It’s been a while since I posted a story about our trip. I got sick after coming back to Dharamsala after our trip to Rishikesh. I’ve started a lighthearted post on the subject of getting sick in India. But I don’t feel like being lighthearted today. Our little Kellen almost got hit by a taxi and his foot got run over. We feared his ankle was broken.
It happened in lower Dharamsala. (We live in Upper Dharamsala or McLeod Ganj.) We had decided to walk the mile or so down the steep winding road to Dharamsala proper to visit a tiny mall that has a Coffee Day—a Westernized coffee shop—and a Domino’s Pizza, believe it or not. We planned to have coffee and a treat and get a pizza to take home in a taxi for dinner. We don’t usually like patronizing Domino’s, for political reasons, but we were making an exception.
It was a beautiful walk down the hill with views of the Bhagsu River canyon as it widens and opens out into the hills and plains below.
The “mall” was tinier than I had expected. Jennifer had been there once before. It had a modern looking façade and interior, but only two businesses seemed to be operating, the Coffee Day and Domino’s. After we had our treats and got our pizza, we walked down to a little three-way intersection, where the main road, our road home, goes up very steeply. We waited beside of the narrow road and hailed a taxi coming down the road.
He pulled over to the right and stopped across from us. It’s a very busy intersection. When the road was more or less clear, we crossed over and stood on the side of the road beside him, while I negotiated the price. Following British custom, the steering wheel is on the right and the cars drive on the left. The road is extremely steep there. After we settled on a price, Jennifer and Aidan and Kellen started getting into the back seat, and I went around into the traffic to get in on the passenger side.
I opened the passenger door and was about to get in when the taxi started rolling forward. I jumped back about to yell at the driver, when Jennifer screamed, “The Taxi’s on Kellen’s foot!” Kellen let out a piercing scream. Jennifer was yelling for the driver to back up off of his foot.
I dropped or threw my backpack somewhere, maybe in the road, and raced around to see about Kellen. Jennifer flew over Aidan who was sitting beside her to get out the door. Aidan doesn’t think she even touched him. I ran to Kellen and picked him up.
“Are you okay? Which foot is it?”
“This one,” he said, pointing to his left.
Jennifer and Aidan were now in front of him. Aidan was trying to take off his shoe.
“Wait!” I said, “We have to see how bad it’s hurt first.”
A crowd had gathered. Hands were reaching in to hold or touch and check his ankle and foot. I didn’t want random people doing amateur diagnoses and possibly injure him further.
“Jennifer, take his left ankle in your hand,” I said, “and hold it.”
Kellen didn’t seem too bad.
“Can you move your foot?” we asked.
“I’m okay. I’m okay,” he said.
We took off his shoe and sock. The first couple layers of skin on the back and side of his ankle were badly scraped away. But there was no blood.
“Can you feel this? Can you feel your toes?”
He seemed more or less okay.
I saw the driver.
“What the hell were you doing?!” I yelled.
When I looked up, I saw a hundred people had surrounded us.
In that moment I flashed on a scene from the book I just read, Shantaram. The narrator and his Indian friend and guide, Prabaker, were in an accident in a taxi in Mumbai. The accident was their own driver’s fault, and a woman in the car ahead of them had been either seriously injured or killed. Prabaker said they needed to get out of the taxi and get away, anticipating trouble. They did. When they looked back, they could see that the injured husband of the dead woman had gotten out of his car and was standing there, beside himself with grief and agony and rage, and started smearing himself with his wife’s blood and yelling and screaming. A crowd had gathered around them and became inflamed. In a moment of mass hysteria they began pulling the driver of the narrator’s taxi out of his vehicle. They started beating him. They put him on top of his taxi and were pummeling him, tearing his clothes, bloodying his face, beating him to death. The last the narrator saw, the crowd was carrying him towards the police station. Prabaker said he might or might not survive.
