No traffic lights, no right-of-way, no accepted spacing between different users.

Yet, by leaving behind the stupor and prejudices regarding traffic in the Global South, a form of beautiful logic slowly emerges. A distinct order becomes more and more pronounced as you look at it carefully. A few days of practice on the Indian streets and we would almost begin to feel at ease, reassured by the constant proliferation that surrounds us.

And when we return to the streets of our home, where order reigns, where everyone is confined to their own allotted space and time, where people step forward with their eyes fixed on their phones, we appreciate being able to finally let our guard down, but we almost feel bored.

Written by Sarah Witt and Pascal Glampo

Sarah is a French self-taught photographer currently living in Paris. Passionate about film photography, all her photos are shot with old analogue cameras found in antique shops. She develops her own fine art prints in her lab and all of them are on sale on her website.

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