Last December in Bombay I had a strange experience. Being as I am of course in quest of the spiritual in my quasi new age, do not mistake me to be mad – I am just in search of myself – routine…. (one which never changes, even though I have read enough to convince myself that there is no me…. really….but will save that for another post.) So as I was saying I decided with parents in tow to make the annual pilgrimage to the mystical town of Shirdi to visit the tomb of the well known Indian fakir Sai Baba.
Dad booked a rented car and driver and we were off. Having made good time and using my NRI status (yes its true!) to beat the queues and get into the inner sanctum in record time, we paid our respects, prayed (health wealth happiness, pls pls pls lots of money is good too…) and were out in record time. So rather than staying the night in Shirdi we headed right back, talking, feeling slightly victorious at having beaten the odds and looking forward to being home by nightfall.
Then suddenly the big SVU ran over what seemed to be a bump and my Dad cried out “Oh my God! He ran over the boy, he ran over the boy!” As I stared bewildered at his outburst, he continued “Keep going, keep going, get out of here!” The driver made haste but we were not fast enough for two men on a motorcycle pursued us, beat on the hood of the car, pulled out the driver and messed him up.
With my mother in the back seat next to me I stared as if in a nightmare, a sense of deja vu, a stream of thoughts running to my head. So its true, its true, this is what it feels like to be in a hit and run on the streets of small town India…
By then a crowd had gathered, threatening us, pelting the hood of the car with stones. The driver walked back blood dripping from a gash on his forehead. Crestfallen he said “They say we ran over one of their men. They insist we accompany them to the nearest hospital and pay for treatment.”
We agreed and followed the two men on the motorcycle, veering of the highway into the heartland of a small town in Maharashtra. Then abruptly they stopped and so did we. We waited for what seemed to be a long time till a prosperous looking man, clad in the familiar politicians garb of white silk kurta -pyjama, gold glinting at his chest and fingers, gold titan watch on his right hand, lips stained from chewing betel-pan, walked up to us smartly and spoke in chaste Marathi “You have to pay, you don’t have a choice” he said. He looked me over and I cringed. But I could not hide behind my aged parents, worried as I was already about my Dad who had gone ashen on hearing this.
“Where is he?” I asked
“At the hospital”
“Take us to him, let us look at him and then we can see what to do” I said firmly refusing to be cowed down by the threat in his eyes, yet shaking inside as the sweat popped on my brow in the heavy late evening heat of the setting sun.
He hesitated first then looking at me and my mother, to my relief he nodded. We accompanied him to the dusty small municipal hospital. Passing various patients the smell of antispectic and death assailed me. No sign of the patient and we continued to wait….. Finally not able to take it any more and instead of waiting for who knows else to come back and ask us for money, I resolved to act and somehow to get us out of here. I could also see my Dad fading into himself with each passing minute and I was really worried about him. My mother as usual was calm but I could see she was troubled too.
I walked up to the driver and said “My parents are old, we cant stay here. It is a hired car afterall, you need to stay here. We have to leave, I need to get them home before night fall.”
He nodded. Then slipped off the gold chain around his neck, and handed that along with his purse and mobile phone to my mother. They looked at each other and my mother nodded in understanding placing the valuables in her purse.
Then pulling one parent on each side I walked as fast as they could follow out of the hospital. Out of the side street, and getting onto a shared taxi service to the nearest city where my sister ‘through her contacts’ arranged for a rented car to pick us up. By ten pm we were home and shaken and relieved I stood under the shower trying to wash away the dust from my skin and from inside my head.
“Its my fault, my fault” my father berated himself. “I should have told him to stop.”
“And what be beated by the mobs anyway?” I asked “You know how it is? This is why we ran. You acted on instinct.” He looked at me sadly as I continued “Either way we would have been asked to pay up, bribe the local politician, the local police station, the local mafia, the victim’s family…. that’s how it works right?”
He nodded. “But still…”
“Don’t beat yourself up Dad” I continued “That’s why we rented a car, precisely because the onus is not on us. Its upto the driver to figure it out.”
“He gave us his purse… what is he going to do?”
“I am sure he has been in similar situations, he knows the drill. He’ll figure it out”
My Dad nodded knowing I was right. “What would you have done in London?” he asked.
“I would have stopped…. because I knew I would not have been penalised. I would have done the right thing because the system would have supported me every step of the way. You couldn’t do the same here, because there is no real support is there? Its not black and white, and you don’t really know what’s right or wrong….” He nodded.
The driver made his way back the next day. He told us how he had negotiated a deal with the local police, fixing a sum of money based on experience that he was going to now get transferred to them.
Then a week later while narrating this episode to a friend who exclaimed “The same thing happened to me. On the way to Shirdi, we ran over someone, and had to pay our way out. Ultimately we never really saw the victim.”
I rushed back and told my Dad, “Its a scam. Your conscience can rest easy.”
Narrating this to Manjiri, we looked at each other. “It hasn’t changed has it?”
She nodded. “Nothing’s changed. There’s more money, but we forget how complex every day life can be, back home. With distance we put a lot of this behind us, and only remember the good memories. But all it took was a brush with real life to bring it all rushing back.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same it seems. I realised I am too spoilt by the transparency of the West. No longer am I a street smart survivor. I cannot navigate the complex systems of the East no-more. My heart in the East and my head in the West, spanning the world, a citizen of my own imagination country I will be.
If you have a similar insight or experience do feel free to share. Would love to hear from you!