Driving in India? Damned Near Religious
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes a traffic jam’s not just a traffic jam.
India is cray-cray.
It’s a country where every religion is elbowing for space, and has been for centuries. It’s crowded, dusty and beautifully chaotic. Like nothing I’ve ever seen (or smelled) before. Then, just to keep it interesting? Somebody let all the dang cows and camels run loose in the streets.
But I had an accident a couple weeks back. A man speeding on a scooter with his mother and infant son crashed right into my cab door as I opened it. I was alone. Instant nightmare scenario. Blood on the streets. The old woman wasn’t wearing a helmet; her head was bleeding pretty badly. My heart dropped right through me to the ground in slow motion as the infant’s blood came into view. My body and hands moved on autopilot to pull them out of the busy street as my throat tightened from an insufferable inner dread. I tried to remember to breathe; I forced my eyes to blink.
Did I just kill a child? I thought for a moment that the baby was badly hurt, but as I moved my hands over him, I found he’d just scratched his knee. A mob of Indians had formed and was screaming in at least two languages. Neither of which I can speak. I ignored them and began treating the bleeding, and the ambulance and cops came, speeding up in a cloud of dust. Turned out she just had a small and deep scalp laceration, but it looked much worse than it was. Poor old woman bled like a stuck pig.
I was brought into the police station for questioning. Shit was about to get weird, but before they could begin, the cavalry arrived. I was friends with some local businessmen/gangsters, and they showed up and had me free in less than 40 minutes of bribes, hard looks and handshakes.
Once I was out they took me to their mosque to pray — I ain’t Muslim — but despite that? My heart just broke right in half. I started bawling like a baby in the mosque. Not because I was afraid of jail; I’ve been locked up before. But because I was so thankful to the gods that nobody was seriously hurt, especially that cute little baby. Then I got thankful for surviving war, rebuilding my mother’s burned house, for all my lovers, for all my friends, for my sisters, the love of my departed mama and everyone being healthy and happy.
And then I started crying even harder. I thought of all the love I’ve gotten to give and receive. I was a big soppy mess. Crying and laughing at the same time. I felt like high-voltage pure copper wiring, absorbing and passing pure energy but unable to hold onto it. Well, these Indian gangsters essentially adopted me right then and there for life after that. They’d never seen anything like it, or like me.
So fast-forward, and I’m sitting in a custom-tailored suit that would’ve made my mom proud, in my new homey’s car headed to the Taj Mahal to arrive by dawn to see the sunrise and drink chai tea. My new friend and I decided the thing to do was to bring his whole family on the road trip since I’d missed the train and we’re brothers now. India wasn’t done playing games, though.
As we leave the Taj Mahal, my new brother and his family and I are being driven down the highway back to Jaipur. Said highway is populated by Royal Enfield motorbikes fighting for space between hand-painted and bedazzled 18-wheeler trucks. And little Hyundai sedans, like ours. Suddenly, an enormous 18-wheeler — somehow appropriately branded “TATA” — merges into us, completely crushing the front right corner of our vehicle in a weirdly lucky slow-motion collision.
The front right tire explodes and everyone starts screaming, me included. Maybe it’s the prayers I said in the mosque, maybe it’s the disco-lit Ganesh sculpture on the dashboard, but two for two, no serious injuries. Now we are stuck on the side of the highway, and this time my brother thinks it wise if I make myself scarce before the cops show up.
So I walk into a deep green wheat pasture and make friends with some farmers and order fried eggs from a boy with a wooden food cart. I’m eating the eggs just as the rain comes in on the fields. Washing the dust off me in brown rivulets down my face and arms. Despite the damage to the Hyundai, using kicks, tie wire and a spare tire, we get the vehicle back on the road. I am, it seems, transformed.
I went to the church in Chennai today that stores the spear that killed St. Thomas, maybe one of Jesus’ 12 bravest apostles. I am neither a Christian nor religious, but I’m learning the teachings of all faiths. To me? It’s all the same good news, and often all the same bullshit. I ignored everything in the church: the choir singing at mass, the historical architecture. I only wanted to see that lance, and nothing else.
Looking at that weapon, it made me think of the violence we do to each other and made me question the point of it all. It made me think of friends who died in the wars, and the mental anguish those who survive carry to their graves. The wrestling of power and slippery illusions of control over another. Slavery sold as freedom, the timeless echoing of pain, of piggish greed. All the requisite guilt, shame and judgment that comes with it.
All this as some procrastinating distraction from the most natural truths: that there’s enough for everyone, and if you are loved? Then you are already perfect and powerful beyond measure. Love is what breaks our chains and sets us free. I have been meeting countless folks in the past few weeks — Sikhs, Parsis, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Rajputs, Tamils, Punjabis, hustlers, sailors, guides, cops, soldiers, barbers, yogis, lawyers, techies, cab drivers — and I think I have it. Or at least I’m closer to getting it: We’re all one family, and that family is in the faces of everyone you smile at.