The rage of such crowd is incomprehensible, and in some ways comprehensible. The traffic in India, in any kind of town or city, is perilous. The drivers maintain such a tiny margin or error between their vehicle and those around them. As a Westerner, when I ride in a taxi or tuk-tuk, if I wanted to, I could reach out and touch any vehicle that we passed or that passed us. Literally inches separate you from the next vehicle. The metal of an automobile has no mercy when it meets a human body.
In addition, in these streets and intersections, everyone is hot (at least most, who do not have air conditioning.) Everyone’s breathing exhaust and fumes, hearing blaring horns constantly, driving too fast, having—what seems to a Westerner to be—fatal close calls every couple of minutes or so. Yet, the drivers maintain a sense of outward calm, but which might also cover a suppressed state of tension. The passengers on the street are having no better a time. They are trying to cross the lanes without getting run over.
So, on one hand, if we all agree that this is the way we are going to drive, then how can a crowd inflict murderous judgment upon a driver who happens to slip beyond that tiny margin of error and cause an accident? I am shocked that more accidents are not happening all the time. On the other hand, such a mass hysterical reaction by a crowd suggests that everyone really may be suffering from a reservoir of pent-up tension, a tension that got unleashed in that scene in Shantaram. And the narrator’s friend’s fear of it suggests that it may not be all that uncommon.
But today I looked up into a hundred eyes of concern around us. Everyone wanted to help. After we had checked Kellen out, I handed him to Jennifer. A man walked up and gave me my backpack. He or someone else could easily have walked off with it.
I wasn’t sure it we should get back into the taxi and have it take us home. Jennifer decided that we would walk. She took Kellen in her arms and started up the road. I watched her walking up that steep hill, Kellen not that much smaller than her, his arms and legs wrapped around her. I saw a vision of the fearless, powerful, protective care of a mother. I couldn’t help thinking of the mother monkeys we see every day with babies clinging to them. Aidan and I followed.
Now, two hours later we’re home, and Kellen feels fine, he says. He just ran around the room to prove it. We checked out his bones carefully.
“Kellen, you’re like our kitty Este used to be.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, she was scared and got upset about every little thing, sort of how you do sometimes. But when the chips were down, she was the fighter. If a strange dog came into our yard, the other cats would run and hide, but Este would stand there with her back up, hissing, until the dog backed down.”
“Remember when we turned our canoe over on the river and had to swim to shore? We got out onto the bank and watched our canoe and gear go down the river. You were six. You were the first one to say anything.”
You said, “The important thing is that we all survived.”
This morning, I was hiking up to the trail to circumambulate the Dalai Lama’s temple and do my prostrations and was feeling a little despondent. I’d not been up to the temple in a while. First we’d gone to Rishikesh and then I’d gotten sick. In ten days, we’d be leaving Dharamsala. While it’s been an amazing, life-changing time here, I felt disappointed that I hadn’t developed a closer connection to the temple. We’d gotten to see the Dalai Lama and I’d taken a class on Buddhism from an amazing Geshe—nun and teacher—but I didn’t have any ongoing relationships with anyone there. Perhaps I was just missing my own sangha in Logan.
As I walked up the trail, I thought of what my friend Jaguri (Jake) of Logan often says about gratitude. Jake is not a stranger to suffering, though he’s only in his early twenties. He often says, in this moment we can be grateful we don’t have a headache. When we have a terrible headache, we think that if we could just get rid of it, we’d be fine. When we are undergoing it, or a toothache or a broken collar-bone, or stomach bug, we think that if we could be free of it, all would be well. Yet, every day, we are free of so many kinds of suffering. Wow, today, I haven’t had a headache, a toothache, a broken ankle, a car accident.
I felt lucky to be over my sickness, to be able to hike up to the temple. The family was in India and everyone safe and well. It was a beautiful morning. An old Tibetan woman I passed gave me a beautiful, warm smile.
And then the taxi ran over Kellen’s foot. My friend Ben Gunsberg jokes about how many bullets we dodge everyday. A popular song says, “we’re all just a phone call from our knees.”
Kellen dodged a bullet today. Today, that’s all that matters.