Being a better human – Two stories – Part 1

Strange Title?

My first post in over 2 years, and I pick a topic that looks like a parody of the name of a well-known charity? Actually, this is a phrase I used recently in a post on Facebook expressing my opinion on the outcome of the trial of Salman Khan in connection with the hit-and-run case of 2002. For some reason, the phrase seemed to resonate with a lot of my friends who commented on this post. It is, incidentally a fundamental value I live by, something I include, exemplify and repeat in my day-to-day parenting efforts. This post, however, is an elaboration of my stance on this entire issue, and is coloured by multiple personal experiences, and a few intense, passionate conversations I have had recently with people on this subject, conversations that succeeded in expanding my viewpoint on the intertwined concepts of justice, guilt, conscience and social responsibility.

Some accused me of taking a holier-than-thou stance on this issue. “What would you do?” they asked me, if I was in a similar situation. That line of questioning touched a raw nerve, because I have been in a similar situation, they just didn’t know it. It is a story that I still get nightmares about, a story I have always wanted to tell, if only to get this load off my chest. But it is a story that I have never told, simply because to relive some parts of it is still painful. I decided yesterday, though that this story must be told, because it was on the 21st of May, 9 years ago, that this happened… an accident that changed my life, and a few others as well.

A normal summer weekend

As a typical Bombay DINK couple, married for 5 years, we enjoyed the freedom to enjoy our weekends doing nothing, but this weekend was a little different. My mother wanted to treat wifey to an early birthday lunch and we took off driving the 10 km stretch on the Eastern Express Highway from Mulund to Chembur, looking forward to a sumptuous Mangalorean lunch, one we eventually never got to eat.

It is usually a route I like driving, with no traffic or lights for a clear 8 km. We turned on the radio, and the air conditioning – since it was a typically hot, humid May morning – hummed along to our favourite tunes and chugged along heading to our destination, my parents’ house, a few calm minutes away. Life was good… maybe too good to stay that way for long.

At the only traffic light on this route, at Amar Mahal flyover, which I had to drive below to get to my folks’ place less than a kilometre away, I was first off the green light. Picking up speed as I turned right onto Tilak Nagar main road, I was doing about 45kmph as I merged into the road, which at the intersection, was covered with interlocking paver blocks, a relatively new obsession with Bombay road-repair crews at the time. The problem with paver blocks is that at the point at which it meets an asphalt road, the blocks tend to settle lower over time and create a ledge between the two different surfaces, a ledge that can occasionally become an inch or two high, running all the way across the road, surprising drivers who are jolted by not being able to see what they just hit. Something like an abrupt invisible speed-bump with different grip coefficients on either side. When I merged right into the main road, I looked out for any traffic merging from the left, which was a free left turn, and out of the corner of my eye saw a fairly common sight on Indian roads – a rickety motorcycle carrying two adults, two children and zero helmets, riding at roughly the same speed as I was. This rider, who I was to get intimately acquainted with soon, decided he was going fast enough to overtake me, and like millions of other Indian bikers, did so from my left. I stuck to the right-most lane due to mostly lack of choice, and took my foot off the throttle to create some distance between me and the biker family who had switched into the lane right in front of me, with inches between their rear wheel and my front fender. What happened next was a scene that I remember vividly, and in my memory it is almost like it occurred in hyper slow motion.

…and the world went topsy turvy

He hit the edge of the asphalt road at a slight angle with his front wheel since he was still veering right after having overtaken me from the left. He abruptly hit the brakes, surprised by the jolt, and his rear wheel locked exactly as it passed over the edge, and went out from under them. This happened about 3 or 4 metres in front of me, and I watched as the man and his 6 year old son, fell off to the left of the sliding bike, and the lady sitting sideways with her 9 year old daughter on her lap fell backwards onto her back and head on the right of the motorcycle, right in front of me. I had stomped on the brakes and pulled my handbrake the moment the bike went into the slide, but at 50kmph, and with only 3 or 4 meters between me and the scattering of bike and bodies in front of me, only one outcome was guaranteed – I was going to hit them, hard.

My tires squealed as my car skidded towards them, veering slightly to the right. The last thing I saw before impact was the lady and her daughter sliding on the road with the motorcycle spinning alongside. Then, a sickening thump and the front of my car went airborne for a bit, my front right wheel ending up on the concrete divider. The soft crunches I felt through the steering told me what I did not want to know, that there was no chance they could have survived that. Maybe if I’d hit them, or even run over their limbs, they had a chance but not with the car jumping and landing right on top of them. Feeling sick to the stomach, I stepped out onto the divider, where promptly a couple of bystanders decided to start throwing punches at me, and tugged on my collar saying the typical “Dekh ke nahi chala sakta?”, “Bevda hai kya?” tirade that the idle bystander usually engages in, before getting into lynch-mob mode – the only excitement that a lot of the mob-members would have had in years, the shield of anonymity covering any moral need to do the right thing, the delivery of instant justice taking highest priority. In the few seconds this went on, before I threw them off to look under the car, not one person was interested in the “presumed dead” victims. Then when I started screaming that I wanted help so I could take them to hospital, several people ran to assist, most of them men who worked in the shops alongside the road. I saw a foot moving under the car, realised the lady was alive. I watched, with utter disbelief, as my wife stood on the other side of the car and helped the little girl crawl out from under the car, with just a scratch on her forehead. Then a score of people got around the car and literally lifted the back of the car off the ground, and a couple of others dragged the battered woman out from under the car. Some folks pulled out the bike, and then we understood the miraculous way in which the bike got in between the car and the woman and her daughter,  my front wheels jumping up and across the two of them and landing on the other side. The girl ended up flat on the ground – unharmed, and the lady found her lower body pinned between the transmission under-section  of the car and the bike. Now that everybody was out, I noticed that the woman was bleeding and pretty much battered, but still conscious and mumbling. At this point, I looked at my car and noticed it was damaged in a hundred places, my rear bumper broken and dangling, several fluids leaking from random places, and my front right wheel was bent. Again, the lynch-mob leaders assembled and started baying for our blood. A couple of the shopkeepers who had seen what had happened started telling me, that they knew it wasn’t my fault, but because I was driving a 4-wheeler, everybody would assume I was the villain and a “public dhulai” was predicted. In not so subtle a manner, several people asked me to leave some money for an auto-rickshaw to take them to the nearest hospital, and just get the hell out of there before things got worse. One educated dude even started a tirade in English, “These drunk bastards you know… I don’t know where they get their driving license from, no value for public safety… we should put them in jail”.

