Calum McSwiggan

The Indian Highway

In Eat on May 5, 2013 at 9:51 am

Elephant in India

‘But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all? And if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?’

– Bastille

Be careful white boy, the handsome Israeli boys told me as we boarded the train to Madrid. I had just told them I was heading to Delhi, and after giving me a quick look up and down they concluded that I wouldn’t last five minutes. I desperately wanted them to look past the colour of my skin, I wanted to convince them that I was as savvy as they come, and so I began bombarding them with stories to try and prove my experienced traveller status.

I told them about the time I’d accidentally taken a train to Moscow, how I’d gotten into a fight in Budapest, how I was left stranded after my flight to New York was cancelled, and how I’d had my drink spiked in Munich. The worst had already happened, I explained, but they just laughed even harder.

I hope you’re right, white boy, one of the boys said patting me on the shoulder, but it’s a whole different world over there, man. I swallowed hard but assured them that I would be fine. It seemed everyone was giving me the same advice, my boss, my parents, my friends, even the boy who gave me the lovebiteeveryone was imploring me to stay safe. I thought about those words as the plane soared over the Arabian Sea and prepared to land. I was confident I’d be fine, I could take care of myself, I mean, how bad could it be?

 I wandered into the airport terminal in the dead of the night and began scouting for the international arrivals gate, and as I walked past the dozens of people queueing to enter on Indian passports, I quickly found myself to be the only lone foreigner.  I was puzzled as to why everyone was staring at my pale white flesh, I didn’t understand where all my fellow ex pats and tourists were, there was just me, and suddenly I felt terribly alone.

The glass doors to the exit slid open and I stepped out into the warm smoke filled night, coughing and spluttering and drawing the attention of the masses. Like letting fresh blood drop into a shark tank, they turned on me within seconds, trying to sell me things, their prying fingers pulling at my pockets, reaching for my backpack, and pulling me this way and that.

They were suffocating me, and had my saviour not appeared on the horizon, I probably would have fallen into blind panic. He stood atop his radio taxi in the distance, hand extended generously, waving and calling me over. With a beaming smile he shooed away the masses and placed my suitcase into the trunk of his car. Climbing inside, I found myself sat with the driver and two other men, it wasn’t until we began to drive that I knew something was terribly wrong.

They all spoke in Hindi loudly and quickly, pointing at me and laughing, and when I asked them why the meter was switched off, they claimed that it was broken. How much then? I asked, handing over the address of my hotel. One thousand rupees, the driver answered quickly and without thought. No, I laughed, thinking I was very clever having looked up the price beforehand, I won’t pay any more than five hundred. The car slowed slightly as he turned around and glared at me, his gentle features now pointed, and told me that he wasn’t in the mood for bartering, and that I could pay his price or get out.

How about seven hundred, then? I said, not wanting to have to go back to the suffocating mob of the airport. It was 4am, I didn’t mind being ripped off, I just wanted to get to my hotel quickly and safely. He begrudgingly agreed and we turned off onto the hectic Indian Highway. Tuk-tuks, rickshaws, and trucks loaded with farm animals swerved in and out of the path of the taxi, honking their horns incessantly, and bumping into us from all sides. I marvelled at the wondrous paintwork and incredible writing displayed on all the vehicles and I flinched as a pack of wild dogs chased a famished child into the path of a moving school bus loaded with cattle. I was so caught up in the insanity that I barely noticed the driver holding out his hand and demanding over and over that I pay him.

I handed over the 700 rupees without thought and turned my attention to an elephant that was stealing from a lantern lit roadside fruit stand. Seven thousand, we agree seven thousand, the driver said, interrupting my wonder and forcing me to turn back to face him.  Seven thousand, he repeated now raising his voice. I laughed and truthfully told him that I didn’t even have that much, but he only got louder and more aggressive. Seven thousand! he yelled, jerking the car abruptly, scraping the side of a van loaded with chickens and sending them berserk, flapping their wings in wild panic as some of their eggs escaped into the low lit neon madness.

The man sat to my right reached for my wallet just as I snatched it out of the driver’s reach and retreated to my corner of the taxi. Seven thousand or you get out, the man said calmly, reaching over, popping open the lock, and gesturing outside the fast moving vehicle. Blaring Hindi music and the sound of screeching horns filled the air as he forced open my door onto the moving highway and demanded I hand over my money.

I only have three thousand, I lied in a state of absolute terror, just managing to close my door as an  entire family whizzed by on a single moped. He demanded that I show him my wallet, and when I refused, he knew I was holding back. The driver swerved into the path of a lorry loaded with camels and sleeping women and pulled over into the unlit darkness at the side of the motorway.

Out, he said with a new found calmness, and everyone but me climbed out of the vehicle. I sat perfectly still, clutching my backpack for dear life, and watching their every moment, clueless of what was going to happen next. Seven thousand, the driver yelled again, a last warning before he carefully lifted my suitcase out of the trunk and hurled it into the ditch beside the road. I climbed out of the vehicle to try to stop him, but as soon as I did, they were on top of me.

They demanded my wallet, stripping it of my Indian Rupees, Thai Baht, British Pounds, and Euros, and leaving me with just one American dollar before getting back into their car and driving away. I didn’t even attempt to join them; I knew they weren’t taking me any further. They disappeared into the screaming hell of the Indian Highway, and left me alone in the darkness. I stood in the path of screeching moving traffic, and closed my eyes, praying for a happy ending that I knew might not ever come…

This is the first part of a three part series, you can read the next part here, and the final part here.

  1. This sounds terrifying.

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