Death on the streets
Seven years ago, on a balmy September morning, I saw a man die. I was standing by the roadside at Satdobato, about to alight onto a waiting microbus that would take me to further south to Hattiban and my place of employment. A blue Pulsar motorbike came careening from Lagankhel, swerving madly around cars, buses, other motorbikes at the Satdobato chowk. Piloting was a male and riding pillion was a female. She held him close around the waist, her face off to the side and her hair blowing in the wind. They sped past me, throwing up clouds of dust in their wake. Perhaps awed by the audacity with which this man was navigating the streets, I watched entranced. From the opposite end, from up the Hattiban incline and down the long, narrow, straight road that leads right up to Satdobato chowk, came another motorcycle. The collision happened in a fraction of a second.
There wasn’t a single scream, just a metallic crunch as the motorbikes met each other head on, and a long drawn-out squeal of skidding tires. People gathered quickly, as they are wont to do anytime an accident happens. A nearby shopkeeper called the police and an ambulance. There were four people lying on the road–two boys and two girls, barely teenagers. I noticed a highlight streak in one of the girls’ hair, until I realised it was fresh, bright blood. Three of them were motionless while one boy was moving slightly. The boys were safer, helmeted and in jackets. The girls were much worse off, empty-headed and with exposed arms and legs. Blood was pooling and as I watched, the man moving slightly was attempting to sit up. His left leg jutted at an impossible angle and he flailed before falling back down. He lay like that for a while, his jacketed chest rising and falling with each laboured breath. And then, as I watched, unable to look away, he stopped. The chest no longer undulated and the limbs no longer twitched.
The ambulance arrived and carted away the bodies. The police arrived with a truck and hauled away the wreckage. Men stood around pontificating. Now that the bodies were gone, I moved closer, out of a macabre sense of curiosity. Dark smears from rubber tires marked the asphalt and pools of black oil shone in the morning light. The blood was already congealing, turning brackish. Teeth glinted like pearls.
Years later, when I would get on my scooter to ride to work and especially on the long, dark ride back home, this is what I would think of. The morning sun and the teeth in the road. I drove with caution, always afraid of a speeding vehicle from the opposite end. At night, I cursed every car, bus and motorbike that had their high-beams on, blinding them each time they passed. Night was also the time of the darting pedestrian, those vague, shapeless, bundles that would leap onto the streets, paying little heed to the tonnes of metal barrelling towards them.
On the Ring Road, the buses and trucks hold dominion and on the inner city streets, motorbikes and microbuses. Road rage boils and seethes. Once, at the Tinkune petrol pump, waiting for my turn to fill up my tank, a young man on a red motorbike cut in front of me. I protested, saying there was a line. Easily, he called me a name implying I had illicit relations with my mother and threatened to kill me. When I laughed it off, he got off his bike and took off his helmet, ready to swing it like a weapon of war. The altercation ended when I backed down and let him have his way. In Kathmandu, more than anywhere else, might is right.
This past week, two girls were crushed to death on the wide, freshly paved stretch of road from Maitighar to Koteswor. They were both in their 20s, fresh-faced and young. Stories appeared online detailing their last moments and their hopes and dreams. Each story like a dagger in the heart. Young lives crushed carelessly under the tires of buses and trucks. And that was just in Kathmandu. Outside, on the perilous highways, dozens of people die every week, at an average rate of between three-five a day. Like Deepak Thapa said in a recent column, these are war-time casualties.
And meanwhile, in the Capital city, the traffic police embarks on a campaign to name and shame pedestrians who cross haphazardly that fabled stretch from Maitighar to Koteswor. Photos are taken and shared mercilessly. Comments roll in about these peoples’ lack of civic sense and how ‘uneducated’ they are. Never mind the fact that zebra crossings are almost non-existent, that traffic lights never work, that no one ever gives way to pedestrians. Never mind the fact that public vehicles stop anywhere and everywhere, packing passengers like stuffing gundruk into a jar. Never mind that private cars and motorbikes pick up speed instead of slowing down when they see pedestrians on a crosswalk. In a city where muscle matters, those who walk are at the bottom; every one else has a metal machine to run you down.
The spectre of death is always over your shoulder if you make regular use of Kathmandu streets. One unlucky day and it could easily be you, lying on the street, bleeding out of your ear. This might not be a pleasant thought to start a morning with, but it is necessary. And it not just immediate death or injury from an accident but slow, cancerous death from the daily inhalation of toxic fumes from ancient buses and trucks and the thick dust that rises in eddies around roads under construction. As for me, I don’t ride a scooter to work anymore.
Published on The Kathmandu Post, December 13, 2014