That smile… it’s tantalizing.. you can’t tell for sure if it’s there or not. But you could feel it in his eyes, the crinkle around the edges, the sparkle in them. It could light up a room, instant therapy for the blues. He could listen for hours, to your happiness, to your sorrow, to your rants, and would never patronize, never advice… but would empathize better than anyone I knew. He would make you feel like he could instantly share in anything you felt, and make it his own.
We called him Walker, and he was one of the nicest guys I knew. Intensely emotional, he was very passionate about family, love and work – in that order. I knew him as a charming colleague I met at a tough job, when both of us were going through a tough time at work. He had a disarming way of dealing with difficult people and situations, and was super-calm when walking through fire, always smiling. Four colleagues who exited one company when it folded up due to management sucking it dry and leaving it’s employees in the lurch, bonded over that tragedy in such a way that we ended up friends for life. Four colleagues who I nicknamed FEW KIDS, an anagram formed from our initials, four colleagues who got together again at what looked like a dream reboot to our careers, but one that also went downhill quite quickly, for the second time. Four friends, 3 of whom had our anniversaries on successive days, not the same year though. Happy or sad, we drank together, nearly every night… always ending up singing the same songs, and sometimes with people from other tables in the pubs and bars we crawled out of. That was his magic, he could get into an argument with somebody, and before the night was out, you would catch them drunk, hugging each other like lifelong friends without even exchanging names. But you would remember him… he was that kind of person. His stories about his father, his mother, his love for his wife and his children, ranged from hilarious to tear-jerking, but there was no drama, no exaggeration in them. Just the sincere truth… the truth of a man for whom family meant everything… absolutely everything. I remember thinking more than once, that when I had kids, I wanted to be “this” kind of father, and I have no shame in admitting I am that kind of parent today. I learnt from him how to be your wife’s lover and friend forever, how to be your kid’s superhero – the picture-perfect family guy – not the movie-hero kind, but the one you want to be in real life. I remember a guy stopping his vehicle in the middle of the road late at night in Pune so he could walk up to him, and ask him if he could touch his feet. This, because he refused to accept fees from the guy for his airline flight crew training course months ago, due to his difficult financial situation. And when he could afford to pay back the fees, Walker asked him to pay it forward and help anybody else he felt like helping. I was amazed, this dude was a rockstar! I didn’t think this kind of thing happened to normal people. We used to teasingly use the slogan “Keep Walking” with him, because he believed in it, and lived up to his name, always smiling!
That same smile, on this balmy May afternoon almost exactly 7 years ago. I still couldn’t guess if that smile was there or not… I wanted to find out from the sparkle in his eyes, but his eyes were closed. His face was beatific, even with all those gory scars, lying in his casket, dead. Those eyes would never open again, I would never know about that smile again. The feeling of immense sadness that was threatening to envelop me since the moment several hours and several hundred kilometres ago, when I first heard about his passing, now took over completely. But somehow I still wasn’t crying, not until I walked past him to the two smaller caskets beside him, holding what was most precious to him, his two children, also dead. Then, when I saw those faces – and there is nothing more painful than to see death in a child’s face – I needed something to hold on to, to stay on my feet. The next few hours went by in a blur, with most of us wondering how something like this had come to pass, as we watched the most devoted father, husband and son we knew, and one of our most treasured friends, being buried along with his two lovely children. I remember not even being able to face his widowed wife that evening, running away from that scene like running would wake me up, but this wasn’t a nightmare. It was real life, at its cruelest, in its most horrifying manifestation -violent death. A reality that was caused by one man… a man called Shyam Ugale.
A “normal” evening
On their way back to Pune from Kolhapur after attending an event, the Walker family of four, and four other relatives – a cousin, her father-in-law and two daughters had stopped at a well known highway restaurant for dinner. One of those classic highway restaurants with a smallish wall separating a garden from the road. Waiting outside the restaurant, most members of the family were standing in and around the garden, when an out of control truck crashed right through the wall into the garden and mowed them all down. Five of them were run over, and most of them died instantly of fatal external and internal injuries. The vehicle did not stop until it hit the building, the driver was grabbed by the crowd, and despite the inescapable smell and obvious influence of alcohol, managed to escape when the crowd moved in to handle the five bloodied bodies lying around. Somehow, with the help of the owner of the restaurant and other nearby establishments, they managed to get them to hospital, where five of them were declared dead and one comatose. The wife and mother, who was a few metres away when all this happened, could do nothing but watch everything and everybody that mattered to her crumble and die before her eyes.
The driver, Shyam Ugale, after sleeping his alcohol off, “surrendered” two days later. With some help, a story of falling asleep at the wheel was agreed upon and spun together, and eventually hardly even warming a prison bench, Mr. Ugale went home to live happily with his family, where he hopefully still wakes up in a cold sweat every once in a while, thinking about the lives he destroyed. How many such Shyams continue to prowl the roads today, would you know? I don’t… what I do know is there are hundreds of hit-and-run killings every month, and all those killers are still behind the wheels driving all around us. Feel safe now? Yes, I know… and that is why I have an opinion about it.
It still hurts to have a friend snatched away like that, but I can’t even imagine what that woman went through every day since that night after her entire family was taken from her, right before her eyes. Can you?
So in our anger at all the unpunished murderers driving happily around, let’s all come together and crucify Salman Khan, shall we? Oh, you’ve moved on to Maggi, you say, I must be slowing down… my apologies. Must be age catching up on me…
What would you do?
A friend asked me a couple of weeks ago…
“What would you do if you had to go to court accused of drunk driving and negligence behind the wheel, adding up to culpable homicide not amounting to murder? What would you do in this country, where the ordinary citizen may spend years waiting for the case to go to trial, and then decades to reach judgement… when you could hire an “accused” and some “witnesses” for a few lakhs, who would happily stand in for you and go through the motions, since nobody will go to prison anyway… when you could pay off the police to “settle the matter”?”
What would you do? Really…
I personally know at least two people who have been in this situation and will never see the inside of a courtroom… Is that fair? I don’t know, but it shakes my faith in my pre-conceived notions around natural justice. And this is why my opinion and my judgement on the American Express bakery accident case is not, and will never be black and white.
Life isn’t black and white. Life is, and is always going to be a shade of grey. So, although it’s nice to jump on the “desktop activist” bandwagon and take a side in the online shaming process, until the next cause comes along, I will desist, thank you. Because like I said in the beginning, I will continue to strive towards being a better human being. And one of the ways I intend to do this, is by not judging a fellow human absolutely or impulsively, irrespective of the hurt, or the sadness that comes along with it. But I will never forget…
As a dear friend would say, drive carefully, and keep walking!