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September 6, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

Night In The City

A Bombay story for this week. Just an ordinary Bombay story.

Late night flight back from Delhi. I had no baggage, so when I landed after midnight, I walked straight out ... into a downpour. Umbrella ineffective, I squelched over to the line of rickshaws. After several turned down the privilege of driving me home and I was completely drenched and fuming, I found one who agreed to take me. Cursing, wet, miserable, I got in.

Turned out of the airport, onto the highway. Heavy rain, little visibility. Crawled along as best we could. Though if we were crawling, several cars and trucks were zipping past, sending more water flying into the rickshaw and my face.

Suddenly there is a man lying on the road in front of us. Three or four others have gathered around. We stop, get out into the rain and ask what's going on.

It's another rickshaw-driver. His rickshaw is nearby, tilted as if it has driven into a pothole. The passenger is one of the men standing around. He explains what happened. The front wheel of the rickshaw broke off as they were driving along. (Which explains the tilt). As they sat there figuring out what to do, a taxi hit them from behind, throwing the driver out. The taxi stopped a few dozen yards ahead. The passenger, slightly jolted and bruised, got out of the rickshaw. Two guys on a passing motorbike stopped to help. Then we rolled up. Everything has happened in a rush: from the broken wheel to now has been no more than 30 seconds or so.

First priority: get the poor man out of the rain. He's unconscious, tall and hefty. We have to struggle hard to lift his limp, wet, form off the road on which cars and trucks are still whistling past, splashing us repeatedly. We muscle him into his rickshaw. As we do, I notice that he has several smallish wounds, but none are bleeding badly. Nothing seems broken. All of which reassures me.

Then the five of us confer on what to do next.

Passenger has a mobile phone, so he dials 100. The police don't answer. Tries several times. No answer. Someone swears. Meanwhile the driver is trying to sit up. Just relax, we tell him, we'll take care of you. But he hears nothing. Still unconscious, he has tried to sit out of some unknown urge. He slumps back to the floor of his vehicle. Got to get him to hospital, I tell the others. What about the police, someone asks. We'll try reaching them once we get to the hospital, one of the motorbike men says. But right now we have to get him there soon so they can look at him.

What about the taxi and its driver, the other motorbike guy says. I'll get him, he answers himself. Roars off and returns with the driver. Much abuse at him, and the motorbike pair land several heavy blows on him. I have to restrain them. That's enough, I say, enough! Look, the taxi driver pleads, don't hit me. I did not run away, see, I was standing there with my taxi. I was just afraid to come here right away because I knew I would be thrashed. It was a bad mistake; I'm willing to turn myself in to the police.

He seems sincere. And it's true, he could have easily vanished but has made no effort to do so.

We have decided to put the injured man in my rickshaw, take the taxi driver along, and head for a hospital in nearby Santa Cruz. Major effort again to get the fellow out of his rickshaw, wrestle him into ours. Taxi driver helps out greatly because he is just as hefty as the man he has injured. A small wiry man who has also stopped to confer gets in the back with the two drivers, I sit in front with my driver and we are ready to go. Drenched and panting and struggling to see through the rain, but ready to go.

The passenger and the motorbike pair tell us they are going to follow us to the hospital. Please do, I say, we will need help and support there, there'll be some running around to do. As we get going, one last man who has turned up under an umbrella shouts at us, if they give you any trouble at the hospital, just tell them my name! It's only after we are moving that we realize: he hasn't bothered to actually tell us that name.

It's a short, nightmarish journey through the still-pouring rain. As we cut across the lanes to turn off the highway towards Santa Cruz, I'm petrified at the cars and trucks that weave and swerve around us at what surely is, even without the rain, a perilous speed. Still and finally, we reach the hospital intact.

I go into Emergency and ask for a stretcher. None available. I find a wheelchair and commandeer it before anyone objects. No help from the hospital staff. Back at the rickshaw, the unconscious man is now grunting regularly, every few seconds. We push and pull him out of the rickshaw and then heft him on to the wheelchair. I push him up the ramp and into Emergency. Doctor on duty wants to know the man's name. No idea, I say. Well, who are you, he asks, looking at me for the first time in some surprise. I explain the whole episode. He says quietly, it's good you came. Much later, I will reflect: those words formed nearly the last sensible comment that I heard that night in the hospital.