To be honest, the scene playing out around me was such, that the thought crossed my mind that I should get into my car and run, fast. I looked at my wife’s eyes, which have never failed me in moments of indecision, and I saw the same confusion there. But in the fear and confusion, I saw something else… she knew right then that I would do the right thing, even when I didn’t know that myself.  And at that moment, I knew I wasn’t going to run. I asked the people around to help the family into my car. The lady had broken her hip, probably had multiple fractures on her right leg. She needed help, and soon. So we bundled them all in and drove straight to the Emergency Room at Rajawadi Hospital, a couple of kilometres away. It helped that I had been there before and knew exactly where to park, where the stretchers were and where the entrance would be. An unpleasant surprise I still faced, was that there were only interns in the ER, and this was because doctors were on strike that day.

Amidst watching people die all around us, roughly once an hour,  throughout the rest of the day, we did test after test, X-ray after X-ray. We ruled out anything except superficial injuries for the man and his children, and the lady was diagnosed with several simple fractures to her hip and legs, and many minor lacerations and burns. The kids had to be given tetanus shots, and in one heart-breaking moment, I watched the little girl tell her younger brother that it won’t hurt, and hugged him tight. Both me and my wife broke down then, and the tears wouldn’t stop. By this time, my best friend had joined us there, and he helped bring some calm into the desperately chaotic situation.

However, I also had to deal with the police, since standard protocol in most hospitals is that except life-saving primary treatment, formal treatment only begins after the police complete the report and provide clearance for the admission process. After sitting through an hour of very professional and non-confrontational interrogation with the SI in-charge, during which he also sent out a constable to the accident site to get witness statements, he said I was free to go. Luckily, the shopkeepers around the spot corroborated my story, and the police confirmed with the injured man that he was riding with 3 other people without a helmet, and I had nothing to do with his motorcycle originally sliding. Overall, in hindsight, the police were thoroughly professional about it, and I told them so, to which the inspector asked me why I was hanging around. He said something then that turned out to be ominous, “Right now, these people have nobody to talk to. When their relatives show up, they will go after your money and your blood. Go home, sir… you have done your duty by bringing them here.”. I stayed.

Collateral damage

Meanwhile, my friend decided to bring the man’s bike to the hospital so we could hand it over and leave, now that the lady was admitted and her treatment had begun. While riding it in, a dangling front mud-guard caused him to fall off the bike, and he ended up completely tearing a previously damaged ligament on his knee. He still managed to bring the bike to the hospital, and somehow located the man’s phone as well. He didn’t realise it then, but he had done enough damage to his knee to end up in bed longer than anybody else in the accident, and that is a sacrifice that I will never be able to repay. Then the relatives landed up, and the nightmare took a turn for the worse.

It didn’t end there…

Though I didn’t have to, I paid the biker money to take care of the hospital expenses. I did it because I knew he didn’t have enough money at the time, and I realised the relatives weren’t very keen on taking any of the responsibilities. We left after ensuring the kids were in safe hands, and then completely numbed by the experience, finally went to my parents’ house.

The next few days were terrible, with nightmares and memories from the incident flashing back at odd times. I also received a series of calls from several people, ranging in tone from polite reminders to obscenities and threats to life. What all these calls had in common, was that they all claimed to be relatives of the family I had “hit-and-run”, and they demanded I pay a “settlement” to make it go away. It took us a long time to get over it, and we eventually found out that the lady had been taken to an ayurvedic treatment centre in Andhra Pradesh that specialized in fracture recovery. It sounded very unscrupulous, but it was apparently a family decision that she complied with. Much like all the women who choose to sit on the pillion seat of a motorcycle, behind their helmeted husbands, risking their well-being while the man looks for his Fast-and-Furious moment at the next traffic light, weaving in and out of traffic and generally being an asshole, all while the woman gingerly balances her two children who are hanging on to dear life. Familiar scene?

So now you know why I do know what it’s like.

Because I had the chance to run, but chose not to. And this is also why I can take moral high ground, because I had the choice, and did the right thing. And we suffered as a result of my decision. More than me, my wife and my best friend suffered from the consequences of my decision, but they’re still my pillars of strength. Strength to continue trying to be a better human.

Unlike Shyam Ugale. Now, who is Shyam, you ask? He is a murderer, though the Indian legal system had a different opinion/judgement on the man, who today lives happily with his family somewhere in Maharashtra. And why is he important to this story? He is important because, 7 years ago, Shyam killed 5 people, 3 of whom were children, and ran…

…to be continued in part 2