Thursday, August 19, 2010
It is four in the afternoon. The heat and humidity were stifling and the smoke and dust were suffocating. The roar of hundred engines revving up simultaneously hurt my ears. And then without warning, everyone took off in what looked like a free style obstacle race. There were no rules to hold you down. You can cut your competitors off or nudge them out of your way or just push the pedal to the floor and keep it there. The safest position is at the head of the pack and we were right there. From there you get an unobstructed view of the approaching bumps, potholes and puddles or whatever obstacle that happened to lay ahead.
The wind rushing thru the glassless window, the constant jostling over the bumps and the near misses quickly converted me back to religion. Our muscles were taut with tension and minds stayed focused as we closed in. I could feel the speed pick up significantly and I could see others racing straight at us from the all sides, also determined to be the first to reach that invisible finish line. It was quite clear that this was no longer a matter of routine, but instead, the battle lines had been drawn and everyone’s prestige was at stake. One false move here would surely result in a ride to the emergency room, but that was apparently the farthest from anyone’s mind – except mine.
And then as suddenly as it had begun it all came to an end. Our driver managed to slide past the other three – each one of them many times our size. As it happened, the other drivers blinked first and came to a screeching halt just inches from where we passed them by. If a crash did not kill us, the looks from the other drivers certainly did, but our triumphant driver conveniently ignored them, as though nothing had happened. With a contented sigh he eased back on the pedal while I grabbed that moment to get my breath back.
If you thought I was describing an obstacle course auto racing event, I must apologize for having misled you. These were but a few light moments captured during an approach to a busy intersection, on a major highway in India. The three wheeled auto in which I was riding is an extremely unstable light bodied auto-rickshaw competing for the same road space with a passenger bus, a monster truck and a motor cycle (I am discounting all pedestrians, cycle riders, cows and pigs also sharing the road, of course) And if you are thinking of highly dangerous speeds, we were only doing 35 mph at the most, whenever the city roads allowed that at all, but none the less treacherous and unpredictable. Looking back, safely ensconced in my chair at home, I can write about it in good humor