Old Hand by Lu Barnham
Beyond the trickling fountains of the Green Café lies the chaos of Ahmedabad proper, the 16th century Sidi Saiyyed mosque just visible beyond the throng. Famous for its latticework windows, intricately carved with trees and flowers, it’s one of the city's most beloved monuments. It's only fifty metres away but traffic in Ahmedabad is a seething, rushing, sprawling organism and I am not looking forward to crossing the road. In fact, I'm stalling. I order a strong cappuccino, in the hope it might give me the energy to make the crossing. The population here is at least 5.5 million and it seems like everyone’s on the road today. Some silly part of me thinks I'm going to end up like a smooshed margherita pizza, spread across the paving. But this is my fifth time in India. I should be an old hand by now.
I stand, surveying the relentless traffic. I wait for maybe a minute. In modern life, we're wired to feel like that's an eternity. Traffic is one way but piling in from two different roads, like two separate schools of fish joining in an ocean current. I must watch both to time my move, and yet there is no good time to make a move. Spaces exist for a mere second before becoming swallowed again in a spume of autos and cars and bikes. I've learned by now that without a certain bold assertiveness, you can stand by the side of the road in Ahmedabad for the rest of your life. They'll find your skeleton piled there, looking gape-mouthed at the watch dangling off its bony wrist. I've done this countless times, I remind myself. I pick my moment. I pick it wrong.
The stream of traffic closest to me does indeed have a gap. I clear this part nicely and begin to congratulate myself. Unfortunately, the next section is faster than I predicted and includes a bus. An odd rule emerged from my previous experiences of Indian road-crossing; an idea that despite how much it looks like you’re destined to become a pancake, things just mould, stretch and bend, and somehow pedestrians make it through unscathed. I’m not so sure this outlook applies this afternoon.
Forced to stand and wait in the middle of the road, with both flows of traffic converging like a sangam, I desperately remind myself that this is a country where vehicles, cows and people fight for road space constantly – if the cows can do it, so can I, though I lack the important distinction of being sacred. The bus is problematic. The driver has, fortunately, seen me but the vehicle's great length, relative slowness and the angle as which it takes the corner conceals my appearance from all the impatient vehicles beside and behind it. As each swerves to squeeze past the bus, they're given mere milliseconds to spot the (now somewhat pale) foreigner standing in the middle of the road. I grit my teeth in recognition of my own hopelessness – all I can do is stand here and wait to be hit, because I will, I realise, be hit, by whichever vehicle is the first to have too little time to react.
An autorickshaw swerves at the last minute. Behind it, a man on a white motorbike is coming fast, seeing me too late – I clench my muscles because this is it. He hits the breaks but we still collide. I feel the force and heat of the rubber on the front tyre slamming my right shin, the wheel still revolving. I can tell the back wheel has left the ground by a foot or so; I feel the weight of the bike change as it presses against my bone. The biker and his vehicle tip a little way upwards then bump and bounce back to the ground. He's still in his seat. I'm still on my feet, though I've been knocked a metre or so back. Time stands absolutely still as we wait, wide-eyed, to see if this is only us, or a pile up. Will the vehicles behind have time to react? Amazingly, they do. They make a path around us on both sides. They flow on, indifferent. The action, briefly plunged in dramatic slow motion, returns to real time; sound, briefly muted, returns. My heart drumming, traffic whirring. The driver and I stare at one another, paralysed by shock. And then he runs his hands through his hair, and hangs his head emotionally, rubbing his forehead, deeply stressed. I'm by his side. He exhales in loud, terrified relief. The colour has drained from his face. My own has returned, a deep, shameful blush. I'm overwhelmed with guilt.
'Are you ok?' I ask, 'I'm so sorry. It's not your fault. You couldn't see me.'
He leans his head against the visor on the front of his bike, breathing deeply, trying to compose himself. Physically, he's fine, but he looks a little like he might cry. I know it would be inappropriate to touch his shoulder so I pat the front of his bike reassuringly.
'Please don't worry. It's alright.' I can't stand here forever. I begin to look for gaps in the traffic. The biker snaps out of his funk.
'Are you ok?' he calls after me.
'I'm fine,' I reassure gently. My impatience put not only myself but others in danger. Every time that poor guy drives around that corner, he's going to get chills, remembering this. I feel like a jerk. I only have one more day left in India – if I concentrate all my energy on not killing myself or anyone else, I might make it to the plane in one piece.
I’m dazed as I study the rose-coloured stone of the Sidi Saiyyed mosque, ignoring the increasingly hot throbbing emanating from beneath my right knee.
'Hey you!' calls a merry autorickshaw driver, as he spots me rounding the corner, 'you should watch where you're going!' No kidding.