By Shevlin Sebastian
At 11 p.m., on a Saturday a few weeks ago, I was cruising down National Highway No 47 in Kochi. Elton John’s ‘Circle of Life’ was playing on the music system.
The mood inside the car was tranquil. My daughter, Sneha, had just landed from Bangalore. My wife, teenage son and I had gone to collect her from the airport. She has just started studying in a college in Bangalore. Dressed in jeans and a cream top, blue sneakers, without socks, she smiled happily as she entered the car.
The conversation began. Sneha spoke about the quality of the food in her hostel, her roommates, lecturers, classmates, and the latest movie she had seen. My son, two years younger, sitting next to her on the back seat, listened silently.
The highway was relatively deserted: a few trucks and some cars. Kochi sleeps early: the metro service, besides the pillars of which we were travelling, had closed. And so were the private bus services. An occasional long-distance Kerala State Road Transport Corporation bus trundled past, with its distinctive red and yellow colours.
I was driving at 50 kms per hour as we were in no hurry and I was listening to what my daughter was saying rather than concentrating on the road.
Children grow up so fast. It seemed only the other day that I held Sneha in my arms. And now she was all grown up. When she was in Class 12, I remembered the large birthday card, almost the size of an A 3 size chart, that some of her classmates had made in which they drew and wrote greetings, using red, green, blue and purple felt pens. However, one comment from a boy made me stop breathing for a few moments. “You have a nice ass,” he wrote. It took me some time to digest that. And accept. My daughter was a sexual being to her male contemporaries.
In the car, Sneha suddenly asked, “Baba, do you mind if I put my music on?”
“Sure,” I said. And she leaned forward and pressed a cable wire into the socket of the music system and her mobile. Soon, her songs started to play. The first one was Selena Gomez’s haunting ‘Lose you to love me’.
Incredibly, I had heard it the day before. I read an article about the song and decided to hear it on YouTube. In her song, Selena was indirectly commenting on her failed romance with pop superstar Justin Bieber. Sneha was shocked and impressed when I told her all this.
“Baba, you are in touch,” she said, with a smile.
“Just a fluke,” I said, modestly.
She hummed the first few lines:
‘You promised the world and I fell for it
I put you first and you adored it
Set fires to my forest
And you let it burn’
All of a sudden, a red Maruti Suzuki car swerved in from an outer lane and cut in front of me. I instinctively half-pressed the brake and dropped my speed to 40 kms an hour. The other car moved ahead. I was wondering why the driver had the need to cut in. There were three lanes on our side. He could have easily gone straight ahead.
I thought: “Is the driver drunk, high on drugs or has he slept off for an instant?”
I could see a few heads in the car.
Inexplicably, a few moments later, it swerved violently to the right and hit a pillar of the Kochi Metro at high speed. The thud sounded like a thunderbolt. All of us looked through the windscreen with bulging eyes and open mouths. I braked as a black piece, probably a part of the bumper, ricocheted away and came to a stop just in front. I quickly moved the vehicle to the left, without looking at the rear-view mirror. Thankfully, there was no vehicle behind us. I parked on one side.
Inside the stricken car, there was no movement for several moments.
Sneha suggested that I call the police. I pulled out my mobile and did so. By the time I passed all the relevant information to the helpline, including the number of the metro pillar where the accident took place, a crowd had gathered. When I reached the damaged car I saw that the two white airbags in front had burst open. That probably explained why the driver, a thin man with curly black hair, had escaped with just a cut on his upper lip. A thin line of blood could be seen. He looked about 22, and stood to one side, with blank eyes, as if he could not see.
Somebody said, “Did you sleep off suddenly?” He quickly shook his head and said, “No, I lost control.” Somebody asked whether it was a brake failure. He shook his head. Was he drinking? The reply was a tightening of his jaws.
A woman, who was in the back seat, was pulled out gently by a few bystanders, with her husband cradling her head. She was laid down on the road — a middle-aged lady in a green salwar kameez. From the look on her face — the eyeballs almost vanishing as the lids closed — she was rapidly losing consciousness. There were two children, a boy and a girl, both below ten years of age. They stood nearby staring at their mother.
Soon, a white car which was going past was stopped by several people, with raised arms and shouts. Again the woman was carried to the back seat, men holding her arms and legs, and somebody placed his palms under her back to balance her. The husband put his children on both his knees, as he sat in the front seat, next to the driver. They headed to the nearest hospital.
Meanwhile, drivers, who were going past, slowed down, slid their window panes down, and stared with frozen eyes at the shattered engine. Where the bonnet had been smooth, now it was all crumpled metal. Ten minutes later, the police arrived.
Some passers-by expressed the hope the woman would be okay.
A couple of days later I called the Kalamassery police station under whose jurisdiction the accident had taken place. A policeman said that the woman had been declared brain-dead on her arrival at the hospital. The doctors put her on the ventilator. They informed the husband. He spoke to his family members. They agreed there was no point. Two days after the accident, the ventilator was switched off. And she passed away. She was only 37 years old and worked in the administration section of a government hospital in Kochi itself. It seemed she hit her forehead on the back of the front seat with great force, and this proved to be fatal.
From the time the driver lost control to hitting the pillar was all of two seconds. That was the minuscule time taken for a tragedy to take place.
So, why did this event take place? Why did God take the mother away from the children at such a crucial stage in their lives? What will be the psychological blow on them? Who can replace their irreplaceable mother? Nobody, I guess. How will the husband handle the situation of being both father and mother? As strangers, we will never know the answers.
Meanwhile, when we set out again, there was a tomb-like silence in the car. Everybody stared straight ahead, lost in their thoughts. My wife told me later that Sneha had been deeply affected, especially when she came to know that the woman had died.
So, how does one respond when a fortnight later Sneha was involved in a two-wheeler accident in Bangalore? She was travelling behind a classmate on a scooter on a Sunday morning. They took a right turn, a car came speeding up, hit them and sped away. My daughter was flung onto the pavement. She had scratches on her face, arms, elbows and knees.
Sneha called us from the hospital. My wife shed tears but she quickly regained control. We decided to leave immediately. At that time, there were no flights. The runway at Kochi airport was being re-carpeted. So, the flights were only in the early mornings or at night.
We took a train to Salem and then a bus. By the time we reached it was 11 p.m. Thankfully, a relative’s wife, a homoeopathic doctor, had handled matters. She went to the hospital, got my daughter discharged and took her to a better hospital. An X-ray revealed a crack in her pelvic bone. The healing had to be natural. A two-month rest was advised by the doctor. So, we brought her back to Kochi. Sadly, she missed many classes.
I did wonder how much of seeing the first accident played a role in my daughter getting involved in an accident of her own? Who knows how the mind works? The subconscious is a mystery.
In retrospect, I wished that we had not seen the accident.
When asked what he feared the most as Prime Minister, the late Harold Macmillan said, “Events, dear boy, events.”
Indeed, this seems to be right.
The repercussions of an event can lead one to sunlight or darkness.
Shevlin Sebastian is a journalist based in Kochi. He has published around 4500 articles over 30 years, most of them feature stories. He has worked in Sportsworld magazine, (ABP Group), The Week magazine (of the Malayala Manorama Group), the Hindustan Times in Mumbai and the New Indian Express in Kochi and in DC Books, Kottayam.