My India Trip: The Accident
And then I looked over and saw a Venom sticker on the back of this guy’s van:
Not so far away from home as it used to be, I guess.
I’ve been home for a week now, trying to shrug off the jet lag, trying to figure out what to write about. That last bit isn’t exactly true. While I was in India, I kept knocking around ideas for blog entries, like the persistence of the caste system as demonstrated by the servant culture, or cheap cars and the democratization of travel, or the damned air pollution so thick you can taste it. I had all these ideas swirling around in my head, and then we got into a big car accident.
I don’t know if you’ve driven in a developing country before (and really I’ve only been to India, so I don’t know if driving is better in the rest of the developing world) but it’s kind of scary. As near as I can figure it, in India the rules of the road consist of:
1) No slowing down, drive as if your brake lines are severed
2) Pass other cars constantly
3) Honk all the time.
I wish I’d taken video so you could see how this works, but, needless to say, there’s a crap-your-pants moment about every seven seconds.
Now, I’ve done my share of reckless driving before and I’ve had some close calls, but driving in India is like someone took all those moments and put them on a mixtape, sped it up, looped it, added a bhangra beat, leaked it onto the internet, where it got downloaded by a BILLION people, who put it on repeat in their cars.
My uncle, who lives there, asked once if I wanted to try driving. I said that I didn’t think I had the proper judgement yet; that, as a passenger, sometimes I’d think there was plenty of time to pass, and my driver would pass, but just as often I’d think, “If we try to pass now, we’ll die,” and my driver would go for it then too. I was content in accepting that I didn’t get Indian driving, so I wasn’t going to worry about it.
All of this is to set the scene. On my sixth or seventh day there, we were driving back from the wedding and reception that I’d gone to India to attend. We were in one of those cheap cars that I mentioned above, a tiny white hatchback called the Maruti 800, which is marketed as the “people’s car.” Wikipedia tells me that more than half the cars in India are Marutis.
The wedding receptions in that part of India are held early in the day, so we were driving home at around six in the evening. The sun had just set, but we still had dusky light to see by. You know how they tell you that time is the worst for visibility? Well, turns out they’re not kidding. We were doing about 70/kph on a straight stretch of relatively empty highway. We were all chatting away, all looking forward, and none of us saw the truck parked on the road until it was about fifteen feet ahead of us.
I’m writing about this to share the experience, because it still feels so strange to me that I was in one of those big car accidents that you seen in the movies. My mom says that she and my aunt screamed before we hit, but I don’t remember any screams until after; we were all too surprised. They drive on the left over there, so my uncle swerved right. Doing so saved us, but we were still too close, and the left side of our car smashed into the truck.
Right before we hit I remember thinking, “That’s it, then.” And then the glass from the windshield and left side windows shattered and flew in at us. That’s when the screaming started. With what momentum we had left, my uncle coasted the car around to the front of the truck and parked.
We had five people in the car: from left to right, in the front were my aunt and uncle, and in the back, my cousin, my mom, and me. I was completely untouched, and I turned my attention to my mom, to get her calmed down. I focused on her, not wanting to look in the front. None of us had been wearing seatbelts; the back had none, and with the lack of enforcement, front passengers never wear theirs. I was sure that my aunt must be lying on the hood - but she wasn’t. We’d been in an accident like the one in Adaptation when Chris Cooper pulls out of the driveway and gets smoked, but aside from sprains and minor cuts, we were all fine. The passengers on the left side, the side of the impact, got the worst of it, but even they weren’t that badly off. I remember thinking that if you had to get into a major accident, this was the way to do it.
We got out of the car and found that the truck driver had pulled over to take a leak by the side of the road. Other drivers pulled over to see how we were and to yell at the truck driver. We were in the countryside, so someone drove us up the road to some small shops, while someone else fetched a doctor for my aunt. Throughout everything, I felt detached, as if I was watching all these things happening to someone else. I don’t know if I was in shock, but I found myself getting irritated that all everyone around us could talk about was the accident. I wanted to say, “Yeah, it could’ve been terrible, but it wasn’t, so why don’t we talk about something else?” I might’ve actually said something like that.
However, over the next few days, I was reluctant to get into any cars, and when I did have to be driven somewhere I found myself pushing myself back into my seat every time we passed someone. I met someone from Chicago a few years ago who talked about the riots and shootings that happened after when the Bulls would win a championship, and he said, “Chicago’s the only place where you hope your team loses in the playoffs.” I felt like that, as I went from marvelling at how much nicer the roads were now than when I visited ten years ago, to hoping that our routes took us over broken down roads so we’d have to drive slower.
I got back to Canada okay, but the shine’s worn off of India for me. I’m reluctant to go back. The accident wasn’t the only thing, but I always trusted that even though some things seemed strange or wildly unsafe to me, I’d be okay, because the people around me knew what they were doing. Now I’m thinking that a ton of steel and glass doing seventy is a ton of steel and glass doing seventy, no matter where you are. Am I getting conservative in my old age? I wonder.