Calum McSwiggan

Highwaymen

In Eat on June 9, 2013 at 9:17 am

Slums in India

‘You’ve seen this all before, life left on the shore, but we’re smiling all the same, you sail away again.’

– Ellie Goulding

Just as I was told there were no seats for tourists left on the train, I was cornered by three angry looking Indian men and told to hand over my bag. Determined to not get robbed a second time, I ducked out of their way, sprinted out of the train station, and went off in search of a safer way to my next destination.

I only had two days left in India, and I wanted to head to the Taj Mahal before catching my flight out of there. It seemed excessive to hail down a private driver to take me four hours across the country, but by western standards it was cheap, and I was running out of options.

We were driving for less than an hour when the traffic began to slow and eventually grinded to a complete halt. I craned my neck to see what was happening and saw flames licking the sky in the distance, an uproar of screaming and yelling filling the air, and black smoke that came down on us so thickly that I couldn’t see any further than three cars ahead.

We were only stationary for a few moments before I saw them, appearing from the slums at the side of the road, darting through the cars and disappearing into the thick black smoke, leaping from roof to roof in search of their victims. They wore bandanas over their faces, and moved with such quickness that they could easily distract lorry drivers while their comrades hopped in the back and raided them of their valuables. I called them the highwaymen. They were as mystifying as they were frightening, and it was only with their demonic presence that the highway truly came to life.

Children appeared and began weaving in-between the cars, selling bottles of murky water or falling to their knees in a plea for food; cattle broke free from one of the lorries and began wandering between the cars, hungrily pressing their faces up against windows and clumsily breaking off wing mirrors; a camel began calling out in desperation before choking on the fumes and collapsing in the heat of the ever thickening smoke; and packs of wild monkeys piled out of the slums like termites, and began raiding anything in sight in search of scraps of food.

It was chaos, we were no longer cars stuck in traffic, but a hectic village market, rife with crime and alive with trade. Music blared and fights broke out, a lorry driver waved his arms furiously as he was pulled from his vehicle and stripped of his treasures, and everyone was acting like this was normal.

Keep your doors locked and don’t make eye contact with anyone, my driver told me sternly, locking down the doors and turning off the engine. I was suddenly very aware that I was a perceived rich white boy in poverty stricken India, and things were probably about to get very, very real.

The cloud of smog thickened until I couldn’t see anything but the inside of the car. The chaos ensued, I could still hear the ruckus raging outside and the occasional footsteps as somebody leapt onto the roof of our vehicle before disappearing back into the mist. My heart was racing in my chest, and just as I leapt back in fear as a bloodied silk wrapped hand slammed against my window, the driver turned back on the engine and we slowly began to move.

We weaved amongst the vacated cars, winding and spiralling out of the slow moving traffic, swerving past two cars ablaze and a mourning family, until we were eventually out of the fog. We drove full speed, hurtling down the highway, away from the scene of the accident, and onwards to our destination.

I caught sight of a tuk-tuk speeding alongside of us, much smaller than the car I was in, and yet loaded with at least thirty people exposed to the luciferous heat. I slumped down in my seat, I felt ashamed to be cruising along in this air-conditioned vehicle while they were exposed to all the elements, and just as I closed my eyes to try to strike out their disgusted glances, we ran into something full speed.

My seat belt sliced through my neck as I was tossed forward out of my seat and slammed back down again. There was a loud thud and then the harrowing sound of screaming as the front and back wheels of the car rolled over something, sending us spinning across the highway. Just as the driver regained control of the vehicle, I turned around to see a writhing mass of limbs lying in the road, desperately trying to crawl to safety, leaving a trail of blood and entrails behind it.

Pull over! I yelled to my driver but he just shook his head. It was just a dog sir, don’t worry, he told me calmly, one of his eyes fixated on a gang of masked men at the side of the road. I was furious, swearing myself blue as I pleaded with him to stop the car, but he wouldn’t. I was sick of this country abusing its animals, but as the bloodied dog and its cries faded into the distance, I knew he hadn’t pulled over out of fear.

The car jolted again and began making some strange noises before the air conditioning cut out. We met our karma as the car became an inferno and eventually came to a rolling stop a few miles down the road.

I looked into the slums for signs of life as my driver hesitantly climbed out and began to assess the damage. He told me to stay inside, but I didn’t. I climbed out to see the bonnet dashed with spatters of red, one of the headlights completely smashed, and the bumper soaked with blood. I turned back to the slums and waited for the highwaymen to appear, to rob me of everything but the shirt on my back, but they didn’t. It was a small child that first appeared from the darkness.

He gasped and yelled something behind him, and then scores of people poured out of the slums, speaking loudly and quickly as they began to examine the vehicle’s damage before setting straight to work on repairs. It amazed me that, these people who lived so simply, in literal heaps of garbage, in houses built from scrap metal and cardboard, had the ability to fix something as complex as a car.

They procured fruits and drinks and even a deck chair for me to sit in while they set about rectifying the problems, children came running to see the white man who’d come to visit, and they took endless photographs with me, on a mish mash of cameras seemingly stolen from different eras.

These weren’t the same ruthless highwaymen I’d seen loot and pillage our convoy, these were generous kind hearted people who wanted to do nothing but help, and I felt I had to do something in return. I offered to help the women as they fetched buckets of water from the other side of the slums, and began teaching the children to draw with some pencils and a sketchpad I had in my bag. They looked at the pencils like they had never seen such an instrument in their lives, and as we drew together, they laughed wildly and clung to me as if I were their brother.

I was stranded at the side of the road for over four hours, and I’d never been made to feel so welcome in my whole life. Just like my first night in India, I had taken a broad brush and assumed all of the people living within the slums were dark-hearted criminals, but now I’d had my eyes opened to their kindness, even their admiration for the colour of my skin couldn’t outweigh my admiration for the colour in their hearts.

We left with just enough time to catch the sunset at the Taj Mahal, but I knew I was never going to find the true India there, because I’d already found it. Right here with the locals, stricken with poverty but always smiling, was where the real India lay.

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