I'm dozing off and on as Manish drives, zipping us ever-closer to Wardha where I'm supposed to meet someone. My eyes open at some point, and we're about to pass an overturned Trax. A small clump of people around it is all that registers, I tell Manish to stop but he says it's just another accident, doesn't look serious, we should drive on. My mind fuzzily tries to respond, but then we're alongside the accident and being waved down by a young man in checked shirt and barefoot. He runs around and leaps into the passenger side and says, urgently, "Drive on! I've got to go register a police complaint!"
"What about?" I ask, my mind getting close to fully awake by now.
"Accident! Bicycle on the road, swerved to avoid it ... palti ho gaya [we overturned]! Have to go to Wardha to register a complaint!"
"You the driver?" we ask him. No real reply, but he keeps urging us to drive on. Clearly, he is the driver.
But I'm now thinking a mite more clearly, and I say no, we're not driving on anywhere until I figure out what's going on. We stop and get out; the young man rushes over to a motorcylist and, last seen, has persuaded him to take him to Wardha.
First person I see is another young man, blood all over his face and clothes, but otherwise (!) looks fine. Manish and I lead him over to our car to give him some water. He bends and looks at himself in the side mirror, then straightens with a surprised smile on his face. "Bahut lag gaya, boss!" he tells me. I say, it's not that bad, here, have this water. He points to a deep cut just below his nose, it looks deep but even I can tell it's really just the skin that's cut.
Next, I pull out my hanky, wet it, and clean off his face. "You don't mind?" he asks me. What's there to say?
We walk back to the accident. Already there are more people, including several running up along the side of the road. Strong smell of kerosene; it turns out the Trax was being run (illegally) on kerosene (very common hereabouts, says Manish). Someone is draining the kerosene from the tank, I hope just as a safety measure, and not as a thief.
In the fierce sun to one side sits a middle-aged woman, looking dazed and clutching her chest and shoulder alternately. No blood, but in some pain clearly. There's a man with her. We lift her to her feet slowly and take her into the shade, give her some water. She looks like she will faint, but somehow doesn't. "Have to take her to the hospital," says the man. Put her in our car, I say, we'll take her. Just tell us where, we don't know Wardha.
About now I notice that she also reeks of kerosene. Somehow, when the Trax overturned, she got drenched in it.
We put her in the back of our car, the man gets in beside her, and we head for Wardha, only 5-6 km ahead. Like in Ahmedabad in January, she is wincing and groaning at every bump in the road, clutching her breast, trying but not managing to find a comfortable position. He tells us that this was a regular taxi service to the town of Seelu, and she was a daily passenger on it, going to work. Going to Seelu himself on his motorbike, he happened on this accident just after it happened, and found this woman, a distant relative of his wife's.
At the first clinic we take her to, the doctor takes a quick look and shakes his head. "I can't do anything for her here," he says. "Admit her in the hospital right away." As he says this, someone brings in another Trax victim, a muscular young man clutching his arm and moaning steadily.
"What's that smell?" asks the doctor.
At a small hospital nearby, the man and the woman disappear into a room. The woman at the desk asks me, "What's her name?" Don't know, I say. I just brought her here. Suddenly, the young driver rushes in with two other young men. Hey, I say to Manish, that's the driver! They immediately turn around and rush out again, then one of the other two comes back to me and says in a whisper, "Boss, please don't say he's the driver like that, out loud! You know how it is, don't you?"
Actually, I don't know. But Manish fills me in. That guy must be the owner, the driver probably was driving without a license, there's the matter of the kerosene -- so the driver will likely be in some bad trouble and the owner is trying to sort things out. The owner comes back again and tells Manish: "You have one of the passengers with you? Please write down whatever you have to pay, I'll pay you back." He actually seems sincere.
We have to take the lady -- her name is Sangeeta -- for an XRay. She's had a painkiller injection by now, but is still finding it difficult to walk easily. At the XRay clinic, there are several more victims from the Trax, including a man and his two young sons. The boys are miraculously without a scratch.
The owner turns up again, and again says he will pay, and this time gives us his name and phone numbers. He says to me, pointing to the lady, "She's my regular customer. I feel bad."
The man who's related by marriage to her spends a few minutes asking about me and Manish. "You're from Bombay?" he says in wonder, and then turns to tell her, and one or two others present, that I'm from Bombay. "Bombay, it's like a dream city," he says. "I've never been there, but for everyone it is like a dream."
Back at the small hospital, they admit Sangeeta. She is still clutching her chest and shoulder alternately, but she is actually able to smile weakly at me as she lies down on her bed. Seems like a good sign, so I say my goodbyes.
The room is filled with the smell of kerosene.
Postscript (Mar 2): Just called the man who was with Sangeeta. He reports that she has a "minor hairline fracture and a major fracture" in her chest, but is in the hospital, resting and recovering.