In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
The Road to Hell
I can not believe what is happening. My throat is dry and my eyes are wide open. We are in the middle of the road, travelling at about fifty miles an hour, and heading straight for us at much the same speed, and slap bang on a collision course, is a very large bus. Its horn is blaring, but then, just about every other vehicle on the road has its horn blaring. I stiffen, and press myself back into the uncomfortable and unyielding seat of the Ambassador. Sweet Jesus, has our driver not seen this bloody bus? God knows it is big enough. Beside me I feel Richie also stiffen, and I sense rather than see, his hand grip the edge of the seat. It is coming closer. I want to scream, but I cannot utter a sound. And then, when a head on seems inevitable, and I am wondering what they will put on my headstone, we slip past the car we are overtaking and nip into the nearside. The bus arrows past, so close I can almost smell the passengers, and they can probably smell me. Richie slumps in his seat and indicates with his hand the gap between us and the bus, is about two inches. He is exaggerating, it was at least three.
Our driver has carried on talking to the guide in the front passenger seat throughout this life threatening experience. I swear before God that he has not even noticed. This happens at least six times on the seven hour drive between Delhi and Rishikesh.
Indians for the most part speak English, and as a memorial to British rule, have their steering wheels on the right hand side of the car, and nominally, if not actually, drive on the left hand side of the road. Having said that, there the resemblance with Britain ends. In India roads are not just for vehicles, although there are plenty of those, of all shapes and sizes, engine capacity and numbers of wheels, or legs. There are cars, buses, often with passengers sitting on the roof, and trucks, jangling with lights and garish decorations. There are smart four wheel drives, jockeying for position with bullock carts, hand carts, hand pulled rickshaws, and carts pulled by aloof, haughty camels with their noses high in the air. There are three wheeled ‘tuk tuk’s’, yellow taxis with black stripes, their diesel engines all of 50 cc, buzzing like angry, smelly wasps. Sari clad women ride side-saddle on scooters, which, when a family day out is required, can take two adults and three children, although I suspect this may not be a world record. The wearing of crash helmets is a concept with which few Indians agree.
Then there are animals, some of which are under control, like mules, ponies and horses being ridden. These are the softies, most animals prefer to do their own thing. There are pigs, sheep, goats and cattle meandering amid the traffic and diesel smoke, or nonchalantly nibbling grass at the side of the road, dismissive of possible risk to life or limb. There are also dogs, but no cats, who are much too street wise for this nonsense. Their wilder brethren, the langur monkeys and baboons also wander at will, sometimes unsuccessfully as attested by flocks of carrion birds rising from and settling again on the carcass of one of their unlucky cousins.
Nidish turns to me and indicates a clump of trees, at one time twenty feet high, now flattened at the side of the road. “Elephants” he explains casually and turns back to talking with the driver.
I haven’t even mentioned tractors, two and three wheeled bicycles, and motor bikes. To this heady melange must be added people, thousands of them. There are traffic policemen, largely ignored, armed soldiers, studiously ignored, and beggars, some with legs, arms and noses, many without. These unfortunates are also ignored. Most are untouchables. No argument from me. There are vendors, selling water, bottled or poisonous, chai, bananas, melons, apples, oranges, roti, hot food, cold food and for all I know their sisters. There are men carrying sacks and bricks, ladders and steel pipes, picks and shovels and most everything else. I do not see a kitchen sink, however. Women are carrying babies, baskets of firewood or animal fodder, or bundles of clothing. Children as young as four wander unsupervised in and out of the circus. I think of my four-year-old granddaughter, and her mother taking her everywhere in a Land Rover.
Dear God, I am a big boy, but this is outside my experience. India is my 122nd country, and is preferable to all but one of the thirty-nine African ones I have visited, but this flood of humanity is overwhelming. The population of India grows annually by more than the total population of Australia, and I believe most of them are on this road. Are tigers more important than these men women and children? Of course not, but if we can’t save the tiger can we save these? Or is it all part of one world in balance, in harmony? If we cannot get everything right, is that an excuse for not attempting anything?
As we pull into Rishikesh Richard winces as a truck flashes past. “That was close.” I am dismissive, “No, there was at least six inches.” Welcome to India.
Written by my Father B.M