It wasn’t long being in India that I had my first run in with traffic accidents. Traffic in India is chaotic at best. The rules of the road are simple: yield to that which is bigger than you. I knew going into India that given my propensity for accidents, there was a fair chance I’d be involved in one. What I certainly didn’t guess was just how hilariously bizarre it would turn out to be.
It happened one night as my mother-in-law was driving me to her “spiritual center” in downtown Patiala. My mother-in-law absolutely hates driving. She avoids driving every chance she gets and prefers obstinately to sit in the back seat while others are driving (presumably so she wouldn’t have to see the jingling behemoths barreling down on her comparable delicate bumper car). Unfortunately, one of the few occasions in which she has no choice but to drive is when she’s carting me around. And so it happened that we were driving down the street after dark and she turned to me with her watery cataracts and said quite plainly, “Jainee, III’m not so berry good at driving…”
No sooner had the words come out of her mouth than I heard (and perhaps more aptly felt) a very sudden and very final “THUMP!” The car halted immediately. It was as if we had run into a wall.
We looked at each other dazed. What had happened? Here we were, stopped like an island in the middle of the road; cows, motorbikes and trucks whirring around us like a river parting way for a stone. We stepped out of the car and cautiously examined the situation. What we found I almost couldn’t believe. My mother-in-law had managed quite amazingly to drive her little two-door car up on to a massive lane divider until the car had traveled so far up the divider that the wheels had lost contact with the street. In essence, she had beached her car like a whale.
I almost laughed aloud, but was struck then by the unsettling reality that I had been involved in a road accident in India with my elderly mother-in-law whom I was not so sure really grasped the urgency of the situation.
“Who do I call?” I wondered. My brain immediately tried assessing the situation, grasping at straws. Ludicrously, the very first thing that popped into my head was “Triple A!” “That’s right,” I thought “we’ll just call Triple A. No problem.” Well, except of course, there was no Triple A. “We’re in India, for crying out loud, it’s a third world country. We’re on our own!”
No sooner had this ridiculous monologue in my head begun, when to my great astonishment, twenty turbaned men of all different ages simply appeared around our little car. I turned to my mother-in-law, but she did not seem the least bit surprised. In fact, she almost looked exasperated, as if to say, “How long were you guys going to take”?
The men, quite jovially, took over the situation. They surrounded the car and after pulling on their beards, laughing and making at least a few jokes at our expense, decided on a course of action. One man got into the diver’s seat while the other nineteen flanked the car on both sides. They began rocking the little car back and forth and eventually lifted it off the ground and deposited it (not without a little screeching metal) onto the road. Amazingly the car appeared to be undamaged. We unceremoniously boarded the car and limped our way at single digit speeds back to my in-law’s home.
That night after recovering from the shock of the incident, I reflected on the stark difference between the Indian and American mentality. As an outsider traveling in a foreign country, I had not yet truly experienced what people often referred to as the ‘Indian community’. My experience up till then had been a collection of time spent alternately being ripped off via the “skin tax” or aggressively goggled at by Indian men.
I wondered at the different reactions when the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan. In the States, it seems, that we are all very individualistic, to the point that when we need help we turn to companies rather than friends or family. Of course this is a generalization, but when it comes to auto accidents we have Triple A. When it comes to burglaries and theft we have electronic security systems. When it comes to aging parents, we have nursing homes. And, most notably, when it comes to medical problems, we have health insurance (hopefully).
In high contrast, India has very few of those things. In fact the idea of health insurance, while in its nubile stages, is still very foreign to most Indians. If you are sick, you pay for a doctor. If you cannot afford a doctor, then you ask your family for help. If they cannot help you, well then, perhaps you’d visit a temple instead.
I make no claims to know which system is better, which culture has the solution. Where one country appears to have more stability, the other is lacking. But one thing is certain in all this: the two could not be farther apart.