Sometimes cultural lessons come from the most surprising corners, when you least expect them.
Officially, the Bombay-Pune Road is known as National Highway 4, a paved two-lane blacktop with impossible switchbacks, unbanked turns, and deadly drop-offs that make you pray for a guardrail. Traffic gushes and careens: cars, public buses, and colorful hand-painted lorries skid around the turns, pass each other on the left and the right, and honk constantly in the blaring staccato that is the symphony of Indian roads. Most lorries bear images of Shiva or Ganesh or some other Indian deity, evoked perhaps to protect them in the game of chicken they play continually against all other drivers.
I had heard of this stretch of highway before I came to India. Years ago, my friend Roshani’s mother had been involved in a collision with a lorry on the Bombay-Pune Road. The family driver was killed, and her mother and two sisters were all injured, one bedridden for life. And they were not alone. From 1996 to 2000, the Indian government estimated an average of over 4,100 accidents per year on this 170-kilometer stretch of NH4—3,300 of them head-ons.
We had landed in Bombay two days before; we were heading for Pune for a week’s filming on a project about the spread of technology in outlying areas of the world, including Costa Rica and Alaska. India was our third and final stop. Pune (or Poona, as it was known under British colonial rule), had several technical universities and was home to many information technology companies. We were going there to interview people.
Sushil, our local production manager, had impressed us with his thoughtful diligence in a series of flowery emails during the weeks leading up to our arrival. We were curious why he had arranged for a full-size, 60-passenger charter bus to take us to Pune, despite the fact that there were only about ten in our party. Randy, Larry, Jon, and I were the American film crew. The rest were from the Indian company we had hired to help us produce on the subcontinent: Sushil and his sidekick, Manju; production coordinators Om and Mangal; our chief lighting technician, Heera; and a production assistant we referred to as L.C., because he was a bit of a loose cannon, boisterously offering us beer every morning at 8 o’clock (it turned out their last international production job had been with a German crew), or providing scalding hot black coffee undrinkable in any climate, especially in hot, muggy India (and then discarding it when I set it down to cool). The rest of the lighting crew traveled separately.
The occupants of the bus also included the driver and his boy, a sort of helper-apprentice present on every truck or bus on the Indian roads. The boy helped the driver stow cargo or passengers, hopped out to guide the bus into or out of tight spots, washed windows, and ran for snacks and drinks.
On the way to Pune, we were struck by the number of accidents at the side of NH4. Lots of vehicles, mostly lorries, had smashed into rock walls, fallen into ravines, or flipped onto their backs like marooned turtles. Some were rusted-out hulks close by the side of the road. Others looked as if they might have skidded off the road moments before. Why were so many wrecks left in place? we wondered Didn’t anyone want them? Were there still bodies in them? The disorientation of driving on the left side added to the edginess for us.
NH4 was scary enough, but the situation was complicated by the construction of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway on a roughly parallel route. Mumbai is the original city name for Bombay, the latter a creation of the British Raj. Though the city has recently been named Mumbai again, both names are still used in modern India.
Environmentalists fighting the expressway had estimated its construction would destroy 800 species of flora, 80 species of butterflies and the Giant Malabar Squirrel. Building had dragged on for five years, and it was far from finished at that time. Today, the expressway is a six-lane superhighway that speeds commuters between the two cities. On the day we drove to Pune in 2000, however, it was a series of short bursts of modernity set in the ancient hills, often separated from the old road by detours that led us bouncing over fields of gravel, rock, mud, and dusty dirt.
Now we began to appreciate Sushil’s wisdom in hiring such a huge vehicle. The sheer mass of our air-conditioned, padded-seat behemoth gave us a feeling of stability on the rocky terrain. Lorries would back down from risking a head-on with us, playing what we called the Tandoori chicken game. And the 60-seater provided a stable camera platform for grabbing some shots during the ride.
