Before I begin let me give a little caveat emptor: This Post Involves Some Violent Content, Viewer’s Discretion Advised.
India has been incredible, but there is too much to talk about. Here’s a story:
So I was on a weeklong stint of independent travel with Lauren during late October. Catching a sleeper train from Chennai (a story in itself) and the most expensive taxi ride of my life from Madurai we traverse our way across Tamil Nadu. We were headed into the Western Ghats, a lush mountain range riding India’s southwestern coast. The landscape starts shifting. The open planes, scorching heat, and occasionally jagged plateaus with sheer drops slowly metamorphosed into a steep and constant climb into moist greenery. We were entering Kerala and making our way to Munnar, a hill station up high in the hills. The region is surrounded with tea plantations (a lot of them are owned by Tata and other monopolies and subsidiaries…), we wanted to go on some hikes but for a lack of time settled for a pleasant stroll along a tranquil road.
Anyway, the story I want to tell here actually takes place as we are leaving Munnar. Our objective was to come down the western slope via bus to get to Kochi, a coastal city and transportation hub. From there we were to catch a train the next morning to Mangaluru. So we’re sitting on the bus. Of course there is no air-conditioning, as you’ll come to expect when you get out and really start traveling India. It’s quite nice actually because it means all of the windows are wide open. There is no glass but because the Ghats are a rainy region there are thick plastic accordion-curtains that pull down to keep the water out. There were times when we were careening down steep switchbacks in this open-air bus in a near torrential storm. I’m pretty sure there was lightening in the background. The shutters were down and the bus was a dark chasm; it was hot and my stomach was doing summersaults. (I actually really loved this whole ride)
Finally we make it down from the mountainside and enter the flatter stretch that reaches out to the ocean. I was looking out the window as we drove through a developed village. There was a red taxi about the size of a smart car railing on its horn behind us.* That’s normal, I thought, he’s just trying to pass us. He was driving erratically, swerving into oncoming traffic in attempts to pass us and veering back out of the way yards before collision. All the while he was honking. So it goes. Then there is a break in traffic and he accelerates, matching our speed for a second. Still honking, now examining the contents of our bus. The small car had at least four men squeezed into it (I once fit six into a smart car, it’s all about trunk space).
They sped up some more, veered in front of the bus, and slammed on the break. Still they honked. The car was blocking the road and our bus had to break hard to avoid a wreck. Some people looked around, no one on the bus seemed too interested. The men got out of the car and approached the bus driver’s window. I couldn’t hear, but I saw them gesticulating wildly. They were angry. They wanted the driver. They started banging on his door, pulling it open. They half pulled and he half jumped out of his seat, landing aggressively with two feet on the street. They started grabbing him, pushing and holding him. Some men in the bus stirred, got up and watched the scene unfold. No one appeared concerned. The bus driver pushed one of them away by the face and got back behind the wheel. The next man who tried to yank the driver out again got a heavy metal door slammed in their face. He stumbled, clutched his face, and fell backwards into the arms of his mates. They were angry and yelling. They rocked their fists and got back in their car. We all drove away. I could still see the red taxi two cars ahead of us. I asked the passenger next to me what had just happened. He grumbled, said it probably had to do with politics. This was a government bus, you see, and local elections were just around the corner. He didn’t have much to say, preferring to speak excitedly in Tamil to the other men on the bus.
I suppose the bus driver had been keeping tabs on the red taxi because pretty soon the bus was pulled over to the side of the road again. The taxi had stopped perpendicular to a wall and the bus was blocking it in. To its right was a chai walla and a fruit stand. There was a mass of 15 or so teenage boys in school uniform standing around. Men buying bananas and sipping chai. This time it was our bus driver who got out and approached the red vehicle. I looked into the car; two of the passengers had disappeared, halving their numbers. Our driver opened the taxi’s front door, grabbed that driver by the collar, pulled him half way out of the car, and closed the door on his head. There was no blood, not even a flesh wound. Mainly a strike on pride. Now both of the remaining men in the car got out, as did the ticket manager on our bus. There was a tad bit of a scuffle, mostly collar wielding, fist clenching, and teeth gnashing. Again, nothing too bad. But those damn schoolboys! They were all gathered around now, leering and jeering and cheering and egging the violence on. They took selfies. They smiled and waved at us in the bus. They saw that I was white, “gora gora!” they yelled, rushing to the window by me. They pointed at me, themselves, and, encouragingly, at the nearby scuffle. I shook my head and looked at Lauren. She was seated facing the road, on the opposite side of the excitement. I realize now that there had been only three women on that bus, Lauren included, and all three were sitting on the opposite side, either with their heads down or eyes out the window.
It was hectic and Lauren and I were pretty unsure what the best course of action was to be. A man with a briefcase got off and walked away. We decided to stay on the bus, to try and wait it out. No need to get off into this potentially explosive situation in the middle of nowhere with all of our pounds of clothes and books and variously accrued tchotchkes. Then the cops came, garbed in full khaki and maroon berets (did I mention Kerala is a communist state?). They spoke words. The two men from the taxi got back in their car, this time accompanied by a police officer. Our driver and ticket man got back on the bus with another officer. We all drove around the block to the police station. We waited.
The new word in the seats was that the bus driver had actually done something to personally offend the taxi driver’s sister. In defense of his familial honor, the taxi man had gathered some friends and plotted to overtake our bus. The foolishness here is that ours was a government bus. As was explained to me over and over again, this was significant. If it had been a private bus there would have been no police intervention, I was told. Well shit. But those two fools would probably be spending the next couple months in jail (unless they could produce a sufficient bribe), and honestly our bus driver might as well.
In the end, Lauren and I had to catch another bus into Kochi. A friend I made on our first bus came along too; he was rushing to catch a plane later that night. He assured me many things, most of which summed up to “this doesn’t usually happen in our country.” I believe him. There’s a first time for everything, I suppose.
*To be precise, the car was a Tata Nano, India’s “most affordable vehicle.” In attempts to cut down the price, the vehicle has been stripped of air bags, upholstery, and other “excesses.” (“Svelte” was the word my friend used to describe it as he whipped it up mountains, climbing into the foothills of the Himalayas a month and a half later)