Have you ever watched someone die right before your eyes? It can be quite unnerving for most people, I dare say. Now what if this happens when you are still a very young boy not yet out of school? It can be shattering, I dare say again. And what if you felt that you could have actually saved that person's life? What if you felt that he would not have died if you had done something about it, something that was within your ability to do? I dare not imagine how the young schoolboy would have felt. But then, I need not imagine, because I know.
Because I was that young schoolboy. And this person who died, he was in my car.
I watched him die.
All I could do was grip the steering wheel harder. And sit there soaking in my own sweat. And wince in pain as a screaming wail bounced about inside my head. The scream of death.
It had started off as just any other day, that morning, almost thirty years back - calm and pleasant; a day that promised so much. I had packed my bags and was about to rush off to school. That was when I heard a loud clanging sound at our back gate. Someone was at the gate and was making a desperate attempt to catch our attention, by banging the padlock on the iron gate. I heard my mother rushing over to the gate and hastily opening it. I don't think my father was home - he was probably out for his morning walk. I looked through my bedroom window, and to my surprise I saw a friend of mine standing at the gate, talking excitedly to my mother. And a few seconds later, my mother called out my name loudly. Dropping my school bag, I immediately dashed to the back of the house.
I smelt adventure.
My friend, who was probably two or three years older than me, explained in between gasps that his father had collapsed as he had got out of bed. And because his father had had a heart attack before, he feared that this was yet another attack. He was desperate to get his father to the hospital at the earliest. Calling for an ambulance could easily mean a wait of at least an hour. There were only two cars in the neighbourhood back in those days, and one was ours. And that was why he was banging on our gate.
I was all of fifteen years and quite confident of taking the car out on my own, since I had already done it once before, during a similar emergency in the neighbourhood. As I grabbed the car keys, my friend rushed back calling for help from the neighbours. Within a couple of minutes, I was at their gate with the car. There were enough strong and willing hands in the neighbourhood; and even though my friend stayed on the first floor, uncle was inside the car in a matter of minutes. I remember sneaking a quick glance behind - he was unconscious, or at least it seemed so. I thought I heard a groan as he was shifted into the car. My friend's mother got in the back along with uncle, and he slid into the front seat with me. And we raced off.
The nearest hospital was Lourdes, about half a kilometre away. Lisie hospital, which was about two kilometres away, was another option. My friend wanted to take his father to Lourdes not only because it was closer, but also because that was where they normally took him for his check-ups. Now even though Lourdes was closer, there was a complication - we had to cross a railway gate on our way. And that was a slight worry, because a gate closure would easily mean a delay of at least ten to fifteen minutes. But I guess I was too young to overturn my friend's preference, and not old enough to seriously weigh the two options before us. So even though the image of the railway gate did flash through my mind, I did not say anything and we found ourselves speeding along on the narrow road towards the railway gate. I don't think that my friend, amidst all the tension, even thought about the railway gate for a minute.
As we got closer to the railway gate, I suddenly became aware of my heart beating faster and beating louder. The moment we came out from the narrow road and got on to the wider road that led to the gate, I felt a slight dizziness; darkness covered my eyes for a split second. For right in front of me was a line of cars and buses before the railway gate, which was well and truly closed.
Even though the gate had just closed, there was already a long line of vehicles. Before I could collect my thoughts and before we could react, there were scooters, auto-rickshaws, cars and buses all around us. There was no room to turn around or make a retreat. We were trapped, fair and sound. I don't remember how the next ten minutes passed; probably the longest ten minutes of my life till then or since. I remember getting out of the car and trying to see if I could get a few cars to make some space for us to turn around. There was no space for anyone to move even an inch in any direction, other than forward.
I remember my friend's mother crying loudly. I remember a few people coming to the car and discussing if uncle could be carried from the car to the other side of the gate. But they decided that it would not be a very good idea since the traffic jam was actually worse on the other side of the gate. Strangely, I don't remember anybody attempting a CPR. I don't think too many people in those days even knew what a CPR was!
I sat with my hands on the steering wheel, my grip becoming harder as each second ticked by. I felt the sweat dripping from my brow and running all over my neck and my face. The whistle of the train in the distance was surely the screaming wail of death in the air? It was almost fifteen minutes before the train passed, the gate opened and we were able to start moving again. Within a few minutes we were at the hospital. They rushed him out to the Emergency. But it was not long before someone came and broke the news that uncle was no more.
I do not know when exactly uncle had died - maybe he had died in the house itself. But then, what about the groan as he was shifted into the car? Or maybe uncle had died as we sped towards the railway gate. Or maybe he had indeed died as we were stuck in the jam in front of the closed railway gate; and maybe the wailing sound of the train horn in the distance was indeed the scream of death. Maybe uncle would not have died if instead of the turn that I had taken towards Lourdes that day, I had turned the car in the opposite direction towards Lisie hospital. Or maybe it wouldn't have mattered at all. I don't know.
Thirty years have passed since that fateful day. I had almost forgotten about that railway gate.
But today on Facebook I saw a photo, shared by a friend, of a newly opened bridge over that railway gate. At last! That was my instant reaction on seeing that photo. I cannot believe that it took thirty years for someone to do something about this problem that had crippled the whole area so badly. I wonder how many more people over these past years had sat and cursed as they counted the seconds, waiting anxiously for the gate to open.
To most of my friends on Facebook who saw the photo of the new overbridge, it would have been just another innocuous photo. But it sent me tumbling down a deep dark well of memories. I remembered wincing in pain as a screaming train horn began bouncing about in my head once again, reminding me once again of that day, thirty years ago.
The day I watched a man die.
The day I sat helpless and sweating, with the scream of death in my ears.
PS: Click here to read more about the "Pachalam Overbridge"