I’ve recently made friends online with someone from Iran. He describes the country he lives in as something like a prison because so many of the freedoms I take for granted in my life are literally not available to him. The simple act of being able to freely say what I like and identify myself in this blog would be totally impossible for him. It is a kind of luxury which would be both intoxicating and, particularly at this present moment in time, quite possibly dangerous.
We have different expectations about what our lives could be dependent upon where we live in the world. When I travelled to India I sent a series of e-mails back to my colleagues in England describing the place. Climate, language, architecture, even the vegetation one encounters make anywhere away from our home seem alien, and even exotic. Yet the thing which made the most lasting impact was something very familiar – transport.
I described to my friends what I saw as the hierarchy of travel in India:
Firstly there were the people walking on foot – these tended to be people who were less well dressed (and obviously poor) or younger children, heading places with boundless energy, women and young girls, or groups of men or boys heading just short distances. Many barefoot which would be something almost unthinkable for a western person.
Next came the bicycles – people on bikes tended to be slightly older children ambling along avoiding potholes, loose limbed and almost exclusively male.
Then were the rickshaws – bright yellow and motorised little tuk tuks darting and weaving their varied passengers onward through the traffic.
At the top of the transportation food chain were the car drivers - an altogether rarer species than the rest. Here was a way of demonstrating a level of status not generally afforded to anyone but those at the top of society. The others were those being driven around in nice white taxis owned by the hotels and driven by men in caps and crisp white uniforms.
Yet these aren’t the symbol of the new India. There is one other form of transport which seems to be the status symbol. The one people can afford above the car, desire above the humble bicycle, and the one which provides the symphony of the road, with bleating horns and high pitched engine whines: the motorbike.
In the UK the motorbike is something quite different. People who own them tend to be young people who want to ride something at 16, which is the year before they can drive a car although even this trend has diminished somewhat in the past decade. The others are much more powerful racing bikes and seemed to be owned by a particular group of men. They tend to be somewhere between 35 – 45 and of particular class who are likely to have paid off all their significant financial commitments and now want something more from their life in the form of a thrill. A number of them are also divorced so they are looking for a statement of virility.
It’s a far cry from the obvious ubiquity of the motorbike in India. Even the advertisements seem to suggest something different. On Indian TV they replace the car in the advertising schedule. Here it’s the bike – a symbol of youth, excitement, and desirability. The adverts contain images of virile young men (who start in an office looking clean cut) who then leave the office for their bike clad in a leather jacket and they then speed off into the city (or some remote rugged terrain) speeding through the traffic, halting only at the sight of a beautiful young girl. The bikes have names like Hero, Hunk, Menace, Isotope, Ninja, and Inteceptor which all add to the young macho virility they imply.
It’s a totally different perspective to the older males here in the UK seek. For a start the bikes they drive have much bigger engines and more power. Yet the actual thinking behind it is exactly the same. They both want independence and freedom to travel just for them and they want people to notice them. Here the sound of the accelerating motorbike is something like the sight of the car in Indian cities, it is a status symbol and status symbols get the girl (or so they think).
Then I think of the freedoms my friend in Iran can consider. He was a young man in 1979 and took to the streets to rid his country of what was considered a corrupt and out of touch leadership. Today he sees that those he replaced them with have become just as corrupt and out of touch with the wishes and desires of today’s young people. He feels the frustrations of the new generation and wants more chances to be able to express his views and opinions but he told me that he’s not on the streets this time as it’s too dangerous. The young don’t feel that fear, I thought, that’s why they are out there risking their lives for the chance for a little extra freedom. I’m sure when my friend comes to the UK (as he often does) he sees with the eyes of the outsider, all our faults and follies and that a lot of what we do with our lives and desire for our lives as something slightly foolish.
Yet I suspect that deep down he’d replace the desire for freedom of expression, the worries about if his calls and text messages are being monitored (and for what purpose) for something closer to our worries. We may think it’s not always fair, that we don’t have everything in our societies, that they are badly run and probably corrupt, but we’re free to worry about the motorbikes, not our freedoms all the same.