Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Overreacting to an (Allegedly) Near-Death Experience

We were in a 30-seater bus – something between a kidnapper van and a Winnebago – thousands of feet above sea level in the Himalayan range, absolutely certain that we were going to die.

I know this because I heard the bus driver whisper, “I think we’re going to die,” and with his smart woven cap and clipped mustache, he didn’t seem the dramatic type.

This is what happens when you try to pray at ancient temples. One time my grandmother’s foot swelled up to the size of a watermelon as we trekked to a solid gold avatar of a family God. Another time I almost fainted, trying to complete the requisite one hundred rounds of a sacred statue.

But nothing was as bad as this particular stretch of a family vacation in the mountains, because there were 25 of us, and a huge box of mangos; suitcases with clothes meant for the whole year; and huge metal tins of messy stuffed paranthas and stinky chutneys that constitute portable travel food in India.

It was a month long family trip, I remember, that had been planned weeks in advance by my mother and her four sisters. I was ten years old, just growing out of a terrible haircut. I was the youngest, with my Limited Too cerulean shorts and butterfly clips.

We had hired a driver from Delhi onward, who, with a hardly nourished co-pilot named Raju, would navigate the 30 or so destinations we were told to see.

Until then, things had gone smoothly because were in safe territory – four star hotels, big cities, tour guides and unlimited chai and pakoras. We had the Mary Poppins bag of food, and we spent our free time singing Ricky Martin’s “Maria”, and imitating the Buddhist chanting that we picked up in the smaller villages. I still remember my beautiful aunt with one hand over her mouth singing, “Lubalubalubaluba boy boy boy boy,” right in front of the monks-in-training, sweet-faced Tibetan pre-teen boys wearing the orange and maroon robes of austerity.

Then there was this: A trip to visit one of the oldest temples in the vicinity, according to the people trying to get us to stay in a nearby hotel. And so we piled in the car with all of our baggage, and set off.

Halfway up the mountain our bus was trying to inch up a steep bend when the tires started to spin furiously – coughing up a smattering of tiny rocks and sand from the dirt margins of the road. Our trusty vehicle began to slide back, unable to catch hold or move forward, straight toward the unobstructed cliff that marked the end of the mountainside.

Raju jumped out of the truck with a grin and sashayed to the edge of the cliff to see how many inches we had left to back up. His calm confidence kept our family in their seats, chatting about how a friend’s son we had met in the last city was handsome, and more importantly, fair-skinned, and should probably marry into our family at some point. But then we all looked back to see Raju trying to adjust football-sized rocks behind the wheels to procrastinate our imminent death, and in that moment, I knew we were gonners.

My mother raced to the bus door, trying to jump out in some sort of heroic  attempt at safety. But the driver stopped her. “Madam, I have kids too, don’t you think I would tell you if you should be getting out of the van?”

She looked back at us and sat down in the front, smack next to the driver. Note about my mother: she once started a mini-riot at an Air India counter when the travel agents didn’t show up on time and we were close to missing our flight.

The next few moments were the slowest of my life – stretched out, panoramic seconds in which I looked at each of my cousins and aunts as people should do in their last breaths, taking in the prominent maroon bindis between their eyebrows, the orange tinge of henna in their graying hair. I said a silent prayer in my mind, one of the only ones I know, and simultaneously tried to locate the windows that had working handles.

It was some point in this film reel memory that our driver had whispered, “I think we’re going to die”, although no one remembers him saying this but me. I looked at him in the rearview mirror, trying to employ my psychic faculties to give him one last push.

And then there was a revving of the engine and sudden lurch forward. Raju made a loud whoop – the sweetest sound to ever escape a brown man’s lips (later in the trip he would be arrested for steeling some other tourists’ money), and gave the bus a whack as if he were hitting someone’s bottom with a towel. The wheels had turned just enough to gain momentum and the inches between us and the cliff turned to feet, and then to meters.

Our co-pilot raced up and jumped onto his seat like a cowboy on a rodeo bull and the bus sped up to the top of the hill in one piece. We climbed out of the van, slipped off our shoes at the entrance of the temple and went in to pray to the goddess. After all, we were alive because of her.

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