Mangaluru is seated at the junction where the Netravathi and Gurupur rivers join the Arabian Sea. But this is not your typical laid back, seaside town. Offering a contrast to the beautiful beaches and scenic coastline is the nightmarish traffic on city roads. Call it Mangaluru’s own Jekyll-and-Hyde act. But, the cheerful people, spicy seafood and stalls selling steaming neer dosas are the same across town.
If you are a tourist in town, there is the Pilikula Biological Park, the Milagres Church… and do look for the 99-year-old traffic warden. One can find him at traffic hotspots and busy areas in Hampankatta. He always has a smile for those who obey traffic rules; others receive a polite nudge and some suggestions, kindly put.
“I am not 99-years-old, I am 99-years-young,” says Joseph Gonsalves, aka Joe, the chief traffic warden of Mangaluru. Somehow, it sounded similar to the new catchphrase that Arnold Schwarzenegger mouthed in Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)—“I am old, but I am not obsolete.” Joe was ready to spill his life story in the first phone call itself, but it was a tale of intrigue; the kind that called for a visit.
Manoeuvring through Mangaluru traffic is a bit like playing Temple Run. You are never ready for the next move. The roads are bumpy; the dividers, dilapidated and the autorickshaw drivers are qualified to audition for the next Fast and Furious. As we reach the Falnir area, Joe calls to give directions: “Just come straight; I am standing at my balcony. It is hard to miss me.” And, he was right. His khaki uniform, the shiny stars on his epaulettes, cap, baton and fancy mask stand out against the background of his beige-hued apartment. He waves, and signals to take the stairs.
The first car in the parking lot is his white Swift Desire with ‘chief traffic warden’ marked on the back glass. “They made a lot of noise when I bought the car three years back,” Joe says. “Hanumantharaya, Deputy Commissioner of Police (law and order), handed over the key of the new car to me at the Mandovi showroom. They have also given me a siren, which I can use in case of an emergency.” Joe still drives around the city like a pro. And why not, he has been behind the wheel for over 80 years now!
“When I was young, there were only three cars in my area,” he says. “Two were owned by Englishmen and the third one was the bishop’s car. It was a Morris 8 and every time it passed the hockey field where I used to play with my friends, we would put our sticks away and kneel down to get his blessings. I had such admiration and respect, not only for the bishop but also his car.” Joe drove for the first time when he was 19. “I drove a Morris 8,” he says. Interestingly, Joe says that Mangaluru’s first car was owned by his son-in-law’s grandfather; “a French car—De Dion.” His love for cars is clear from the excitement in his voice. His hands look frail, but they are always in the air, animating his tales.
Joe’s flat has a retro, English vibe to it. Be it the couch or the blinds, or the bar counter, the elements talk about celebration, togetherness, love and, also, a few poignant memories. “I had a bigger place before, but it was too big for me so I moved into a smaller space,” he says. Without wasting any time, Joe shares the stories behind every photo on the walls. The walls also showcase the certificates and accolades he has received. “All I want to do is to give back to the community,” he says. “I want more and more youngsters to come forward and take part in this mission to make our roads safe.” Word has it that he is quite resourceful when it comes to his pet project.
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