Singapore, July 2020

THEY ALL LEAVE US!

These are difficult times. Most of the world has been restricted in their movements, with numerous countries implementing a lockdown of some sort. The global pandemic has wreaked havoc with over 11 million infected and more than half a million already dead. People are scared, both for their lives and their livelihoods.

This has not been the best time for me, personally. We all lose our loved ones from time to time, to illness, to age and at times to sudden twists of fate. But irrespective of the cause, it is always hard to cope with a loss of someone close to us. In the month of May, I lost my maternal uncle (Mejo-Mama) the elder sibling of my mother. Less than a week later, his younger brother (Shejo-Mama) also passed away one fine morning. Two back to back deaths of her own siblings, within a week’s time, came as a major shock to my mother, and understandably so. It took a lot of effort from everyone around her, to make her accept that her brothers were gone.

“When it’s your time, it’s your time” we told her, and after some days of mourning, she and everyone else came to terms with the reality.

And then in June, my cousin sister, the daughter of my father’s elder brother, passed away from long term kidney complications. She was the only ‘sister’ from my paternal side and there were five brothers who saw her as their only sister. Just as I was grappling with this, another news came in, this time of a class mate and a good friend passing away. I used to be pretty close with him during my Higher Secondary days, and while we had lost contact due to physical distance (he lived in the UK, while I have been living in Singapore) we had reconnected recently, and even shared a day together during a picnic organised by our batch mates. I had even talked to him less than two months back and unsurprisingly, this news came as the biggest shock of it all. It left me numb for a few days, as I struggled to come to terms with the passing away of a close friend of the same age. Coping with all this death and distress all by myself, during a period of almost zero social interaction, has turned out to be a bigger challenge than what I would have imagined. But it also made me reflect on certain incidents in my life, and I thought about sharing one of them today.

THE MOMENTOUS MINIBUS RIDE!

It was the end of 1998, and after spending some months in bewilderment in terms of my career, I had finally decided to go for further studies, and get myself a coveted MBA degree. As a part of the preparatory process, I had enrolled myself into a crash course from an institute called Sachdeva New PT College, which had its sessions in Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road, in the central part of Kolkata (Calcutta). We had three classes every week, preparing us with various aspects of competitive exams, to be ready for the tough exam called the Common Aptitude Test or CAT, which we needed to qualify for, in order to get a seat at some of the most coveted Business Schools in India.

The classes were in the late afternoon and by the time they ended, the peak hours for office returning people would start, and thus the public transport was always overcrowded. There was a Mini-Bus plying the route of Thakurpukur, where I stayed, to BBD Bag, passing by Esplanade on its way, where I could board the bus. Unfortunately, in the few stops from BBD Bag to Esplanade, the bus would already be overcrowded, and then it would be a real struggle to get in, fighting through scores of bodies.

A mini bus in Kolkata
A typical Red and Yellow Mini-Bus in Kolkata

Kaushik, a friend who attended the same coaching sessions, and I, had devised a plan to increase our chances of beating the crowd. We would board the bus in the opposite direction, towards the end point of BBD Bag, and return on the same bus towards our homes in Behala and Thakurpukur respectively. The bus did not halt for long at its final destination BBD Bag, took a roundabout and continued on its return journey to its depot in Thakurpurkur. Not that we were the only ones who thought of this, and even to board the bus from Esplanade towards BBD Bag was not an easy affair, but compared to boarding it from Esplanade to Thakurpukur, this could still be considered as a child’s play.

That Friday afternoon, Kaushik and I waited for the bus as planned, on a hot day with the sun still refusing to call it a day. Finally one did show up and even before the mini bus came to a complete stop, almost a dozen people scrambled to push each other and enter the bus, in order to make it to a window seat. Almost all of these passengers were trying to outsmart the system, and were actually determined to go the other direction. Being in my mid twenties, I could easily muscle myself in, ahead of the middle aged office working crowd and soon, I was seated in the most coveted seat in a mini bus. This was the first seat in the front cabin, opposite the driver’s seat, facing the driver, and with the entire front glass to the left, allowing a superb view of the road ahead. However, the thing that made it the most attractive seat, was a window like panel, about six inches in height, which spread across the entire glass windshield. Although it was made of glass, it was kept open, except during heavy rains, and this was the source of a heavenly breeze which helped everyone in the bus to breathe. I would always occupy this seat, if it was available and was ready to bribe, if needed.

