I was walking back to he home of our hosts with three boys who were equal parts impressed and appalled by the amount of money an American makes in a year, through the dark streets of Karad that were peopled by the usual variety of Indian traffic and complicated by the presence of a ditch and some feeble attempts at construction signage, leaving only a narrow isthmus for cars, rikshaws, scooters, and bicycles and pedestrians to pass each other. Passing was achieved by a mutual unspoken agreement to compete: one lurches forward, another revs and inches, each watching carefully the progress of the other like a stalking lion, or a chess player. At one point, one acquiesces, by what criteria I’m not sure, and another advances, smaller vehicles filling the spaces left between larger ones, and we pedestrians filling yet smaller ones, though not the smallest, which are left for dogs and men with no legs on tiny carts with improbably small wheels that seem to scrape more than roll.
It’s the same with right of way and passing on the narrow, wreck-ridden national highway on the route out of Karad back to Pune. The bus shifts quickly into the oncoming lane. If it’s immediately obvious to the driver that he has to strike a retreat (and this is only the case if failing to retreat immediately would result in an head-on collision), he does, backing off on the gas until he can swing tightly behind the cloud of exhaust billowing out of the lorry (truck) lumbering along only slightly more slowly than the bus, which is to say, about the speed of a bicycle, but with enough noise and thick exhaust that it all seems somehow faster.
As soon as the oncoming vehicle has made its presence known with a rumble and a rush of air and then exhaust, the bus lurches to the right again and slowly begins to overtake the lumbering lorry within 40 yards of a hairpin turn that obscures any possibility of empirical knowledge of approaching vehicles; this is when you decide which of many gods in which to place your faith; everyone else has already decided. This is also when you remove your eyes from the road and attempt to read the stenciled Hindi signs on the interior of the bus.
Samachaar: what was that again? Oh, right – news. It’s a newspaper rack, empty. It’s so decrepit that it obviously hasn’t been used in years. But, then, by all appearances–except for being in motion and full of passengers–the bus hasn’t been used in years either. You catch sight of the driver turned fully around to gauge how close he can shave his return to his lane, then he returns his eyes to the front just as he lurches the bus back to where it belongs, narrowly avoiding shaving the paint off the front right corner of an oncoming lorry. Then the brakes groan and we all pitch forward. The bus comes nearly to a stop behind another lorry, which then swings into the other lane as soon as two cars squeeze by, and we can now all see the reason for the sudden brakes: an oxcart trundling along at its own more sane pace, oxen and driver seemingly oblivious to the calamitous cyclone of big steel boxes circulating around them. He trusts in god. The drivers all do. You can see the picture of god painted vividly on the crown of the approaching lorry’s cab as the bus swings again into the approaching lane to pass the oxcart. Shiva, of course, god of creation and destruction.
Now is the time to regret that you did not drop a coin for the priest at the Shiva temple you visited months ago in Rajasthan. Shiva fast approaches. The truck says, “Goods Carrier” and “Shiva Transport.” You expect that on the rear bumper it says, “Horn OK Please,” and that the side-panels are painted with lotuses and bright weave-patterns to rival the gaudiest shrine. Is it too late to propitiate Shiva? Is that oncoming image just paint, or does Shiva inhabit it, as he was said to inhabit the lingam in that temple? Is diesel exhaust a sufficient stand-in for incense?
The bus lumbers ahead, Shiva lumbers toward us, but must have braked or else he would have destroyed us by now, and the bus lurches back into its own lane again, if by “own,” one means proper, since it seems to spend as much time in the oncoming traffic lane as its own, disregarding the sign that scolds, “Observe Lane Discipline.” The lorry goes by, not having stopped, not actually seeming to have slowed. Another brush with doom gone by, another test of faith. Everybody first, everybody pushing forward at a pace hindered only by the narrow, pot-holed road, and everybody, this time, blessed by Shiva’s forbearance, or perhaps by his winning another game of dice.
We won’t be in tomorrow’s newspaper: 73 killed in bus mishap, along with 2 foreigners. With Shiva’s blessing, we’ll live long enough to return to a world with lane discipline and seat-belts and yes, where the gods are less numerous and less moody, but yes, also, like here, the number of deaths eventually equals the number of births.