A humorous tale about the unspoken laws of Indian roads. Also a story of (highly!) unlikely friendships and camaraderie.
The last two evenings have been spent at the office waiting for the rain to stop. The clouds are dark and low again and I have left early hoping to make the ride back before they break. I am almost home—one of the low-rent peripheral nagars of Bangalore—when a scooter emerges from the wrong side of the cross-road to my left. We both slow down.
It is something I admire—the spontaneous negotiation that takes place between vehicles in a tight spot. There’s a flash assessment of the other vehicle’s position and speed, its situation in traffic, its driver’s personality even, and a mutually satisfactory solution is reached almost instantly. Such communication seems to me a much higher form of organization than mere traffic rules. At this instant, for example, I simply know that the right of way is mine and not the scooter’s. My bike swivels violently behind me and I am thrown off. The scooter has ploughed into my rear wheel from the side. Something is not right today.
Established protocol for minor accidents dictates that the first step is to alight from one’s vehicle (if still upon or inside it) and cast a quick eye for damage. Accidents are the fault of the less vociferous person, so pre-emptive blame is to be pinned upon the other party by shouting at them. When the mood of the blocked traffic has changed from concern to amusement to impatience, both vehicles are to be moved to the side of the road, where further negotiations will proceed at a more relaxed pace with the help of bystanders. But right now it is just the two of us. The area has only a few houses, with many of the plots still empty. Hardly any vehicles pass by.
I have rolled off the motorcycle and am not hurt. But I am flat on the ground. The scooter is parked next to my prone bike, and its rider is shouting from above in an incomprehensible language. My first concern is the new mobile phone that was in my shirt pocket. I look around from ground level and find that it has dismantled itself into astonishingly many parts. The battery is closest to me. I reach out and pick it up before sitting up slowly.
I manage to put together most of the phone—only the front panel is missing. The phone looks terrible without it, all loose buttons and circuitry. I look around again, but it seems to have disappeared. The man is still screeching above me. I get on to my feet.
I look at my adversary for the first time. He is around sixty, dark-complexioned, bald. A couple of days’ growth of grey stubble is on his face. He speaks almost continuously in a high, agitated voice. I am not very good at identifying South Indian languages, but I am almost sure he is speaking Tamil. He points to the direction I was coming from, traces lines of approach in the air, uses his palms to indicate how the two vehicles should have passed.
‘You were coming from the wrong side,’ I say in Hindi, picking up my bike and pulling it on to its stand.
He crinkles up his face as if he’s suspicious I have said a dirty word. He holds his palm out and wobbles it rapidly to say he doesn’t understand, and further, it is entirely unreasonable of me to expect him to understand. I point to the side of the road he was coming from and look incredulous. He points to the middle of the narrow road he’s come from—there is a gnarled cavity from which a large chunk of tar appears to have been sucked in. Still he should have been keeping to his left, not the right. I ask in a slightly raised voice: ‘Why right? Why did you come from the right side?’ He turns aggressive, jabs a finger at me. ‘Mistake you!’ he shouts into my face and continues speaking agitatedly in Tamil. I smell alcohol on his breath and feel anger rising within me. The stained teeth, the arcs of spittle landing on my face, the shrill jumble of his speech—I can stand it no longer. He shoves me. A part of me seems to have been waiting for this. Before I know it I have given him a hard slap. He looks shocked for a second, holding his cheek. He crumples, sits on his haunches and begins to weep like a child.
My fingers are still smarting. I am dazed. I have never thought of myself as a violent person, and it is difficult to believe I have just struck someone, that too an old man. The accident is now past; I am sick with remorse. ‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Uncle . . . sorry.’
The man has bent his head down into his arms. His shaking tells me he is still crying. Fat drops of rain have been falling for a while. It is now turning into a shower. I stand there flustered; he is still sobbing. Nearby is a small shop with its shutter down under whose awning we can take shelter. I bend down and take the man’s arm. I stupidly state the obvious. ‘Uncle, it is raining. Uncle?’
He allows me to raise him to his feet and we move to the shop. We are both wet now. To my relief, the man stops crying. I apologise again. He extends his hand. ‘Myself Muthu.’
I grasp it gratefully. ‘I am Virat, Mr Muthu. Very sorry.’ He is still sniffling.
We are silent for some time. I have been protecting my exposed mobile phone from the rain by holding it under my helmet. I bring it out to check that it is not wet. Mr Muthu sees it and makes a gesture of enquiry. I show him it is still working. I mime that the front panel went missing when I fell. He turns up his palms and looks up. ‘What to do?’ I say.
It is pouring now. Mr. Muthu digs out a limp packet of cigarettes from his pocket and offers me one. It has been two years since I quit. It tastes terrible. But I am now light-headed and it all seems very funny: a Punjabi and a Tamilian stuck in the Bangalore rain speaking broken English.
Mr Muthu is looking at me with interest. I realise I am smiling. ‘Marriage?’ he asks.
‘No, not yet.’
He nods ferociously. ‘Best, best.’ He presses the air repeatedly with one hand, encouraging me to keep it that way. ‘No marriage, no problem.’ He points at himself: ‘Wife danger. Son hopeless.’ Fate, he gestures again. His eyes tear up. ‘Daily fighting.’ He points to the direction he came from and raises a thumb to his mouth: ‘What to do?’ I surprise myself by hugging him. ‘No problem,’ he says, disengaging himself. We stand in silence. ‘Good rain.’ I nod. We smoke a few more cigarettes, flicking butts into the rushing rivulets of water.
The rain stops and we step out to our vehicles that still stand awkwardly at the site of the collision. It seems years ago that it happened. I turn around with a start. Mr Muthu is laughing and clapping his hands like a child in the middle of the road. He points at the hole in the road, now level with muddy water. Floating in it is my phone’s front panel. He scoops it out and wipes it on his shirt before handing it to me. I thank him. A smile still lingers as he shrugs and looks up again to his fate.