I’m writing today because I feel that I have a story to tell, a close encounter which I’m sure you will be interested in, and hopefully, or hopefully not, be benefited by. The subject seems to have caught your attention, and yes, a gimmick they are more often than not—but THAT is exactly what happened, what I know happened. Thankfully, I am alive today, and, with the opportunity to share my experience; possibly, saving the lives of a few if not helping them avoid a similar situation to that which I found myself in. It isn’t a very long story and I shall try to keep it brief .
It all began with me meeting with an accident while riding my bike a day prior to the incident. One really does feel paralyzed in this city of Bangalore (as in any other) without an independent means of transportation. It was about 8 p.m. on a Monday and I was all but anxious to rush home in the city’s infamous Volvo buses when I realized I had to drop off a parcel at a friend’s place, something I had been procrastinating for far too long now. Luckily for me (or at least at that time it was), a colleague, and good friend, offered to give me a lift on his motorbike—my intermediate destination being on his way home. I of course, gladly accepted.
I had been to this locality before—those familiar with Bangalore would know it as Yemlur. In fact, I had till recently lived there for a little under a year and this, I believe, was the snowballing error in judgment that would cost me dear. Familiarity had clouded my otherwise measured judgment. The locality is one of those dark, back alley neighborhoods, bordering the city and it’s renowned IT landscape; inhabited on one hand by ambitious techies, immigrants, looking to make it big in the corporate world, career driven and with limited options, both financially and transport wise, to find residence close to work; but on the other hand encroaching upon the long residing locals, monetarily far behind their prosperous neighbors, auto-drivers, laborers and small scale shop owners—the kind who would do justice to their clichéd image of being crooks and swindlers at the very first opportunity that presented itself.
Akshett, my ride, dropped me off at this friend’s place and I made it a point not to extend my stay—me being in an obvious hurry to have the Monday done and dusted with. Spitting rain had its part to play in the story—slushy roads, incessant traffic and I, a victim to its brutality. Getting back to the main road from where I could catch my bus home meant a considerable trek to the local make-believe auto-rickshaw stand for Yemlur’s unauthorized, disbanded and second-hand autos. Unlicensed drivers were more than happy to ferry five passengers excluding themselves, a short distance to the main road for a menial fair of Rs.5 per head. It was a nuisance and a risk you had to take for daily commute in and out of the locality; but for a one time, night journey, and a fee of Rs.25, you could hire an auto all for yourself and enjoy the five-minute, roomy commute. Without a pause for thought I jumped into the first auto there was.
Force of habit you see, for I had done it a gazillion times. The long bus journey ahead was all I could think about—I really hoped I’d get a seat this time, I didn’t want to have to stand the entire one hour plus journey, women giving me the stink eye because I happened to brush against their shoulder trying to free my foot from under the leaden baggage of a fellow commuter who seemed in far more discomfort than I. My seat in the auto-rickshaw was a small piece of highly prized real estate set next to the driver who seemed ever so reluctant to share—enough only for half my seemingly non-existent buttock. Three other passengers sat behind. It took me but only a split second to realize I had just made the worst decision of my life.
The stench of alcohol came flooding into my nasal cavity—the smell, far too familiar and far too strong for me to brush aside as a harmless drink at the local bar—this was anything but one for the road. At first I figured it was the driver, perhaps drowning his sorrows of a mundane, purposeless life of to and fro journeys, day in and day out. But a glance in the rear view mirror and the realization hit me like a concrete slab!
Now I’m quite the ‘athletic’ body type—that, seeming to be the chosen vernacular for ‘scrawny’ these days; and lest I forget, my uncanny appearance of being an outlander—a damned curse in this country!