Once comfortably seated on the winner’s seat, I looked to my right at the poor gentleman who came runner’s up and had to settle for the next seat. He was an office commuter in his early fifties, with a very friendly smile, although he had tried to push me with his left elbow, on our way through the bus door, but my youth and bulk had given him little chance to overpower me. As I gave him that look of a winner glancing at the silver medalist on the podium, he smiled and said:

“I tried my best, you were too strong and fast. Maybe next time I will beat you and claim that seat!”

I liked his positive outlook and responded with a smile, there was no animosity between us. We were like two rivals, in a tough but friendly competition. Kaushik was not as competitive, as far as this contest went, since he was happy with a window seat anywhere in the passenger cabin. He had taken his own time to board and had comfortably settled himself on a middle row window seat. He waved at me as I glanced inside the bus.

The bus was still 40% empty, but in two more stops that would change drastically, as there would be scores of passengers waiting in a queue at the BBD Bag stop. As I was taking a stock of the passengers and the empty seats, my eyes caught the sight of two familiar people who had just stood up from their seats. They were my brother and my sister-in-law. Married just a couple of months back, my sister-in-law’s relationship with me was still somewhat formal, as she tried her best to settle down in her new house with her new family.

The two of them had taken this bus to go to the city center, to do some shopping and were about to disembark. As a courtesy, I felt that I should speak to them before they got off the bus. A tough choice indeed, as I looked at the runners up gentleman and smilingly announced;

“Today is your lucky day. I’ll give this seat to you. Make sure, the next time you remember that you owe me one.”

He stared at me with disbelief, but when I stood up and gestured him to move to his left and take my seat, he did so promptly and whispered his gratitude. I move into the passenger cabin and greeted my brother and his newly married wife, we had a quick but happy exchange and a couple of minutes later, as the bus halted, they disembarked and waved at me, as I took a window seat somewhere near the middle of the bus, and waved back at them as the bus continued on its route.
BBD Bag, the final stop, was next and immediately scores of passengers pushed and shoved at each other to enter the bus and within minutes, there was literally no space left to squeeze another body in. I could not see Kaushik, who was seated less than three meters away, since there were probably six people blocking our line of sight. I let out a sigh as I looked around at the bodies packed like sardines in a can, and felt relieved that I was comfortably seated next to the window watching the sunset, while many others around me were barely able to breathe.

The bus started on its return journey, amidst the loud noise of screeching brakes and blazing horns, and of course the non-stop yelling of the bus conductor to the world outside: “Khidirpur… Behala Chowrasta…Thakurpukur!”

Kidderpore (Khidirpur) was not a regular route for this bus, but there was a blockade near the Alipore zoo, due to which the bus had been rerouted temporarily via Kidderpore, a densely populated neighbourhood. I kept on staring out of the window, with half my face dangling out of the glass, just to get some fresh breeze on this very hot day. The sun had disappeared and the street lights had just lit up, as we crossed Kidderpore and proceeded towards Mominpur.

That was when it happened!

A loud crashing noise followed a tremendous jerk, as the bus shook and came to a sudden halt. Many of the standing passengers could not withstand the severe impact and had fallen forward, their bodies lumping over each other. Women were screaming, babies crying out loud, as everyone tried to stabilise themselves. My head struck the window frame with a loud thud and my knees banged against the seat in front, as I cringed from the a sudden pain. The bus had had an accident and must have hit something, probably another bus. Most of the passengers were rattled, many injured as they lost their footing and fell with this sudden collision and its impact.

