And then there was another.
This time, it happened in the sharp heat of midday, just after she had finished the day’s cooking, sweeping the house, and throwing seed out for the chickens. So it was easier to manage. There were many other people too, especially from around Spices Mall – just a small shop with that name, really, for the tourists – to help make calls, bring water, and gape. Earlier, they would have shifted the debris and moved the mangled flesh to the side of the road until the police came. But these days, that is not allowed. Everything had to remain right where it lay – body, metal, money, ID cards, everything. “108,” she muttered under her breath. She knew the total instinctively now, so frequent these accidents, so often the urgency to get the ambulance, the police and sometimes the fire services. Her little daughter liked the bright red fire engines that made a wuyy wuyy wuyy sound. The sirens of the police and ambulances were harsh and desperate, they both thought.
Someone had already made the calls. On that hot afternoon, the police arrived quickly enough. Among the survivors, a woman, 45-ish, bruised and thoroughly shaken, quiet. Her screams were yet to begin. The bodies of two men – husband? son? nephew? distant relative? – lay behind their once-fancy car, hidden from her view, while she sipped the water someone had handed her. Another day, another accident, thought the woman from the house below the road. She had seen too many now to stay on. Plus, this was a family that lay dismantled now, and she was not interested in what happened to families.
The road from Madikeri to Koppa arrives with several signs and warning boards. Drive Slow. Accident Zone. Sharp Curve. Go Slow. Here, the first (or last) big incline separates these parts’ plains from the hill town’s deep, isolating mountains. Perhaps the drivers of big-big cars and riders of fast, shiny bikes feel buoyant here, she thought, not having ever sat in a big car herself. Feelings of having left the high range or of going into the fortress of the ring of tall hills and deep-set valleys, or else the sunshine of plainer land to come, the highway to the civilisations of famous cities – these surely were what the men, and sometimes women, in the machines were thinking of.
She was not interested in what happened to families.
“The government, the government, the Panchayat, but really the highway authorities, they should do something,” her father-in-law grumbled every other week when there was one more. “Straighten the road, reduce the slope and put in speed breakers. The government, it is the government’s fault.”
“People should be careful too,” the women of the household whispered among themselves. They couldn’t say that to the man now, could they?
To her, the accidents all looked the same, and the government was never known to do anything anyway. Her husband worked elsewhere, and came home only once in two years to fuck her, leaving her pregnant sometimes (she usually had a “miscarriage”), and to give his parents money, so what did anything matter?
There was one, though, that stood out. It happened at night, sometime after 12, in the early years after she had left her parents, her village, her cow and her plants behind and had come here, to this house in the scoop of the earth, a shallow womb that brought no warmth. Her husband had left. She was still awake, sleepless, even after unending everyday labour. The moon was high up, the tops of the trees in the distance faintly shimmering in the dull light. There she was by the window of her tiny room, where she had let the creaky bed and the Godrej almirah that came with her wedding baggage take over all the space. Half-perched on the sill, her legs awkwardly spread to her side, making shadow shapes with her fingers, listening to her daughter’s soft breathing, there she was when she heard the terrible crush of metal and flesh. Metal against tar, a sudden screech of the tires as the driver gained control at the very last crucial second, metal against metal, metal meeting flesh meeting tar… there were so many combinations of what accidents sounded like, and she knew all of them by then.
The woman rushed to the road, stumbling up the steep path from her world to the highway. She felt the dying man’s shudder before touching – no, not touching, how could she touch a male stranger – her hand snapped back, hovering just above his forehead. His open wallet, lit by the torch she gripped, now that she could touch. A driver’s license. His photo – so young, freshly shaven, earnest before the camera. She slowly joined the letters and mouthed his name. Suhas, from a town far far away.
To her, the accidents all looked the same, and the government was never known to do anything anyway.
If it was daytime, if he had stopped by the road as she returned from the shop a mile away because her daughter insisted on having chips with her milk, if he had struck up a conversation with her, if he had instantly fallen in love with her, right then and there in spite of her faded blue nightie, the checked towel expected to cover her full breasts but failing, the multiple gold hoops in her ears, traditional to her community, and her weary eyes, if if if. If he had offered to take her away, make her his along the way, if he had promised her an ever after together – she did not ask for happiness, for no one was always happy, she knew that – would she have bunched her nightie up in her hungry fists and climbed behind Suhas, placing her left hand on his left shoulder, her right around his waist, and thrilled at the hard, flat stomach that quivered at her first touch? Yes, yes, she would have, she told herself, if all that had happened, she would have left, the packet of cheese-and-lemon chips discarded without a thought for her daughter or her milk. But those things had not happened.
Instead, he was lying there, strangely quiet now, unmoving. The next afternoon’s local paper, when she had secretly turned its pages, noted sparse details. For them, it was just another accident. Suhas had left behind a wife, two young children. She was disappointed. “Would he (if if if) have left his wife for me, like I’d have had to leave my husband for him?” she wondered again and again.
She did not ask for happiness, for no one was always happy, she knew that.
She had stopped caring for families, then. Details did not matter to her. In every accident where a Suhas was injured, maimed, escaped with a scratch or died on the spot, there had been a possibility there, she could have hitched her nightie up and left. She was invested in these accidents, even when there was one during the day and chores kept her from climbing up to the world to see. Her father-in-law told her later, or there was the newspaper report the next day.
Her husband came and went a few times. There were years in between. Would she one day hear the familiar sounds – flesh to metal, flesh to tar, skin singed – or sense the disgusting smell of burning hair, see a head open “like a ripe melon left out in the open in peak summer,” as her mother-in-law might say, and might that combination of sensations be from her husband, helpfully dead? She hoped a ghastly hope.
Madikeri at night. The roads winding down, the neon lights from tourist hotels dim in the distance. A cool air, not a shroud of mist yet. Feral dogs, about to seek out the night. Drunk men, women, children. A pale golden glow from the chowk lights that happy people might consider beautiful. She’d miss all the drives, the very fast bike rides she had never gotten to take with Suhas. The joy of those joyrides remained elusive as she, her large suitcase, a favourite ladle, her child, excited, she, resigned, all bundled together, boarded a red bus to the capital.