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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Doesn't Accidents Happen to Others?

10.30 a.m. I lie there in the spreading blot of red, no, blood is dark red, almost black. It is slippery, as jelly. The mangled metal, twisted and sharp, in my flesh here, a big splotch near my stomach, a thousand wounds smarting at the same time, it is as if I am being poked all over. I am tired and aching. Oh God, did this happen when I am on my way to Shirdi to visit and pay respect to you, my God?

It all happened with a deafening screech. I had only taken my eyes off the road briefly. Then my world kept turning, turning, turning, upside down. Then this eerie silence…. Accidents don’t happen to me. It happens to other people, I think. It happens in newspapers, movies, and television channels.

It’s sunny and hot outside. Cars, trailers, trucks whiz past in a mad rush. Why isn’t anybody stopping? They look, but they don’t care. Perhaps they are scared. Scared of this happening to them.

I look towards the back of the car; my mother is slumped on the rear seat. The car on her side is like a crumpled pappadam. A piece of metal has pierced right through her and the blood has drained from her body. The truck in the back was carrying steel rods; one of them has smashed through the rear window. Her skin is an unhealthy pallor and… a breath leaves her… the last breath.

Then she slumps, slowly, in slow movement, the slowness of death. Then her eyes dilate, and she looks upwards. She is dead.

The car is at an angle to the road. My wife, Suman is moaning beside me. But she is breathing regularly. I guess she will live. My son Vasu, is in her lap, and is sleeping. He hasn’t even woken up. She is at the bottom of the inclined car. So she is safe. Vasu’s breathing is regular except for a smooth snoring sound.

I look to the right of me. “Appa! Appa!” Appa is slumped in a sleeping position, against the side of the car that is not mangled. His mouth is open as if he was going to say something.

My sister, Janaki, in between Appa and Amma is bent forward. Oh, my God, I forgot about her. How could I?

“Janaki, Janaki,” I call. I crane my neck; she is slumped forward… I can’t see her. Is she dead?

No, she isn’t.

“Anna, Anna,” she says feebly, “My shoulder is splitting. Help me.”

I try to move. But my body is stiff with pain. I am at an angle, the upward angle. I guess if I move much the car will topple on its roof. I better wait for the welding torches, and metal cutter.

Why aren’t the police here?

******

My mind wanders… I am inside my glass cabin in my office. I can see my agents making calls… only the hum of so many voices. The office is flood lit at night. The idea is to keep people awake. I haven’t slept properly for many days. Sleep is a waste of time, I think.

Why are things so hazy? Hazy or bright? My agents go to sleep if there is a little corner with a bit of dusky shade. They have to work, make calls the whole night. I am with them twenty-four hours, seven days of the week. I need that promotion, that raise. That’s why I don’t sleep. Only then will I be able to pay back the entire loan of my flat in Seawood Estate, and the loan on the Maruti 800 car I bought. I want to pay them off, those vultures. Once when I had missed an installment they had come every day to harass Suman, till she became all upset. I will pay them at once, and then be a free man, free for life.

After that I can enjoy all the holidays in the world. Maybe, go on a world tour on a luxury liner, the advertisements of which keep appearing in the papers. Aaah… to bask in the sun on the deck of a luxury liner. Wasn’t that in that movie, Titanic? Well, that’s my dream. But that’s too far into the future, isn’t it?

I must not dream too much. Right now my agents are clamoring and are full of silly doubts. I have empowered my assistants to deal with them firmly but in a friendly way. I must gain their respect, at the same time their trust. Or they would leave. Most business process employees are fickle minded. If they don’t like something they leave. Turnover is very high, I must avoid a big turnover in my company. Yes, I call it my company, and my bosses are happy with me, my “proprietorial sense,” as they call it. I call them “guys” female, male, all of them.

“Guys, guys, work hard and achieve something in life. Your behavior is your responsibility, remember that. If you achieve your target, you have the satisfaction of a job well done. Otherwise you go back to some low-paid clerical job,” my voice is a bit bullying, but I can’t help it.

I sleep in the office. I eat in the canteen. I brush my teeth in the office toilet. I call home once a day and tell Suman it is all for them that I am doing this. After all, following my last promotion, I brought Appa, Amma and Janaki from Chennai to stay with us. The flat is a three-bedroom flat. I gave one bedroom to my parents. Another bedroom is for Janaki, and the remaining is our bedroom.

So Suman is not alone. She has Appa, Amma and Janaki to care about her. They like each other. Well, except mother’s bitching about Suman’s cooking. But that’s usual in any family. Besides, Vasu also loves his grandparents.

I have around a hundred agents working under me in three shifts. I am the operations manager and have a small glass cabin. From there I can see everyone who work under me. I give each batch of agents a pep talk as they begin work and then I am free. Then the floor supervisors take over. They are smart people and know what to do.

