Ok---are all the planets wobbling out of control in their orbits or something? Because there seems to be no end to the turmoil lately...
Saturday night, coming home in a van with 6 other people, we are involved in an accident. Driving through a small village at night, our van hits a pedestrian head on. No one in our vehicle was hurt, and the pedestrian survived (although with injuries), but the experience was unnerving, and the events that followed gave me a taste of Indian vigilante justice.
I had spent the day taking part in a traditional "pilgrimage" at a temple about 3 hours from home, with Vasanthi's family and a couple friends. The pilgrimage is something that she does frequently and that I have wanted to try for a long time.
We had rented a van (right) with a driver to take us there. Even by Indian standards, this guy is a maniac. Thanks to his driving, we get to the temple in record time!
The driver pulls over. Almost instantly, our car is surrounded by a mob of people, with more running from every direction. They start pounding on the doors and windows, telling the driver to get out. The driver slowly gets out and is immediately swallowed up by the agitated men.
It's completely dark out so I can't see very well what's going on with the man we hit, but most of the focus seems to be on us, rather than on him. Whereas in the U.S., people who stop at accident sites do so mostly as rubberneckers, here, the entire village seems to have a say in what's to be done next. There is a lot of arguing and gesticulating, none of which is understandable to me since it is in Tamil. Every once in a while, a new throng of youths appear, again pounding on our car as they join the rest of the mob. After a while someone comes by and insists that we roll down the window. They say they are taking the man to the hospital and want some cash to pay for his medical bills. We hand over some money and quickly roll up the window. They send the man to the hospital in an autorickshaw. No police, no ambulance.
I remember something I read in an India guide book once, that if you are ever in an accident in India the safest thing to do is stay in the car, because things can escalate very quickly. Especially when they notice a foreigner, the "money for medical bills" quickly becomes a chance to make a fast buck. So I slither down in my seat, trying to hide my white face behind Vasanthi's mother, away from the stares of the faces peering into the car. I'm relieved that there are six other people in the car with me, at least some of whom have probably had some experience with this sort of thing, rather than being in the car by myself. It's really hard not understanding what everyone is yelling about, but I don't ask for a translation because again I don't want to call attention to myself as a foreigner.
After a half hour or so, the driver comes back, starts up the car, and everything seems to be settled. But just as he's about to drive off, another group joins the frey, and they tell him to get out again. They say they want the driver to go to the hospital with them, until they determine how much the man's medical bills are going to be. We will have to wait in the car. Someone asks for more money, and we give it to them.
After they leave, a young woman comes out of a hut across the street and asks us if we want any water. It's good, clean water, she reassures us. Another one asks us if we'd like to wait inside their hut. We thank them, but opt to stay in the safety of the car. The kind offers of the women seem so incongruous following on the heels of the yelling, gesticulating men, that it all seems surreal somehow.
We sit in the car, brainstorming our options. We are at least a couple hours from home. We are not on a main road, so there are few autorickshaws, taxis, or buses going by. We've tried all the cell phones we have between us, and they are all outside of network coverage. A couple of the passengers in our car bravely decide to go out in search of a working phone.
After what seems like an eternity, the mob returns with the driver, and the man who was hit. There is another lengthy village-wide consultation. Someone translates for me that the man has a broken arm and contusions, and they have decided to keep the driver and the car for a while longer, but we are free to go. We make arrangements with a local man with a van to drive us home.
Vasanthi tells me later that these villagers were not that bad, that they went easy on us, because the pedestrian was drunk, so they understood that it wasn't completely our driver's fault. I would hate to see what "not going easy on us" would have looked like! No doubt, there were probably some unwritten "rules of justice" they were following, but when a throng of angry men is pounding on your car windows at night, it's hard to see it as anything but a mob gone awry!
The accident doesn't really surprise me. What surprises me is that it took so long for something like this to happen. Having gone an entire year without any serious accidents (other than a bicyclist rear-ending us once), I think I had become immune to the chaos of Indian traffic. I've been lulled into trusting that pedestrians would always dart away from danger just in the nick of time, that toddlers would never cross the invisible line between their play space on the side of the road and a speeding two-wheeler, that the taxi driver would always stop on a dime.
But tonight, riding home from work, my heart skips a beat every time a pedestrian gets close to the car. (Which means that it was basically skipping every other beat!)
I'm no longer so sure that our car will always stop on a dime.