death in the evening

His skin was the color of night, washed down a shade by the moon. I’d been reading, using a clip-on LED light, and I raised my head when Sujaya exclaimed in a way I’ve never heard from her before. Did he rush across the highway? Was he loitering in its middle? I saw him just when the taxi went into him, the driver cursing in his breath. The moments after that are a daze. Did the driver back up? What motion caused the multiple knocks I heard? I got off and rushed to the rear, expecting the body there, run over, and lingered a few moments looking around in the dim of the tail lights; but he was lying ahead of the car, curled up, foetal, and the volume of rich blood in the pool of light was disproportionate to his emaciated body. He was young. A soiled green piece of underwear over his privates was his entire clothing.

It happened on the Bangalore–Hassan HighwayVehicles began to stop, and a driver in whites called an ambulance, and some young men urged me to tie a cloth round the wound. A portion of the cloth, a cleaning cloth that my driver handed me, fell over his eyes and the crowd recoiled and asked me testily to fold it back. Except for that moment of tension, they spoke in hushed tones. But the truth is that neither they nor I knew how to handle a man who had bled like that, and I wondered as I fumbled with him whether I was getting anywhere. When a burst of fresh blood gurgled from his mouth I knew I’d lost him, even if he was still warm. I lost my mind as well, I think, because I tried to feel his pulse in the pit of his chest. There was a thick film of sweat in it.

The ambulance wasn't coming, so we took him to the hospital in a rickshaw that has stopped to inquire. We were four men in that little thing. The ambulance passed us when we were two minutes from the hospital, its beacon and its siren both surprisingly loud.

The attendant brought out the wheelchair first, took it back upon the rickshaw driver’s advice, and brought out the stretcher. He and I fumbled with the body, and he announced as we loaded it on the stretcher that the man was dead. The doctor on night duty came from a ward somewhere and he too confirmed that the man was “no more.” I went out and sat on a plastic chair. After a few moments I called the rickshaw driver from the corner in which he hovered and paid him and asked him to go. A policeman arrived and asked me and the taxi driver to go with him to the police station. The doctor asked me to take a shot and then changed his mind and asked me if I have any cuts or bruises and said it is okay, I don’t need a shot, and so I washed and went out with the policeman who was alert but also at ease. The driver followed me. He was so struck by fear he was pooped. I noticed that his uniform whites were as spotless as when we had started the journey.

The Inspector in the police station was already reporting our accident over the phone to his boss. He asked the driver a question without cupping the phone, and, when the driver took a second longer to reply he shouted the question at him but cooled after that. He was rough when he asked him for his driver’s license but he changed his tone immediately after I interrupted and told him that the driver was a good man and that he was not driving fast, and we all saw the man too late.

The inspector’s boss sent a message asking that I should call him. He consoled me after I finished the story: “Accidents happen. You did well to bring the man into a hospital, and not run away.” I told him I had to go to Hassan right away, because I had a wedding to attend tomorrow morning. He sent a separate message asking his men to arrange another cab for me.

I hesitated to give my contact details to his staff. The hall was brightly lit, but in the lock-up cells it was dark. One of the two cells was for women and was empty. In the cell for men, the prisoners sat on the floor with their legs spread out before them, bored and lost. They had done a dacoity some days ago and had been quickly apprehended. Two children who seemed like prisoners huddled outside the lock-up in a corner, shivering in the warm night, though they didn’t seem afraid, only they were huddled too tight in the corner. They had clear faces, fair, and they looked at no one, and none of the many policemen were alert to them either.

The office-maid was talkative. “That man was a thikla,” she said of the dead man, meaning he was deranged. “And he has no relatives.” That was the assurance the men on the highway had given our driver. “Go to the police station,” they had told him. “He has no relatives, and he is loose.” He had followed my rickshaw into town in his car.

When I continued toward Hassan, in another cab, I asked someone if I shouldn’t go back and inquire about his funeral. “No need,” I was assured. “The government will take care of that.” I wondered if I’d be able to sleep, but I shouldn’t have worried because I was sleeping even when the harsh morning light had flooded my hotel room, until eight o’clock.

I didn’t tell anyone at the wedding of what happened, fearing they’d see an omen in it. I’m still arranging my emotions of that night, sifting them to see how much was a show of grief, how much was real, and what kind of a man I was in that incident.