My friend now retired in the US has written his book of memories, and as some stories include the time we worked together in India I’ve requested permission to extract portions and attach to my blog site. Ian
No driving experiences in Canada or the United States prepared me for the roads of India. I was literally dropped into a world where nominally vehicular traffic is to proceed on the left hand side of the road. “Might makes right” was the understood rule of the road in that the bigger vehicle always took the right of way or hogged the center of the road even though the law stated otherwise. Most of the main roads were a twelve-foot-wide ribbon of patch upon patch euphemistically referred to as a highway. Overloaded bullock carts and trucks that had been forced to the shoulder during the monsoon season caused deep holes with abrupt and uneven edges. Many vehicles, whether animal driven or engine powered, were left where they stopped, often with a broken axle, blown-out tire, or broken springs. There they stayed with a pile of stones placed around them much like we use cones, until the necessary repairs were completed. Flares, warning triangles or any other warning devices were absent, night driving revealed many surprises!
It was Christmas 1968 and an Australian couple Ian and Georgine Grice living then in Mumbai arranged to visit with us in Hatkanagle, the village where Eleanor and I lived, to spend the holiday period.
It was a complicated process to make sleeping reservations for a train journey. Ian our Aussie friend had bought tickets and made reservations for the return journey for their family of three, or so he thought.
After Christmas visitors would soon return to their own homes. It was an Indian Railways rule that reserved return tickets were to be reconfirmed at least 30 hours before departure time. For our visitors the nearest reconfirmation place was Miraj, a town 30 miles distant.
The ride to Miraj on a motorcycle was normally a pleasant jaunt. However, this was the harvest season for sugar cane and road travel for any vehicle could become a harrowing experience. Overloaded, top heavy sugarcane trucks often teetered and on occasion toppled on their sides, bullock carts with their drivers asleep on top of the load followed one after another down the center of the narrow road and tractors towing trailers were followed by urchins trying to sample stalks of cane from the rear of the load where the drivers could not see them.
So on a pleasant December morning, Aussie Ian and I boarded my little 250 cc Honda Super Sport motorcycle to take on the chore of reconfirmation of tickets. Although the nearest train station was less than a mile from our house, the train stationmaster was not empowered to reconfirm tickets. Our trip to Miraj was for the most part uneventful. We dodged the usual obstacles: a herd of goats, a long line of empty bullock carts returning from the sugar mill, trucks, tractors, and people walking with and without loads on their heads. There was the occasional dog that held a personal grudge against motorcycles. Such mutts could be discouraged with the lifted leg. There were thousands of bicycles, some ridden with two, three or four people on them, some being pushed with loads of banana stalks tied on, or bags of rice being taken to some village bazaar, or a goat or sheep tied to the handlebars, or baskets of chickens tied to the back carrier frame.
We traversed the 30 miles in approximately one hour. It took a little longer than usual because we were detained at two manually operated gates where the road crossed the railway tracks. It was a normal procedure for the gates to be closed soon after the train left the previous station and they would not be opened until the train passed by. At the crossings various vendors set up shop to sell snacks, biscuit and gooey sweets being inspected by flies, tea, Indian cigarettes called bidis, or trinkets like bangles, hair clips, combs and even neam sticks for the local folk to chew on the ends to brush their teeth with the fibers. There were also coconut vendors who cut open green coconuts for travelers to drink the delicious water that was cool and clean. Traffic, both wheeled and on foot, would back up waiting for the gates to open. At times the wait could be as long as 10 minutes. People other than some foreigners never seemed to mind the wait. It was a time for catching up on gossip about family affairs, compare crop yields, complain about the lack of rain, speculate on politics and make salacious comments on acts of infidelity in the various villages of the area.
We arrived in Miraj a train junction town, presented the tickets at the ticket window and requested confirmation. The ticket agent informed us that there was no record of a reserved return trip as listed on the back of the original ticket. The inevitable argument ensured with us saying he must be mistaken and he replying in limited English, “No reservation.”
