We had been travelling most of the night on the road from Madras, now Chennai, to Kodaikanal in South India. Conversation was beginning to take on stereotyped platitudes tired minds are capable of producing.
We were not making a lot of sense to each other by this time, and those who were valiantly trying to stay awake to keep the drivers mind on the road were beginning to envy those who’d given up and were snoring loudly in the passenger seats of the minibus. They had reason to be sleeping having spent the night on a plane from Singapore where our children attended boarding school. Nevertheless our desire to stay alive on dangerous South Indian roads at night kept us from giving in to our urge to sleep. We were desperately wishing for a diversion to jolt us back to full consciousness.
Rounding a bend in the road we were soon provided with the diversion we’d been hoping for. The minibus eased to a stop and passengers dozing fitfully in their seats began to wake one by one as the oppressive heat took hold of them. Without air conditioning the only comfort one has on the roads of India is the breeze created by movement of a vehicle. Looming in front of us was the dark shape of a tractor trailer jackknifed across the road. There was no way to move forward.
Considering the impossibility of getting around this obstacle we were surprised there was no bank up of traffic on the road and all alighted to look into the matter. It appeared this was not an accident but a carefully planned blockage. Newspapers and radios had given this “Rasta Bund,” blocked road, ample coverage and it was unfortunate we couldn’t read or understand the language of this part of the country. Others had diverted their travel to other highways, and that accounted for the unusually empty road behind us. Indian roads are alive at all hours of the day or night. The truck union members were determined we wouldn’t go through, and we soon learned that arguments, pleas or threats wouldn’t work. We retreated to the minibus to think things through.
The driver walked to the edge of the road and stood studying the lay of the land. A row of low stones marked the edge of the road, and beyond them was a thin strip of land with a steep drop off to the valley below. The driver returned and started the minibus, then before we could gather our thoughts he’d bumped the vehicle across those stones and slowly picked his way between the end of the tractor trailer, stones, and the drop off to the side.
We all held our breath, and prayed hard. But we made it, and the driver had the satisfaction of informing unionists in a loud voice the road was now open to traffic as he sped by them on the other side of the disabled tractor trailer. Looking back in the gathering light of early morning we saw a group of shocked faces and some clenched shaking fists waving in our direction.
I’m sure that few found their way along that straight and narrow way that evening but we had survived by the pluck and skill of our driver in spite of dangerous terrain.
Our children who’d watched their close proximity to disaster breathed and audible sigh of relief as we speeded on our way. We had a whole road to ourselves for an hour after that event. Thoughts turned to the cool air of Kodaikanal Mountain where in a few more hours we’d be enjoying time boating on the lake and a month of annual vacation.
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