Central Indian is one land, the other being the Himalaya’s, were the population of India towns & villages does not dominate the landscape and allows breathing space. It is mostly flat, nearly always hot and arid, and within the landscape around the tiger, it is more Africa than India.
However the ‘safari’ camps in central India have a mundane, ‘we see very little money’. They do attract naturists who are prepared to sit on bouncing hot and torrid trains for x hours from Delhi. As if this was not enough to discourage travel, the following ride in a dying overloaded bus, for a further 4 hours, would. And if you endured the journey, there is more pain of disappointed when the tigers do not come out to play.
Then again there are Tourists without time (but with money) who opt to go Rathmabore in Rajastan. Rathendore is a sterile version of the Central India camps. The Indianism of the scorched centre has been replaced with the slick Americanism of the Taj group with a watering hole always full, and so the tigers play for the tourists.
Then again those with cars are free to make their own tracks. Drivers who opt for open top classic cars enjoy the sun, the dust and bring romance to the adventure. Regretfully this time I did not have an open top sports car, but the Indian equivalent, a Mahindra Willies jeep. She drove as badly as any original 50 years old American war jeep. Three gears, all of which would randomly jump out of gear; brakes worn and without servo; steering with no understanding of how to go forward. She was a young 5 year old, worn out by the hard driven chain gang of her master – the Road. However her only saving grace was, She was a rag top.
As I like to be I was the last of the group to leave the simple cottage huts which had been our resting post for three nights. Just on departure the bush phone, which had not been connecting anyone for over a week, rang. Its sudden energy caused an eager stir in the camp. It did not bring good news; the road to Varanasi was impassable and no cars were to be allowed to use this route. Unfortunately the cars had gone; their fate was now out of my control.
The route to Varanasi, about 400km, is divided between driving delightful country lanes within the valley of the Son River, crossing the big sun-scorched village lands, and then the mightiest road in all the East – The Grand Trunk Road – Kabul to Calcutta – The Grand Trunk of Humanity.
From the t-junction onto The Grand Trunk driving changes and live become disposable. There is too little room for all the mass of humankind to share this strip of narrower tarmac.
The country roads from Banvargha to The Grand Trunk have always been bad. But the change in six month was alarming. No longer did the road have flow and direction. It no longer gave the joy of seeing the country pass by at a slow and pleasing place. The sun of the late summer had done it’s work well and destroyed the thin tarmac; striping away a layer protecting the simple cart dust track underneath.
For eight hours I worked this road; lurching from pot hole to pot hole. At no time did the relentless road allow any rest. The sun, as if joining the road in support of wearing me down, scorched and sucked water from me quicker than I could replenish.
A Willies jeep has no luxuries to make the work of driving any easier. No servos and the wheels wrenching the steering wheel every time I pulled the jeep out of one pot hole into another.
I did feel for the Bentleys boys for the weight of the cars across the bombed out road would yank their arm sockets from their shoulder. It was the supreme torture drive.
All day I worked this track to The Grand Trunk Road. As night fell the first road was finished and I had arrived at the start of the second episode of this drive. I did know, many hours before The Grand Trunk Road, it would be another long night of driving before I would arrive. How wrong I was.
Once I turned onto The Grand Truck Road relief flooded though me. I loved the Banvarghar road and all she had thrown at me. But it was time to drive without feeling I was lugging a jeep on my tied shoulders. Turning onto The Grand Trunk Road instantly put a spring back into my driving. As the tarmac improve so did my speed and soon I was racing along for the first time all day at over 10 mph. Still never very fast on The Grand Truck; however after the pot holes, 30 mph feels like a race track.
The bullock carts still wander, but now outnumbered by many overloaded lorry’s and buses. The sound of the rural life became lost with the sound of the hundreds of horns marking their own pathway.
The world of the road had changed. It had become mad, dangerous, an absorbing place. As the sun set I sat on my horn looking for black holes starting to take shape in the moon light.
Very few lorry’s, buses, bikes, cycles, bullock carts, fruit trolleys, bear men, have any lights. Those that do, it is unlikely both will work. Once darkness sets in the moon is the only light, and the black holes of road loom up at frightening speed. Your eyes stain by hunting in the moon light for any indication, any black form that may be a hint of a slow vehicle of any sort. Looking for lorry’s or a slow wobbling cyclists wrenches sore eyes from their sockets. There is no way out. Once on this road it has to be driven to the end. There are no breaks.
Early evening in the black of an Indian road becomes the most dangerous place on earth. Thousands of workers make their way home. A great thong of the human race walking back to villages, towns, slums and god know where. To family homes spilling smoky dust out into the street where home life is village life. Going home starts at 6pm; however by 9 pm the going home is over and roads are clearing. Anything without an engine has arrived into the hazy bosom of family life.
Then it is a wonderful place to drive again. With so much less on the road fewer black holes are seen from a greater distance. The furnace heat has retreated; but never a time to relax, just an enjoyment of a quietening road, high moon, the glow of village fires across the countryside of tuff grass, gorse bushes and muddy tracks running away to the left and to the right.
Then came tragedy.
It was no later than midnight, with arm resting on the side widow, swinging the jeep between black smoking lorries, I heard a call. At first I did think I had misheard. When, for a second time I heard the calling of my name there was no mistake. It was my name being called!