Along the way we were treated to a smorgasbord of sights: lush, fertile valleys with palm trees; dry, scrabbly, reddish-brown rock mountains; barefooted laborers in numerous construction areas, the men bare-chested with baggy white shorts, the women, incredibly, wearing brightly colored saris tucked up around their waists as they schlepped rocks or mixed mud bricks or carried ridiculous burdens on their heads; families living on streets, in fields near the road, or in cardboard cartons or crude shacks made of tin sheets, bathing in culverts, drinking water we shuddered to think about; and people of all ages and genders eating, drinking, urinating, and defecating everywhere, with little self-consciousness. We enjoyed our hermetically sealed, refrigerated luxury as we watched an explosion of vomit from the rear window of a dusty, open-air public bus up ahead.
After nearly three hours of slithering up the old road and scrambling over to the new one, we stopped at Khandala, one of two lush hill stations midway between Bombay and Pune. The driver took a break from his labors, we all had a cool drink, and one of our Indian friends told us about the 2nd-century Chaitya caves in nearby Karla featuring ancient wall carvings and storytelling inscriptions. Then back in the bus for another two hours on the road watching the lorries, the traffic, the wrecked hulks, the scenery, and the poverty. Finally, we arrived in Pune, applauded the driver for his efforts, and dashed into the cool comfort of our hotel. It was beastly in the open air, and we hadn’t been in India long enough to acclimate.
We spent a week in Pune, the major educational and technical center for Maharashtra State, conducting our interviews, filming people on the street and colorful scenes of Indian life, and seeking out dot-com and high-tech signage and other imagery to illustrate our story. Sushil and Manju and their team took great care of us. Want to shoot in an elementary school? A college? It was no problem, and all accomplished with a sweet Indian calm we were growing fond of. At breakfast one day, Sushil asked if we wanted to interview the 11-year-old kid whose picture was in the newspaper that morning, the youngest Microsoft Certified Professional in India. We were shooting in Prattik’s bedroom by 2 p.m.
Wherever we went, curious passersby would stop whatever they were doing and watch us film buildings, traffic, other people. Often they were under foot or just a few feet away. Sometimes they would look through our camera or pose in our pictures with us. Staring seemed to be the national pastime, never aggressive or threatening, but a bit intense nonetheless.
At one point we were shooting some vistas from an outdoor stairway at a Hindu temple high above Pune. I had our high-definition television camera on a tripod and was concentrating on picking off shots from the scene on the river far below us. I didn’t know that Larry and Randy, our producer and director, had drifted off to explore other locations. When I took my eye off the viewfinder, I was startled to realize they had gone, and I was surrounded by a half dozen local folks, all watching me closely. I looked down. Jon was sitting on the ground with a black cloth over his head in the searing heat, tweaking the HDTV image with a nine-inch video monitor in his lap, a remote camera control unit connected by a cable to the camera. Smiles all around.
We were getting used to this aspect of our host country, but it could be a bit disconcerting. Since Jon was our video engineer, the equipment was stored in his room at the hotel. Each morning of our shoot, L.C. would show up way too early to help move the camera gear down to the lobby. Sometimes he would burst in the door, push Jon aside, and grab and pull at the equipment cart. If Jon wasn’t ready to send it down, he would try to convince him to wait. L.C. would then hang around waiting and watching while Jon finished dressing, with that curious Indian disregard for Western ideas of personal space. “So I’m standing there in my towel,” Jon said, “just a little self-conscious as I’m brushing my teeth, and he’s standing about two feet away inspecting my toilet kit.”
Sushil obtained access to a technical university in Pune. We wanted to set up our camera in the courtyard and film candid shots of college-age students, providing a different demographic of Indian faces for our film. Sushil and his staff often wore long sleeve shirts with dark dress slacks. We foreigners sweltered, as usual, in Hawaiian shirts and jeans or khakis. Jon chose that day to wear shorts, the only man in India to do so. He was mortified by his outfit when we had a brief meeting with the Dean of the College, who wanted to meet the American visitors himself, but no one else seemed to care.
India was relentless. Each day when we left the hotel grounds or walked around in downtown Pune, we were assailed by hordes of poor people. Dirty, young mothers with pretty, Arian features and chestnut skin, mutilated and missing hands or feet, would drag their babies to our car and rap repeatedly on the window, trying to get a handout while we waited for a red light. At home I would often give a quarter or more to a “spare change” guy on the streets of Berkeley. But pushy beggars made me squirmy, and I already felt guilty enough for being born American and middle class. Don’t give them anything, we were told. We all give money to relief agencies and charities, but paying beggars only encourages them to be aggressive, our friends said. But how could any relief agency or a hundred of them cope with the hundreds of millions of poor in India?