But I am a bit worried about the targets. This month’s sales show a downward trend on the graphs. I tell my agents I want results.

Why don’t results come?

Why doesn’t the police come?

***********

My flat in Seawood Estates weaves into my field of vision, as a hallucinatory dream. A dream in this heat?

My memory is a hazy… though oddly clear. The winter morning sun seeps in so gloriously. I want to take a day off. I lay on the sofa reading the paper. The project was finished. Well, the target wasn’t achieved. My boss agreed that best efforts were put in and that the results were acceptable. The general manager however is grumpy. Mean old man. He says I could have tried harder. There will always be criticism; however well one do ones job.

It was time I took a break from work. No, not for that world cruise. At least, a short vacation to a near destination. Appa suggested that we go to Shirdi as he believes in Shirdi Sai Baba.

“I have always wanted to visit Shirdi Sai Baba temple. I have always been an admirer of his.”

“Why Appa?”

“He is an icon of what India should be. Not divided but free and united.”

Well, Appa has been an idealist all his life. I don’t stand in the way of his idealism, or his happiness. He has done so much for me.

“Okay I will make arrangements, but have you asked Amma?”

He asks Amma.

“No,” Amma says, “my reading of the charts say we shouldn’t travel now.”

“Charts, charts, charts, all the time,” Appa teases her, “when will you give up your superstitions?”

And today, exactly a week later, she is in the back of the car, dead.

I had checked the tires of the car, I had it thoroughly overhauled, I filled it with petrol, I wanted to be cautious, as my entire family, my universe, was squeezed into that small vehicle. Then I studied the road maps and chose the best time to make the journey and back.

Two days later we were on the road. We took enough food for the journey. Amma and Appa both dislike hotel food. We took a lot of lemon rice, pickles, and sambhar in a bottle, which we ate in the car during a break at 9.30 a.m. Amma said she wanted to pray for a good boy for Janaki and offer some money to the temple. Appa said this was bribing God. Amma wouldn’t listen. Appa gave her the money.

Now in this eerie silence I see her lifeless form through the broken shards of glass, and disfigured metal. Appa seems to be in a comma. Does he know she is dead? Why, oh, why did this happen?

I am a good driver. We set off early in the morning for the seven-hour journey from Bombay to Shirdi through Manmad. I drive carefully. I let traffic pass. I am in no hurry. But I worry a lot about my job. Are my agents working? What is happening back in the office? Will I meet targets and deadlines?

When we reached Manmad, I felt a little sleepy. My eyes kept shutting though it was only ten in the morning. At one stage I caught myself veering away from the road. I shook my head, took a deep breath. Suman was too absorbed in Vasu to notice. But Amma noticed. She was a little nervous and fidgety.

“Suresh if you are tired we should stop and rest somewhere,” she said.

“What? When we are already there?”

“Tell him to stop, no?” She pleads with Appa.

“He is a grown up. Let him concentrate. You don’t disturb him,” is all Appa said. He always defends me. After all, I am his only son, his only hope.

I take a deep breath and squint at the road ahead. It is hot. It is unusually hot for this winter morning. Again I feel a numbness creep through me. No, it isn’t sleep. Is it an attack? I am passing through rough country. There wouldn’t be a doctor or a hospital within hours of drive in this place.

Again that feeling is creeping, crawling, this numbness in the limbs. Numbness in the hot afternoon. I shake my head. I sit forward, lean on the steering wheel.

Then I break into sweat, cold and congealing in the hot afternoon!

There’s a big hole in the road ahead. Damn! I hadn’t noticed it as I was negotiating a turn. I slammed the brakes hard.

Screeeeeeecccchhhh!

We all screamed as the truck from behind smashed the car and sent us spinning like a top. Swirling, toppling, a series of loud thumps and thuds, and now I am in this sideways position. I wriggle, I contort, I can’t move. I am trapped in metal.

Then this eerie silence, like I am having a nightmare. I pinch myself. No, this is reality. I must hold still. But, how, why does it happen to me? Me of all the people in the world.

Some of those passing cars must have informed the police. They will come. They will come with welding torches and metal cutting equipment as I have seen in the movies. But accidents happen to others don’t it? Amma was right. Now, Amma is dead.

I can hear the police sirens.

4 comments:

Shankar said...

Oh my god, fear struck my heart! So dark, so tragic!

Rajiv said...

Hi John
I just want to ask you, why are you so sad.
This is a great story, but I don't think the long flashback 'monologue' really works.
My personal opinion is that there should be some dialog, between Amma and Appa, between U and others.
a close peep into what will inevitably become irrecoverable.
I think his office life could be his last flicker as he sinks away into a loud oooonnnooo, which could be his own mind buzzing rather then the police van.

regards
rajiv

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John said...

Shankar, Rajiv,

thanks for your comments. Rajiv, it's a short short and I didn't want to extend the dialogues which would have made it longer.

J