The journey so far had been good. The AC inside the car hissed smoothly, hemming the soft music that flowed out of the cold speakers concealed behind tiny hexagonal holes. Outside, a light rain needled the road ahead, pricking watery holes on the bitumen tarmac. It also fell on the windscreen, only to be dismissed unceremoniously by the wipers moving between solid and dotted arcs. The ones that escaped the blades congealed into drops and slithered up like a reluctant centipede confronted with a stick-wielding kid. Trees outside were awash in bright green and the soft luminescence of the cloud made for a rejuvenating morning.
I and my wife were driving back to Bhubaneswar from Puri, in our own car, an eight-seater Toyota Innova.
And suddenly in an anticlimax, the driver, reclaiming his forgotten presence, blurted out a terse statement. “Bajigala!” Something got hit!
Our driver, a lanky twenty-something, looked intermittently into the rear-view mirror, seemingly trying to make sense of what he saw there. His legs probably hesitated on the throttle, but he didn’t slow down the car.
‘What happened?’, we asked in unison while simultaneously looking through the rear glass. The car had already moved forward considerably, and the fogginess of the glass smudged the world behind us, rendering it indistinguishable.
Who got hit? Did someone rear-bumper us? But we didn’t feel the impact! After a few tense twisting of our bodies and waiting for the damned answer, the driver finally told us that the green-yellow mid-sized passenger bus that just passed us had hit the vehicle behind.
“What!” my wife spat out, “Turn the car, quick!”
“Jus…just…stop the car” I said, my words generously coated in reluctance.
As I got out in the pinching rain unsure of what I was doing and how I could do anything at all, I saw my wife quicken her pace and walk towards the hazy curtain of rain. I followed and saw a bus lying on the road diagonally, having landed on its left side. It had scratched the road like a dragon’s claw. It lay there like a dead, swollen cow, two of its wheels in air, the agonizing pain of its inhabitants not evident yet. A few meters away, a Tata Winger van had slid down the road and toppled, leaving its mark on the grass and the soft ground. Incredulously, what still stood bravely on the road was a piddling little white Maruti Omni van, albeit with its face squashed beyond recognition. It was a sad orgy of an accident that had crept up very silently behind us.
There was a man stuck inside the non-existent cabin of the Omni, trying to speak but unable to, his legs probably still on the pedal and his head resting against the passenger side window. He was bent at a weird angle and though there was a speck of blood on his face, it didn’t look threatening, making us believe that he could be saved if we moved fast. A crowd had been gathering slowly, with people spilling out of autos, running from across the field from the village nearby or jumping out of bikes. A few cars stopped on either side of the mayhem to assess the situation and either stayed far out of trouble or simply turned back. With the help of others, I tried to extricate the man from the twisted, mangled bundle of bare metal, so broken and so sharp that one wrong grip and you might rip your palm apart. What was meant to keep him safe inside had turned into a vicious trap, standing between his life and death.
Quite honestly, what I did for the next thirty minutes is a blur. I didn’t see my wife throughout (though it was not as if I was looking for her), even though the rain had stopped. There was too much confusion, too many lives around, including halves and barely-there’s. Hands and legs were stuck under the brute metal of the bus from where I heard both muffled, sinking voices and desperate cries of agony. There were bloodied faces, many too stunned to even react. Flesh hung out of limbs along with torn clothes. It was a sight one wouldn’t wish even upon the worst enemy.
“All your family safe?” Someone took pity on me.
“No, I was just passing by, ” I said with a tinge of pride. There was an unmistakable hint of disbelief in his eyes.
A crane and a police vehicle thankfully reached not too late. I remembered that calling police was the first thing I did as I alighted from the vehicle, though I am sure many would have done the same. In the meantime, someone brought an iron rod and only then could we free the driver of the Omni, whose legs were neatly weaved into the pedals and engine junk. The man who had looked almost fine, now hung from our shoulders like a puppet, the blow making pudding of his body, belly downwards. We laid him by the roadside, unsure of what to do with him. “Won’t live long,” someone commented and pulled me towards another who looked like having a better shot at life.
So here I was, an unwilling witness to the abject helplessness of human life, its frailties and the senselessness of choices that sometimes present themselves before you.
That was the last time I saw the Omni driver.
I was a bit hesitant once again seeing my driver reverse the car on wife’s instruction. I saw her direct men holding bleeding bodies into the cabin and ask for more. While she took the front passenger seat, I packed myself along with luggage into a single seat on the third row, the remaining space taken over by men, women and cries. As we drove towards Bhubaneswar, to the government hospital, blood seeped into the cream carpet. And the clock kept ticking. It would take several washes and many weeks for the putrefying smell of the decaying human fluid to vacate the vehicle.
Inside the car, I kept patting and comforting a middle-aged woman with a severe cut on her foot. Her head rested on the calf on this stranger and she clutched my hand tightly. “It will be alright,” I kept saying, oddly, the awkwardness of our short relationship making it sound mechanical. And only then it sunk into me that on this otherwise beautiful drizzling morning drunk on 90’s music, we had narrowly missed being picked up by fate. That the machinations of the invisible hand made us the carrier, not the carried.
The point of writing this post is that I am as self-occupied as anyone else and probably don’t have a heart larger than any average Indian. We all like to think that we have busy lives. We have our fair share of problems, families to take care of, places to reach on time. And then there is always that ‘someone else’. You think, “Well, I am really occupied right now. Let those who don’t have anything urgent on their hands help out. Next time, for sure.”
However, that day changed something in me. Though I am still the same hesitant man, I have come to believe that someone somewhere is keeping an account. Keeping a track of your points. This time you probably have the option to put your foot to the throttle and whiz away. But someday you might have to stick your hand out of your car, asking for help. Someday, you would want someone to turn into somebody that you are hesitant to become today.
Incredibly, I witnessed several incidents afterwards where my help was useful. I had stopped no matter what time of the day it was, no matter who else was there. I hope I can keep doing this. Who knows one day I might need someone who I can exchange points with.
I am still just a selfish Samaritan.