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Miscellanea / Manjula Padmanabhan

The right kind of restraint is a prerequisite to every kind of freedom

On the way to see the Australian acrobats of Circus Oz perform at Siri Fort auditorium last week, my taxi got stuck in a traffic jam. I had set out from home well ahead of time but the jam, which began just past the junction of the inner Ring Road and Khel Gaon Marg, didn't let us out of its grip for a full twentyfive minutes.

Initially, I thought it was the usual six thirty cattle-run and assumed that it would not detain us for longer than ten minutes. But fifteen minutes crawled past and we were still alongside Neeti Bagh. The taxi driver was shifting uneasily in his seat, leaning out the door of his cab and suggesting manic detours whenever he encountered a break in the road divider. Not only was I bound to be late reaching the auditorium, but the entire evening seemed doomed to be spent staring into the eyes of fellow-jammers.

I assumed that there was an accident somewhere up ahead, but I was wrong. As we snail-paced our way towards the decisive traffic lights where Siri Fort Road meets Khel Gaon Marg, it became clear that there was no physical obstruction anywhere on the road. The culprit was a barefaced disregard for rules. The traffic lights twinkled unnoticed, as motorists rammed their way through by sheer force of numbers.

By the time my taxi was within three cars of the intersection, I could see a pair of young men running about in the thick of the fumes, the flashing lights and the honking horns, like a pair of junior matadors facing a rampaging herd of woolly mammoths. They were either astonishingly brave or merely foolhardy young men, because the traffic barrelled on despite their frantically flapping hands. By the time the lights had cycled through another couple of changes, the police arrived in a jeep.

They behaved even more reckless than the two amateurs. They banged and thumped on cars, challenged the auto-rickshaws to run right over them and roared unheeded commands at the swirling clouds of carbon monoxide. By some miracle they evaded death, perhaps only because the rush hour had by that time begun to ease up.

Anyway, my taxi finally moved through the intersection, and sped down a nearly empty stretch of road to reach the auditorium in under a minute. Half an hour's wait for a minute-long journey! Thinking that I could have walked that distance in the same length of time, I dismissed the cab, then hurried to find the friends who I thought would be waiting for me impatiently to bring them their passes to the show.

But they were stuck in a queue too! And this one seemed endless and hopeless too, because the gates were resolutely shut against the vast throng of would-be audience and their bitterly disappointed children. There were more passes than seats available. The modest stretch of road between the auditorium and its car park churned with departing fleets of Zens and Cielos even as fresh troops arrived in Toyotas and Esteems.

My team of four swelled to six as one wave-front of friends met another wave-front. Transport arrangements dictated that we remain in the vicinity of the auditorium. We had waited while the crowd thinned and were moving in the direction The Pub, when lo and behold! The gates opened! We charged through helter-skelter and, despite a couple of reverses, found ourselves five minutes later, sitting downstairs in the aisles of the auditorium, waiting to be enthralled.

And we were. Circus Oz is dedicated to the concept of entertainment without cruelty to human or beast. So they restrict themselves to feats of acrobatics. But if this was restriction, what price freedom! That was the theme running through my mind as I watched those lithe, seemingly carefree bodies twirling, leaping, defying gravity, redefining flying: the right kind of restraint is a prerequisite to every kind of freedom.

That traffic jam, for instance. If all those drivers had accepted the restrictions of orderly driving, we would all have got to our destinations on time. And that queue at the gate would not have been possible if passes had been issued discretely rather than promiscuously. Meanwhile, on the credit side, the Oz acrobats would have been unable to perform even one of their amazing physical feats if not for years of training and rigid self-control. Shackled by discipline, they are free to soar. The rest of us, prizing freedom over every other quality, remain stuck in traffic whichever road we're on.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

Manjula Padmanabhan

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