Thursday, April 15, 2010

THE ACCIDENTAL TRUTH

It was hot. Susan Boyle’s voice swirled along the CD and rose above the hum of the car tyres. On the passenger seat next to me R was struggling to keep his balance on a tightrope of a note that Susan had let fly. Behind us slept Shelley (named after his aunt, not the poet) and Iqbal Singh, their heads lolling and dribbling in perfect harmony. Cruising along Karnal road, ensconced in climate-controlled comfort, pursuing the seductions of the open road, it was a good day until I slowed down behind a tractor trailer and… WHAM!!! Shards of glass screamed into the cabin, pelting the occupants like hail. I ducked and braked till the car stopped mere millimetres from the trailer. I looked around to assess the damage. My friends, all strapped, looked shell-shocked and a little funny, with odd angled glass pieces peeping out of their hair… But ruined coiffures aside, we were largely undamaged, which was no small relief. Our SUV was another matter though… a truck had rammed into what was now a rather pinched rear. The rear windshield had shattered to bits… we got out of the car while the truck driver was trying to reverse out of the situation. I pulled the trucker’s arm and hauled him out while Shelley clambered onto the truck’s cockpit, landed the usual introductory blows and snatched away the keys. While I held onto the trucker so that he didn’t run away, R and Iqbal carried on with the introductions.

I started feeling a little sorry for the guy. Well over six feet tall and wiry, he kept apologising. I tried to stop R and Shelley while Iqbal continued with the verbal volleys. Th e man’s pleading got to them and they calmed down. That’s when he said “Shagirdi kar raha hoon… maaf kar do…” That upset me. I couldn’t believe that a man who hadn’t learnt driving yet was callous enough to get that overloaded behemoth onto the highway, endangering others around him. What if he’d rammed into a smaller car or a two wheeler? People could’ve died. Though I hadn’t raised my hand yet, I pushed him onto the pavement in incredulous anger…

He stumbled back onto the crowd that had gathered around us… advice flew in from everywhere, like vultures descending on a carcass. Earlier, out of pity, I’d considered letting the poor guy go… after all accidents happen. But when I learnt how irresponsible he’d been I hoped to teach him a lesson. Shelley suggested we take him to the cops. So R and I got into my car, which was still functional, while Iqbal and Shelley got into the truck to ensure it followed us to the police station.

Once there, you’d expect things to roll our way. After all, we’d been ‘rammed from the rear’; the driver was without a license and we were ‘press folk’. Well, you thought wrong, for around here, the cop’s always right and you’re only as wrong as you are stingy. Things weren’t looking good. So within our modest means, we invoked the near-divine forces which matter in these corridors of power – senior police officers. Shelley informed a friend whose father’s chair was stationed near the very top of the police pyramid in the area and he was kind enough to call up the SHO and asked him to address the matter… with that, the rusty machinery creaked into noisy motion. The driver got another earful, the owners were summoned and we were asked if we’d like some water

Another friend’s father knew a surveyor in the area who offered to help assess the damage. The surveyor chalked up an estimate that had me peeling my eyebrows off the ceiling just as the truck owners entered. The two men – pudgy 30 year olds – smiled at the SHO and said, “Sirrr… idhar aaiye.” Under normal circumstances, I would’ve smelt a rat but secure in the knowledge that the cops wouldn’t mess with people who know their bosses, we relaxed as the trio conferred. The SHO returned and said, “They’re offering to pay damages… want to settle? Or would you like to report the matter?” We contemplated our options and agreed to ‘settle’. But when they were shown the estimate, they shook their heads at the figure like bystanders might at road kill. I wasn’t in the mood for negotiations and stomped off to fi le a report. The SHO now draft ed a statement that not only mentioned the accident but also an unidentified corpse he’d ‘recovered’… whoa! I wasn’t going to sign that. Meanwhile, the owners agreed to cover more of the damages. So, I told our SHO that I’d be happy to ‘settle’ instead. And the SHO (as the kindly surveyor revealed later) then told the owners that they’d settled for too many, taken his cut and then walked up to me and without batting an eyelid, said, “Perhaps you got two thousand more than you’d expected… so (give me) the rest…?”. We just stared back with round-eyed innocence until he got the drift …

So with a crushed car but a restored ego, we headed out for Chandigarh with the sad realisation that while we keep hoping and working towards making our world a better place, for now if you’re in trouble, you better know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who matters, otherwise, you’re ‘fish’ed!

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