Taxi driver and my driver hang around in the lobby. Wiry man taps me and says, can I go now, sir? When I say, you don't need to ask me, friend, he leaves. That's when it strikes me: no passenger, no motorbike pair, no man under his umbrella. So much for promises in the rain.

At a window, I pay for some hospital form for the man. Fill it out as best I can. Need his name, so I dig through his pockets for any diary or wallet. Find none and assume he must have lost it on the highway. Somebody has taken him off the wheelchair and put him on a bed, where he is turning and twisting, still unconscious. Doctor confirms what I thought: his external injuries aren't bad. But what's worrying is that he is still unconscious. We may have to do a CT scan, doc says, to see if there's any internal bleeding. We can't do that here. So while we examine him and decide, please sit outside.

I do that. Somebody rushes up with a tiny diary that was somewhere in the man's clothes, I must have missed it. His name and a couple of phone numbers are in it. I'm assigned the task of dialling them. Wake up some woman, then a young voice, much back and forth because they don't seem to know whom I'm talking about. Do you mean Babloo? she asks me. No idea, I say, all I have is the name in this diary, Sudhir. It must be Babloo, she says. I don't think he has family here, but I will tell his friends. She hangs up.

I sit down again. Various police constables mill about, there's a post here at the hospital. You'll have to wait for our inspector, one tells me. Fine, I say.

Then it begins. One at a time, some of these cops, and some of the hospital attendants, approach to ask what happened. I notice with growing irritation that every time I relate the story, the asker shakes his head and tut-tuts. Not, as I might have thought, because of the injured man. You shouldn't have stopped, they all say. You should have let him lie there on the road. See how your time has been wasted? For some reason, nobody says this to either of the drivers who have come with me. Apparently it's just me, clearly middle-class me, whose "time has been wasted."

And never mind the unconscious driver.

An hour or so later, an attendant comes out of Emergency and announces to the damp lot of us in the lobby, he's gone. He died without regaining consciousness. Then he turns to me and says loudly, you see? You shouldn't have stopped. What a waste of time for you.

I feel ready to kill him myself.

The inspector walks in. Suddenly ramrod straight, the constables whisper and point to me. He comes over and tells me, you'll have to wait and make a statement. You're the only eyewitness. Fine, I say, I'll stay. He looks at me with some surprise. Normally nobody brings in people like this, he says, because they don't want to be involved with the police. (I remember the motorbike pair and the passenger). They don't understand that apart from the statement, we won't trouble them. I shrug. Much later, I will reflect: that was the last sensible comment I heard that night.

He assigns a constable to take down my name and address. The man finds a sheet of paper, a pencil, licks its end and sits down. Name? I tell him. Father's name? I tell him. Religion is Hindu, right? No. Startled, he looks up. Christian? No, I say, and anyway I don't want you to put down anything by way of religion. But what is your caste, he nearly wails, you must have a caste! I tell him, look, you don't need to have a caste or religion for this, just take down my name and address, get on with it! With an air as if we are jointly breaking some divine law, he goes ahead.

Still later, the man's friends and a brother turn up. Someone directs them to me. I tell them what happened. They look over at the taxi driver. I expect some hot words or a fight (I remember the motorbike man) but I am astonished when one goes over to him, sits down and they just talk quietly. Turns out they are all drivers themselves and have grasped immediately that what happened is hardly his fault. An acceptance that must come with the trade, I think. But they have to hold up the brother, a slim teenager. In his grief, his knees are buckling.

Finally the inspector sits me down. Listens to me and writes out my statement. What will happen to me, the taxi driver asks. The inspector tells him, look, I have to arrest you because there has been a death. But I can see what has happened here and we've already been to take a look at your taxi and we have this man's statement. Don't worry, we will release you soon. Then he shakes my hand and says I can go. The taxi driver also shakes my hand.

Before I leave, another hospital attendant comes over. Can I tell you something, he asks. I was very impressed with what you told that cop. Yes, why does he need your caste? He looks at me expectantly.

But it's past four in the morning, I'm cold and tired and dispirited by the tut-tutting and saddened by this unknown death. I'm in no mood for discussion about anything. I shrug and head out. It's still pouring. I get promptly drenched again.

Dilip D'Souza

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