Columnist Peter Leith, who lived in India for many years, puts on his story-telling hat to recount a bus journey on a treacherous stretch of road.
YourLifeChoices’ 90-year-old columnist Peter Leith lived in India for part of his childhood and enjoyed some very different experiences. Today, he takes us on a bus trip from Rawalpindi to Srinagar, and the dangers and the exhilaration of driving for hours on the edge of a precipice.
Our bus was a classic example of Indian country buses – tall, square, bulky, garishly painted with scenes and pictures of animals, gods, people and landscapes. What it lacked in streamlining it more than made up for in colour.
The almost-flat roof was surrounded by a strong one-metre high railing to keep both the baggage and the rooftop passengers from falling off. This railing was wound with brightly coloured rope and dozens of small brass bells.
Inside, the seating consisted of tubular steel-framed benches, five abreast, with minimalist plastic upholstery. A narrow aisle ran the length of the bus between the third and fourth seats.
Being a sahib, I had a window seat 10 rows behind the driver. True, I had a window seat, but getting out of it was problematic to say the least. My bulky backpack was under my seat and my fellow passengers also had their goods and chattels distributed under seats, in the overhead racks and on their laps. The capacity of the average Indian bus traveller to travel with what seems to be a mass of clothing, food and water is nothing short of miraculous.
Our journey was not an hour old when the Tamil woman sitting on my left opened a bundle from under her seat, took out a smaller bundle and shyly offered me a cold chapatti before taking one herself. I namasted my thanks and took one. It was delicious.
I was fascinated at the deft and practised way she repacked her bundles and put them all back under her seat. Similar domestic activities were going on all over the bus.
Several hours later, night had fallen. The bus reverberated with sleeping sounds, ranging from sibilant and sometimes quite melodic inhalations and exhalations to stentorian snores. The man in the aisle seat of our row was probably the coach of the Indian Olympic snoring team! The woman next to me had fallen asleep with her head on my left shoulder. I had my eyes closed and was more than half asleep myself.
Suddenly there was the wild blare of a horn, a screech of brakes, a flare of headlights and a neck-snapping impact immediately in front of my seat. Pain exploded in the right side of my head and I must have blacked out.
When I regained consciousness, it was to see a slowly steaming bonnet and the headlights of another bus embedded in the side of ours at the seat immediately in front of me. Its occupant was, definitely, dead. The two people on his left appeared to have had their heads flung together by the impact of the crash and were covered in their own blood. Looking to my left, I saw that the woman next to me was lying back with her head at an impossible angle while the snoring man had been flung, headfirst, into the back of the seat in front of him and was moaning softly.
At the sight of all this carnage I wondered how I could possibly have survived. Then, as the light started to fade and my sight dimmed, I realised that I had not survived.
Do you have a story or an observation for Peter? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and put ‘Sunday’ in the subject line.
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