Reflections on an accident

Have you ever been confronted by the specter of death? Not the painless, comforting blackness that drapes itself upon a person content in the happiness of a life well spent, but the sudden, vicious snatching away of an entity that has barely begun to assert itself. When something perishes before its time, it leaves behind a void that cannot be filled. It is a painful thing to behold.

I once had the misfortune of having to see a life getting extinguished violently before my very own eyes. Believe me when I say that nothing in my life has ever been the same since.

It was a rainy day in May about four years back. There still being two weeks left for my school to reopen, I had decided to visit my native place in Thiruvalla, Kerala. I had always been fascinated by the sort of laidback charm and commonsense approach to life the people there exhibited. It was always an idyllic Neverland as far as I was concerned, where one could get away from the suffocating confines of the city and breathe freely. But, all that warped sense of security and freedom was rudely snatched away from me on a single afternoon, and the tingling sense of shock and adrenaline that resulted, linger in my mind to this day.

It had been raining all day, and the downpour had only let up in the afternoon. The sun had come out; bringing with it the heady smell that arises from the earth soon after a rain. I was determined to make the most of the afternoon, and when my grandmother remarked that she needed groceries, I volunteered immediately. Soon, I set off to the grocery store, known as a “palacharakkukada”, with a shopping list and not a care in the world.

This particular grocery store was located smack in the middle of the market, in a position of great strategic importance business-wise. The owner was a jovial middle aged former police man, who had set up the store using his rather meager pension and his not so meager contacts. Personally I was fond of the fellow, and used to chat with him whenever the opportunity arose. That day, he had just begun to tell me about what he thought of the educational system nowadays, which seemed to be churning out a lot of youngsters with no inclination to work, when I noticed the girl for the first time.

She looked about ten years old, but it was hard to be sure. She could have been anywhere between eight and fifteen. Her face looked aged and weary, and her gait was a curious mix of waddling and scurrying, which made it look as if she was being dragged about intermittently by an invisible line. She moved from one mound of garbage to another, poking her waif like hands into the filth without any emotion whatsoever on her face. Her clothes seemed older than her, and were patched up in several places. Over her shoulder was slung a surprisingly new looking jute bag, which was half full of empty bottles and plastic. In fact, the bag seemed to be the only thing fresh about her.

“…… and look at that poor illiterate devil, works like an ant from dawn to dusk and what does she get in return? One meal a day, if she’s lucky. That Selvam takes away all she earns in return for keeping her in his group. Now that is the sort of child that should be given an education. She knows the value of hard work…..” I was surprised to realize that the shopkeeper was talking about the very girl I was looking at. I knew this man Selvam. He was the manager of a small scale smuggling operation across the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala who specialized in human resources. Simply put, he loaded a lorry each day at dawn with about fifty rag pickers and beggars from Tamil Nadu, ferried them across the border into Kerala, and dispersed them throughout the Pathanamthitta district by noon. By night, he collected them from the various corners of the district, took a major share of their earnings and dropped them back in Tamil Nadu. His operation was planned and executed meticulously, with beggars operating in rotation and keeping in touch with each other by mobile phones. In short, a gifted entrepreneur.

“….. in my days with the force, I had booked him several times, but what to do? Never once could I get enough evidence…” the ex-policeman continued, but a sudden screeching noise jerked my attention away. The girl, attracted towards a discarded packet lying in the middle of the road had ventured out without enough caution, and the driver of a black Scorpio who had seen her too late, was trying to avoid the inevitable. I have read in books that such incidents always appear to occur in slow motion, but here everything was over in a second. There was a sickening thud, the girl was jerked off her feet and thrown into a heap a few meters away, and the Scorpio, after a few moments of indecision, lurched back onto the road and sped away. It all happened with surgical precision.

Of course, the first person to respond was the ex-policeman, his years of training kicking into action. He hurried out of the shop, cursing the errant driver. I followed him, too numb to realize that I had just witnessed manslaughter. As I was crossing the road, I stumbled upon the packet, which had been the object of the girl’s curiosity. Without thinking, I picked it up. It seemed very light. Not surprising, considering that it was filled with old receipts. Someone’s discarded backlog of bills had become instrumental in taking a human life.

The girl was lying where she had fallen, a broken neck having put her out of her misery. A tiny trickle of blood dripped out of her mouth, and her neck was bent at an unnatural angle. These two were the only indications of death. The shopkeeper had called for an ambulance, and the crowd was muttering sympathetically, alternately blaming the driver of the Scorpio and the vagaries of destiny, which had forced the girl onto the streets in the first place. I thought about Selvam, who might miss the girl when he came around in the evening to collect her. He had lost an investment that day. I wondered if such incidents happened often. If so, he might have calculated those losses into miscellaneous expenses.

For after all, that was all that had happened. I doubt that the girl had anyone who cared enough about her to feel pained at her gruesome end. Had she continued to live, all her existence would probably have been spent in begging for Selvam or else in prostitution. The options for a girl like her are painfully limited. In that sense, it was perhaps to her advantage that she died. Or is such a logic too cold blooded and ruthless? I don’t know. All I know is that life, in its entirety, has not meant the same to me after that incident. I have now learnt to appreciate the little joys of life, the same things that I often ignored, having taken them for granted. I understand now that life is not lived in the distant future, but in the present. Life, with all its glory, with all its pains, ecstasy, trials and tribulations exists here, now, in this very second.

Planning for the future and saving up for it are all well and good, but it should not be overdone. For who amongst us knows when our own black Scorpio may come looking for us?

I have not visited my native place since that vacation.

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