Those who managed to steady themselves started their speculation on what had happened, while the others were holding their knees and necks, and some covered their heads as they came to realise the extent and severity of their injuries. I squeezed my right knee which felt half broken, as I touched my cheek bone to feel a growing lump. I wondered, if I could be injured while being seated in the middle of the bus, those standing and in the front part of the bus, would have a far stronger impact and damage.

There were people rushing towards our bus, to try and help. Some screamed and asked us to get off the bus and the bus conductor, who had fallen over and injured his elbow, realised it was probably the best idea, and asked us all to step out of the bus. Another rush ensued and people started to push each other in the madness to now get off this ill-fated bus. I waited for my turn; anyway I couldn’t do much till the next passenger on the isle seat to my right, moved first. This was a middle aged man who seemed to have knocked his head at the holding bar above the seat in front of him. We asked each other if we were fine, and both of us nodded to imply, we were better off than most of the others.

Gradually, the bus emptied and the two of us stood up from our seats and proceeded towards the small door of the bus. There were about four people behind me in the queue, those who were seated on the rear seats mostly, while the rest had already disembarked and were standing outside, still screaming with pain and shock. As I approached the door, I heard someone wreathing in pain and cry for help. I turned my head towards the noise and found the source quickly. It was from the front of the bus. The man I had offered my coveted seat to, was still seated there and was screaming in pain. I gestured him to get off the bus, as I noticed that the glass windshield was completely shattered and the frame disfigured in front of him. It was that part of the bus that had hit the bus ahead, before being forced into a jerking halt. I heard him respond in a feeble voice laden with pain;

“I can’t. My legs are stuck!”

I changed direction and took a step towards him, and what I saw was shocking. The man, who seemed fine from the upper part of his body, had the engine of the bus rammed into his legs, which were both crushed between the metal cover of the engine and the seat.

Someone tugged me out of the bus as I had almost lost my sense of the situation at this point. I landed on the ground, with a slight limp due to my aching knees, and looked back at the bus. It had hit the bus in front and the left front part had completely caved in, thereby forcing the engine and everything else to crumble inside. The driver had jumped off the bus as soon as it came to a halt, and fearing his own safety, had decided it was best to run away or he would probably be lynched by the public, something that was not entirely unusual under such a situation.

I felt an arm on my shoulder, it was Kaushik who also had a minor head injury, as he was holding his forehead which had a visible dark bruise. He laughed out how he was lucky, just before the collision happened, he had changed his posture and that somehow saved his knees from the impact, although his head banged hard on the window. I was still in deep shock and unable to find my voice.

My eyes were fixed on the front of the bus, at the man seated on the first seat, the seat that I had given up barely twenty minutes back. He was still screaming, his legs still stuck between two metal bodies, and I could only imagine the extent of his pain. I kept looking at his face through the broken window glass, as he cried out in severe pain. There were almost a hundred people around him, but every single one of them helpless, and couldn’t do anything to help him in any way, or alleviate his unbearable pain.

That I was seated in his place, on that seat, twenty minutes back, made me visualise myself in his place, with my legs stuck, crying in agony. This was meant for me, I was the one who was supposed to be in his place, with my legs crushed, screaming in pain as everyone looked helplessly at me, sympathising with my condition. Instead, I had passed it to another man, and now he was a shocking sight of suffering, a sight not easy for a man of feeble heart to stare at for too long.

The affected passengers left one after another, they had to move on with their lives. Their families were waiting for them, and they needed to get back and tell them how lucky they were. Kaushik left fifteen minutes later and urged me to come along, as there was nothing I could do, and his advice made sense. But my legs wouldn’t move, and I kept staring at the man, whose voice had become almost inaudible after a while, as his strength gradually left him. I was the only passenger, along with the bus conductor, who stayed back long after the others had taken alternative measures to reach home. The Police had arrived and there were many local people who were trying to help, but there was little they could do.

Eventually, an Ambulance showed up and they inspected the patient, who had lost his consciousness by that point. The bus was towed away to a nearby hospital and I followed it, but I was not allowed inside, as they took it straight down the emergency section. So I waited outside the hospital and lit up cigarette after cigarette. The bus conductor stayed with me. Almost two hours later, we managed to get some news from the emergency wing of the hospital and it was not something we wanted to hear.