What I saw was three men, perhaps in their late twenties, all haplessly drunk, red-eyed, focused on some unknown happening that was about to take place in the not so distant future—and I, fitting the profile of an ideal victim a little too well. But that which was most worrying to me was the silence, deathly, like the kind you’d experience during an awkward situation, only longer, prolonged. I could feel the tension in the air, thick—their minds, racing just as fast as mine. These men weren’t criminals by profession, I don’t know if I’d have preferred that; they were desperate men, fed-up (with something), and very drunk—the more dangerous kind if you’ve been reading the newspapers lately. My mind began to race. My senses heightened. My brain, now receptive to every little detail: it was cheap rum, the worst kind I remember telling myself—the three men, all wide-eyed, fighting the intoxication to concentrate on the task at hand—the driver, upright, not slouched in his seat as you would imagine towards the end of a long day of melancholic commute—his gaze, not steering away from the road ahead—I could see his eyes, fixated; not the kind of disposition I was used to seeing in the drivers that had ferried me in times gone by. I was an experienced passenger, unabashed, with over a thousand hours of being driven around under my belt—I wasn’t going to be fooled that easily. I scanned my peripheral for anything resembling a weapon; a blow to the head or a slit to my jugular was all that stood between them and a laptop, cash and mobile phone. Could I fight this? If it came down to it I would have to, though I wouldn’t stand a chance. I managed a few silent breaths and began to think, never once taking my eyes off the rear view mirror. I knew this route like the pits on my mother’s face.
The path was dark as it is, a single street light popping out intermittently just as fear seemed to overwhelm—with slums on one side and a tall boundary wall of the military Airport on the other. But there was a stretch of wide, two-lane road—street lights spread too far apart for comfort, quiet and barren on either side. That was where they had their best shot—that was where they would make their move. I calmed down. I had enough time—two minutes seemed then like a lifetime worth of good deeds. I planned to ask the driver to stop in front of a few solitary shops just before the stretch of ‘long mile’ began. It was comparatively well-lit and I frequented a bakery there often. It is strange how a simple smile accompanying our dealings slowly built a rapport, one void of speech but not of communication. They would help me if things took a wrong turn, I was sure of it. If the driver didn’t stop, I was ready to jump. I regained my composure. I was smart; there was no way I was going to let this happen to me—I told myself reassuringly. With a minute left on the clock I was now a ton calmer than before—and then, almost intuitively, I began to second guess myself.
“This is stupid Kirsten!”, “ride it out”, “stop being such a pansy”, as a friend liked to put it—I always found that funny—it calmed me more. Maybe I WAS overreacting; my family’s constant recital of dreadful newspaper stories had to have had some daunting effect on me. I un-tensed my muscles, un-tensed apparently being a made up word, and took a long, deep breath—a little too long and a little too deep.
Vapors thick with alcohol are all that filled my lungs. I began coughing uncontrollably! When done, embarrassed, I looked into the rear view mirror to see what reaction my spasms had garnered—and that’s when I looked into his eyes, the eyes of a monster. I could describe them for you, but it wouldn’t do the cold stare justice. Every single emotion I had just been through, fighting all this while, came back flooding—and now we were almost ‘there’. “Stop!”, I said, in the most commanding voice I’d ever faked. He didn’t. Instead, he turned his head towards me and stared, surprised! I was now only more affirmed. “Yes”, I said, in a more innate voice than before and this time in Hindi, “Bas, idhar roko”, all the while preparing myself for the jump.
The driver, I’d like to believe, took the safer bet—both for him and me. Weighing his own options he reluctantly pulled over as I got out in haste, like a child scampering to get away from the dark. I turned around, wanting a good look at these men whom I would meet again, in my thoughts if not anywhere else. I knew already that I was going to write about this. The image, so vivid in my head, it makes my little hairs stand. All three men were now vying to get a look at me, still wide-eyed but this time awestruck, as if to ask “Did you know? It couldn’t be! You lucky bastard!”. I was pleased with myself, even managing a smirk, though still terrified on the inside. I walked the rest of the way, my initial plan however involved taking a lift from a passing two-wheeler, a much safer bet then—but to no avail. Still, I didn’t mind the walk. Was it a brush with death? I’ll let you decide. I on the other hand walked away giving myself a pat on the back as I made mental notes, reliving the trauma in my head—promising myself that I would give people lifts more often than not, though probably not in Yemlur.