Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chapter 3...contd

Riding a motorbike in Delhi wasn’t fun anymore, thought Raj as he stopped at the traffic signal and wiped the grit from around his eyes for the umpteenth time. A pall of soot and smoke hung over the city at all times. The rapidly going public bus fleet along with the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws spewed black smoke into the air. The air was getting so thick with pollutants that people had started wearing masks while riding two-wheelers. A white shirt would literally turn grey by the end of the day.

It had been a long day at work and all Raj wanted to do was to go home and get out of his sticky shirt. A nice cold shower and some tea would be nice too. It was Friday and later he had a date with Neeta. He hadn’t seen her in two days because of work and was really looking forward to tonight.

The traffic light turned green, and as he started to make a turn, he felt a violent jerk and felt himself flying in the air in slow motion. As he lay on the road, all he could do was watch while the grey contessa that hit him drove off into the darkness.

The motorbike was mangled, but Raj only had minor bruises…thank god for the helmet. Now for the more pressing issues at hand…the bike could not be moved, he was still a couple of miles from his house, he did not have a cellphone to contact anybody, and the culprit had driven off.

Hit and run was the rule rather than exception in Delhi. Traffic laws were scarce and the police lax. If any erratic driver was caught, it was usually due to quick-thinking passers-by. They would have to literally jump on top of the car to stop the car, and usually a mob would gather to thrash the driver. Most accidents got sorted out with the mob playing the role of the arbitrator and getting some money for dawa paani or hospital visit from the driver.

Not this time, there were no passers-by and no crowd. Raj waited at the side of the road hoping someone would see his condition and stop for help. Life in Delhi was hectic, but Delhiites were very good at helping stranded motorist. When the government does not provide infrastructure, citizens usually step-up to fill the void and the citizens of Delhi were no different. Due to the kindness of a stranger, he was able to call home for help.

The help arrived in the form of his cousin Sanjay. He was a street smart kid who had found books too tedious and had dropped out of high school a few years ago. Thankfully, his grandfather had a small business which was able to provide him with employment.

Running a small business in the 80s and the 90s was an art. The socialist bent of the government meant that for them, businessmen were irrelevant. As a result, the government made it as hard as possible for them to do business. There were licenses for everything, which were always scarce and required payment of large bribes to officials. Electricity was rationed, which meant additional money to the electricity department for extra grid connections. On top of that, you could always count on the local police inspector to come around for freebies.

Growing up in that environment, Sanjay had developed a deep mistrust of the police and the officialdom. So when he arrived, he had assumed the worst and stuffed his pockets with wads of cash. As luck would have it, just as Sanjay arrived, so did the police. Miraculously, some good Samaritan had given chase to the runaway car and managed to catch the driver.

All the police had to do now was to beat up the driver make money off him. To do that they also needed for Raj to file a report. Sanjay was wary of the police to begin with and even more wary of signing anything for them. His skepticism got the better of him and the end result was that they went home without filing a report. Only much later would Raj realize what a bad mistake that was.


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