Since the man’s legs were stuck and he was bleeding profusely, the doctors had decided there was only one way to save his life, by amputating his legs. So they had done it while he was still stuck in the frame of the bus. They had managed to finally free him from the bus, devoid of his two legs, and taken him to the ICU for emergency surgery. But he had lost too much blood already and he did not survive through the surgery process. It was at 9:16 pm that he was finally declared dead!

I left for my home soon after, and as expected, found my entire family worried about my whereabouts. I was expected to reach home early in the evening, but I had showed up almost at 10:30 pm, with no one having a clue about where I was. A barrage of questions followed, but I was not in the mental state to answer them. I skipped my dinner and retired to my room at the attic much early that night. The picture of that man, crying out in pain, as he stared at his own legs crushed between the seat and the engine, was not leaving me that entire night. A voice inside me kept saying;

“It was for you. You were supposed to die today! You escaped your death.”

I couldn’t sleep that whole night. The voices continued and the picture kept on playing like a documentary film playing in a loop. But the next morning I came downstairs earlier than usual, since I had not really slept all night. I was hungry and ate a hearty breakfast, must to the amusement of my mother and sister-in-law.

I went back to the hospital where the passenger was taken the last evening. I did not talk to anyone, I did not look for anything. I just sat there, outside the emergency ward, and spoke to myself. I had listened to those voices inside me all night, reminding me of how I was supposed to have died. I did not say a word. But today, I wanted to speak. I wanted to respond to that voice that reminded me of my death throughout the entire night.

“Death might have come for me, but in the end, I am not dead. I am very much alive!
IT WAS NOT MY DAY!
And now, I will continue to live, more than ever before, for as long as I can. And I will try and make my life worth living!”

MARKED FOR DEATH!

Following this incident, there were three other incidents in the next few years, that could be classified as close shaves.

ONE: In the January of 2001, I was in Ahmedabad campus of a well known management institute, when an earthquake of 7.7 magnitude scale shook Gujarat, killing 20,000 people and injuring 167,000 people and destroying over 340,000 buildings. I was among the two people in my campus who suffered injuries, as I was left with a broken wrist from a large shard of broken glass.

TWO: Four months later, in May of the same 2001, I was sleeping in a tent of a ‘Sadhu’ in Varanasi ghat, during a quest for ‘finding myself’. I woke up one night listening to a soft whisper which gradually started to make sense as my awareness reemerged after the momentary wilderness imposed by sleep. The voice was whispering “Hilna mat… Hilna mat” (Don’t move, Don’t move). As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I felt a cold sensation on my bare chest and without moving an organ, I realised that a hooded snake was coiled up on my chest, and it’s hissing noise made me notice the fangs which were staring down at me, less than ten inches from my face. The voice kept on whispering, urging me not to move a muscle and I stopped breathing for a while, staring at the dark hood of this magnificent creature, without even a blink. Moments passed and suddenly, the serpent recoiled and climbed down my torso and disappeared into the darkness.

THREE: In the December of 2004, I had joined a large commodity company with a first posting in Ghana, Africa. As a part of my induction, I was sent to Bangkok to study the rice milling process before flying to Ghana, where my induction would continue. There was a weekend in between and I decided to spend one day in the island of Phuket, before taking the plunge for a new continent. I arrived on Friday and flew out on Saturday evening, to arrive in time for my Bangkok to Dubai flight later that night. I halted in Dubai and took a connecting flight to land in Accra, Ghana the afternoon of Sunday. As I checked in my hotel with a day to spare, I switched on the television and there was only one news making the headlines. A devastating Tsunami had rattled the entire South East Asia, leaving almost 230,000 people dead across 14 countries. My hotel in Phuket was submerged under the gushing waves and I was there, just fourteen hours before this happened.

Since then, the voice inside me doesn’t remind me how I was supposed to die. This time, it only reminded me;

“It’s not your time, yet!”


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