Both Aussie Ian and I knew this game quite well. We raised our voices to attract the attention of the people around us hoping they would intervene on our behalf. Some did converse with him in Marathi, the local language that they then interpreted for us in English informing us what the agent had said. Our understanding of the language was good enough to know that a little baksheesh of a couple of rupees would fix the misunderstanding and we would have the needed train accommodations. At this point we began to talk in Marathi and suggested that it was time for him to take us to the Station Master. He quickly responded that such a drastic action would not be necessary for he believed he could find a way to accommodate our request. Within a matter of minutes we had the reconfirmed tickets in hand so thanked him loudly and profusely telling him what a helpful person he had been. This made him look good in the eyes of the considerable crowd that had gathered. Deep down he knew he had been bilked out of some hoped for tea money he had his heart set on, but he appreciated all the nice words we said about him.
The return trip to our village on the motorcycle started out as uneventful as the journey to Miraj. At the halfway point we entered a small town and noted it was the day for the weekly bazaar. Many people had come in from the surrounding region for this weekly highlight in their lives. We literally threaded our way through the main street dodging vendors, buyers, animals and produce as well as the traffic coming from the opposite direction. This small town was situated in a valley beside a dry riverbed.
As we left town, the road led us out of the valley. The paved part of the road was narrow. Jagged edges sometimes dropped into holes a foot or more deep. We caught up to a car that was going rather slowly and I blew the horn to alert the driver we wanted to pass. As we came along side the driver sped up and moved over to cut off our forward progress on the paved portion of the road. Our speed at that time was about 40 miles per hour.
The huge irregular roadside depressions were about to become our unintended line of travel. I viewed them as launch pads for aerial flight. Worse was the thought of an erratic landing with a very real possibility of broken bones or other bodily damage. Motorcycle helmets were not in vogue nor readily available and visions of a nasty fall seemed to no longer be prophetic in time but an imminent event.
In a quick appraisal of the situation I noted that the driver was a small man. The front window of the driver’s side was rolled down. In India traffic nominally proceeds on the left side and the steering wheel is normally on the right side unless the vehicle has been imported from overseas. In the back seat, also on the right side with the window open, sat a rather rotund gentleman. By his clothes I could tell he was a man of wealth, quite possibly a weaving mill owner.
Inspiration is a word that probably should NOT be used in this connection, but in an instant I pulled the motorcycle into the side of the car to save ourselves unmindful what this may do to the paint job on both vehicles. I put my arm though the window opening and clasped the doorpost at the same time yelling to Aussie Ian, “hang on; we’re going for a ride!” Then it dawned on me, (maybe it was inspiration this time) the driver’s neck was mere inches from my hand. In an instant that neck was in my big (my gloves ordinarily are X large size) hand and I applied an appropriate amount of pressure.
At the same instant I grabbed that neck the well-fed rider in the rear seat bellowed at the driver. Whether it was the yell of the man or the desperate grip I applied to the neck I do not know but either one would have worked, the car jerked violently to the left and slowed forcefully. I felt like my arm was wrenched from its shoulder socket. I let go of the doorpost and separated the motorcycle from the car. Miraculously and thankfully we were still in n up-right position.
Much relieved we muttered imprecations against the driver. We harbored no thoughts of inflicting bodily pain in return until we came to a railway crossing. Gates were closed and suddenly thoughts of retribution overcame any still small voice trying to get my attention. I determined that if the possibility presented itself that the railway crossing gate were closed I would confront the driver and deal with him appropriately.
As fate would have it the gate was closed! Whether it was self-preservation instincts of the well-rounded passenger I do not know, but the car stopped about half a mile behind us. After the train passed and the gates opened we proceeded to our village.
Thank you Elsworth for the memory of this harrowing experience. I thought my days were numbered viewing the steep drop offs from the back of that motorcycle. Ian
On behalf of Elsworth Hetke the owner of this story,
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2014 All rights reserved”
The above image is taken from sitar makers Miraj Maharashtra India flickr.com