The noise makes me sit up like one of those lines in books: bolt upright in my bed. Long squeal of brakes, several sickening thuds, and now the continuous sound of a stuck horn: of all incongruous things, what comes to mind is the climax of the classic film-noir, “Chinatown”, with its blaring horn.
So I kick off my sheet and struggle to the window to see what has happened. Some kind of accident. I pull on my sandals and run downstairs. It’s a blue Swift, stopped at the mouth of our lane. As I approach, somebody opens the bonnet and fiddles inside, finally managing to silence the horn. Then I notice a young girl — slender, long hair, shivering but it isn’t cold — standing just behind the car. Another girl walks up to her and envelops her in a hug. A young man — no more than a teenager, really — walks up too. The “What’s the matter with you?” expression on the slender one’s face is almost as loud as if she had screamed it.
Somehow it’s clear that he was the driver of the Swift; the two girls and two other boys standing nearby, his passengers. I’m still not sure just what happened, but at least it looks like nobody is seriously injured.
And now I’m near enough to ask the shivering girl — she seems the only one who might be hurt at all — are you ok? May I get you some water? The identical thought has occurred to another passerby — by now, even just short of 5 in the morning, perhaps two dozen people
have gathered — and he actually has a bottle of water, which he offers to the girl.
The reaction of the driver startles both of us. Macho man taking charge of the wreck and his girl, he waves a peremptory hand at the bottle, at us. “There’s no need,” he says superciliously. “We’re OK, everything’s under control, all right? We don’t need your help.”
So we stand back as this kid guides the girl, still shaking, into the front seat. The others get in as well. He settles in the driver’s seat, starts the Swift and tries to engage gears.
The thing shudders, it seems to leap inadvertently backwards, then he guns the engine, it strains left but won’t really move. He turns the wheel sharply, the front wheels barely respond, it struggles forward a few feet and stops.
Clearly, the accident has damaged something in this car beyond just the horn. But the guy is still trying, manhandling his gear shift, racing his engine. Finally, I bend and say through the window, Look, why don’t you just park the car here and go home?
The girl is still shivering, now weeping. He has lost the sneering bravado of a couple of minutes ago. He looks at me and says in a small voice, “Uncle, it’s not working. What to do?”
Why am I telling you this story from a couple of weeks ago? Because not a day seems to pass without news of yet another accident on the road. Like Juhu last weekend: kids drunk from late night party, drive at manic speed, lose control, smash into a tree, young Shivani Rawat
is killed, five friends seriously injured.
There’s a certain depressing sameness to it all.
But there’s also a certain baffling arrogance that is the preferred reaction to car accidents in this city.
Like the young man above, who probably doesn’t realize how lucky he and his friends are to be alive. Like another accident I once witnessed in nearly the same place, scooter vs some small car. The two drivers stood toe-to-toe, screaming at each other: “You were driving so fast, it was YOUR fault!” “You turned suddenly, it was YOUR fault!” Forgotten in their loudness — about to turn into blows, too — was the freely bleeding wound one man had, that clearly needed attention. Interested more in proving it was the other guy’s fault than in getting to a doctor as fast as possible, he roughly pushed aside two or three men who expressed concern.
Here’s the Bombay accident manual, in full: It’s always the other guy’s fault. Never admit you made a mistake. Refuse any help. Be a man, dammit!
Not wise, but a man. Stupidly arrogant, but a man.
Me, I owe such driving skills as I have to my friend Matt. Through several sessions teaching me in his Dodge Colt, he suffered in patient silence. One time, though, he could no longer maintain that calm. We were on a particularly narrow street that went steeply uphill. Another car was driving downhill towards us. Ignoring Matt’s repeated suggestions — entreaties, really — to pull over and let the other car pass, I drove on and up. We missed colliding by inches.
Matt was speechless for a minute. I could actually sense him quivering with rage.
Then he yelled: “What are you, trying to kill us?”
“But it was his fault,” I replied. “I had the right of way!”
“Right,” he snorted, “and after the accident, when you’re dead, you’re going to care whose fault it was?”
A better man, Matt, than many I know.