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Sign language lessons on the border roads

india Updated: Dec 13, 2008 23:29 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
Mayank Austen Soofi
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Feel the curves, do not test them. Keep your cool. Darling I like you but not so fast.

To the innocent, these three messages may seem straight out of a Palika Bazaar VCD. But xxx content it’s not. Rather, these love-ly lines are from New Delhi writer, Ajay Jain’s curiously titled Peep Peep Dont Sleep, a book on Indian road signs.

Jain spent three weeks in Ladakh on some of the highest motorable roads in the world, photographing the many signboards — ‘safety sonnets’ — put up by the Border Roads Organisation.

Clearly, the BRO has a bard on its rolls, one who has an apocalyptic imagination, and a penchant for rhyming couplets, word play and the upper case — and the devil take grammar, spelling, even meaning.

Sample these gems — “Driving faster can cause disaster”, “Mind your brakes or break your mind”, “Overtaken beware of undertaker”, “Hte cautious seldom err”, “Yellow tape parent crying” (?!) — which offer many a motorist light relief on the mountain passes.

But are they effective? If you are anything like Jain, you run the risk of almost driving over the edge of a cliff as you rummage around for your camera. Of the countless he has snapped on his Olympus Digital SLR, Jain has included the best two hundred in his book.

Seated in the sedate surroundings of Cafe Turtle in the capital’s tony Khan Market, Jain points out that many of the ‘safety tips’ have a risqué subtext that wouldn’t get past the scissors of Sharmila Tagore’s censor board.

“Driving and drinking a fatal cock-tail” for example. (What’s the hyphen doing there, Jain’s caption asks.) Or, “Love the neigbour but not while driving.” Else? Send the Padosan’s husband on a road trip north?

No wonder, a US radio channel asked Jain whether he thought Peep Peep Dont Sleep was suitable reading material for women and children.

But “Dont gossip while driving”. So I drive straight to the horse’s mouth — the office of the BRO in New Delhi. “Is there a team of bureaucrats here pouring their brains over the crunchiest line?” I ask.

“No, we are not the creative heads,” answered Colonel Neema, director planning. “The slogans are area specific and thought up by the chief engineer of that region who take inputs from workers on the site as well as road users.”

That sounds all reasonable and fine...but also very staid. And here I had a picture in my mind of this faceless genius — a young testosterone-fuelled soldier stationed somewhere on the virgin peaks of the Himalayas, working away with a government-issued paintbrush and a well-thumbed copy of Rapidex English Speaking Course as his companions. A homebody, homesick, possibly (must be to think up “Safety on roads is safe tea at home”), with a cynical take on marriage…and, oh, he probably also loves his drink (“Whisky is risky, run is bomb”, “Drive on horse power, not rum power”, et al).

Steven Baker, coordinator of the British Council’s creative writing course in New Delhi, says that the idiosyncratic style of these notices has many of the distinguishing features of Indian English. “The anomalous language use found on the roadside, is perhaps the reason why my jeep driver crashed when I made the trip from Manali to Leh in 2001.” Luckily, no one was injured.

“The last English gentleman will be an Indian,” says Baker as I leave his office. Wow. I drive away happy, or in the words of the BRO bard, “Smile begents smile”.