Suddenly along side was Cofino in the back of a white ambassador waving like a demand to distract me.
‘Conrad, Conrad……Stop Stop’.
I soon stopped and he was away speaking in a fast fat voice, gastrulating wildly. I tried to make out his story.
He was all pent up and poring fourth the woes from a drive which made no sense. I could not understand him. He hyperventilated at every passing word, until forcing breath into his lungs to slow each spoken word. This caused frustration for he needed to say urgently what he had to say.
‘Calm down, breath and take your time – rest’ I tried to assure him.
‘Yes yes…but two are dead and others have been arrested.’ Once the tragedy had been told the stocky man rested his voice and his breathing came easier. He had passed on the responsibility of the group he had left behind, he felt savour, and now this tragedy had become my problem. I could tell this pleased him. His pain had eased and so his breathing could ease, and I knew he was looking at me and asking himself ‘how are you going to sort this out Conrad?’
However well you think you can drive – India will shake you to the core. There are fewer cars in India than any other country, yet the accident rate is the worst in the world. Not just as a statistic, per head of population, or as a percentage of drivers; which ever statistic India is compared to, all the Indian statistics are frightening……………. always worse than any other country.
Unfolding now was what I feared most. I had always know someday instead of looking at the folding metal of a destroyed lorry or the bent frame of a shattered busses and trying not to imagine the pain spreading out to the families – and never does a day go by without seeing the dead of the road – it would be one of us – our turn would come round.
This was not the time to reflect. However much I have expected such a tragedy I did not have any contingency plan or any way to deal with the calamity and deal with the group I was supposed to lead. I looked at this man, not wanting to ask the question. ‘Who is dead?’
‘Well ….‘ He started to tell me clearly pleased to be able to share this news and began to compose himself. ‘It is the Big Bentley, it shot across the road and killed two children’. He demonstrated with his right hand, fingers out stretched, and shot his arm across in front of me.
Although not a man I had warmed to, we were very much in this predicament together and he realized by delivering this tragedy he had not unsaddle himself of his position. This man, who had wanted to continue on to the hotel, was taking me back, and he would be staying up for as long as I was.
‘Pay your driver off and get into the jeep and show me where to go’. I said sharply and turned the jeep around. I do not think I had stopped for longer than three minutes.
It is a terrible predicament to be driving and second guessing the waiting tragedy. Confino told how he had stopped with two other two cars for chai. As is common with classic cars there is always some issue to be dealt with. A rattling exhaust, loose wire not belonging anywhere, a spare tyres needing tying tight again; it is the delight of fiddling, the amusing pleasurable of just tinkering. None of us are mechanic, all thinking we know more than we do, so a minor problem become worse, no worse than a car running sick, on the other hand after ‘fiddling’ many cars runs not at all.
This time ‘fiddling’ caused the tragedy.
Talking with Confino it all seems to be vague for I do not think that he really understood what had happened. He only saw the two dead children. How they died, the details of before and after, lost by the horror in his mind.
It took no time at all to double back to the town of Rouver and to the hotel the remains of the group had collected at.
The group of eight who had remained behind, the four slowest cars in the rally, all sat together huddled on the two single beds of room 107. All their chat reverberated around the room in a hurry to over speak their tale to each other about this tragedy. All this talking, all talking at once, not hearing each other, only becoming cleansed by their own words – an obligation to get their story said, out in the open, as if only they knew how the tragedy had unfolded. To tell the story was paramount, occasional quietening only to say others were wrong and the accident happen this way or that way. They were all wrong.
And when they saw me in room 107 I heard the unspoken words… ‘Why had we driving roads of the Slayer God? Why……’ The unsaid, the unmentionable, the thinking of the group. This ghost voice circled around the room saying to me the unsaid of all the others
The silence of their stare lasted no time and the silence was broken by eight stories of horror. Eight stories which all differed from each other and all different from the truth. Those with lowed voice’s were clamouring to tell their tale without the thought of believing in what they said. Then there were the once who told their stories with humour. Laughing to releasing the strain and the pain of all they had seem.
But all the time I could hear the eight, as if in chorus, asking ‘Why are we driving roads of the Slayer God? Why……Why….Why….’ The unsaid, the unmentionable, the thinking of the group circled around the room.
They all told, with differing dimensions, of how Ed had been ‘tinkering’ within the engine bay. He had reached into the Bentley to turn the key and with a sudden energy the car had, being in gear, leapt forward to slay, massacre like a canon. The Bentley had lurched towards a party of gathering, now scattering children. By the time the starter motor fell silent two children were lodged under the wheels. The slaughter was over.
Some told of the horrors of seeming the pain. Some told of the blood and the gore, with or without pleasure, I could not say. Others, the fear from the growing crowd. Then other of how, why, what if….. No one said, as they spilled out their story, ‘Why are we driving roads of the Slayer? Why……’ But that is what I heard. This is the queston they all interrogated me with, but no one said these hard and crude words, but the Slayer reverberates around the room. The one ghost voice, unspoken, however speaking for all.
As the night unfolded so did all these differing stories. By mid night the children were alive, but in intensive care. By morning there injures were no longer life threatening and by the afternoon they had miraculously recovered.
To be continued some other time