It became increasingly easy to become cynical, and so it was not surprising that during the drive back to Bombay in another huge bus we invented our game. As we left the Blue Diamond Hotel and started back down the Bombay-Pune Road, we spotted a newly overturned car. We inched past it in our air-conditioned boat and saw two men removing a body, obviously dead and covered with a blanket. The effect was chilling, and our self-protective response was that old standby, irony. Jon suggested we keep an eye out for totaled vehicles on the way back, even count them for fun. Randy said he thought it would be more apt to count people who were using the street as a toilet. And so the game of Wrecks and Pissers was born.
It was a travel game similar to counting state license plates or finding consecutive letters in road signs, and the rules developed as we went along. The players were Jon and Randy. Larry was the judge and had to verify each sighting. I was a self-appointed cheerleader, capable of supporting either side without shame. We awarded one point to Jon for each wreck he reported and one to Randy for each pisser. Everyone felt that giving Randy both pissers and shitters would be too big an advantage. Sushil and his gang watched us with wonderment. Manju laughed contagiously, and her glee kept the mood light. L.C. wasn’t exactly sure what was happening, but he watched closely.
As we passed the time during the drive, we refined the game. Wrecks were defined as motor vehicles on their backs or sides or clearly unable to run because of impact with a tree, post, wall, rock, or, most commonly, another vehicle. Stalls didn’t count, or the game would be too unbalanced. Pissers seemed to abound, as the first half-hour of the trip was primarily on the old windy road. It seemed when we started that each player could score dozens, but we decided that fifteen points would win.
We hadn’t counted on the encroachment of technology. Pretty soon it was obvious that the new road from Pune to the coast was much more complete than in the other direction. And the Mumbai-Pune Expressway had many fewer wrecks and pissers than the old road.
After several hours, we reached the lowlands closer to Mumbai. Randy led Jon by a slim 7 to 5. Scoring was infrequent, we were bored, and Heera filled the void by describing a 24-hour train trip with his family from Bombay to his home state of Uttar Pradesh, or U.P. I explained to him that Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was also known as U.P., but he was unimpressed. Randy told Manju jokes to get her to laugh. It was fun, but no challenge. It was raining lightly, the sun beyond the horizon was rapidly lapsing into reddish twilight, and Randy saw a man urinating into a ditch at the side of the expressway. He roused Larry from a nap to get his sighting verified. A few minutes later, during a short stretch on the old road, Randy spotted another pisser: 9 to 5.
We saw a truck that had slid from the slick road into an embankment. The score was now 9 to 6, and Jon panicked as we detoured back onto the expressway. Since there were so few accidents and opportunities for him to score, he suggested a new rule: spotting an accident in progress would carry a bonus of five points. We all agreed, trying again to rebalance the game in the spirit of good fellowship.
Then Randy made his final score as we drove in awe past a man in a white turban standing high atop a huge culvert pipe and pissing, quite literally, into the wind: 10 to 6. Jon, grasping at straws, suggested an additional scoring possibility: If our vehicle was directly involved in a wreck, he would tally ten bonus points and an instant win. We laughed, discussed it at length, and agreed, as the remaining reflected sun faded slowly and only a pale bluish skylight remained.
The rain picked up a little. We drove with our lights on for 20 miles with no scoring, and Larry suggested for the tenth time that the game was probably over. Jon was tired of our stupid game and ready to throw in the towel. We’d been at it for hours, the light was gone, and we were bored with the effort of trying to be clever.
“Let’s call it off,” he said. I jumped in, the generic cheerleader-without-shame. “Hold on, Jonny,” I pleaded. “There’s still time left. The road’s getting slicker with the rain, and maybe your luck will turn.” Did I mention that it was easy to get cynical in India? The expressway slowed as we entered a construction area. An overturned car in a ditch added to Jon’s wreck total, but another lorry standing at the side of the road seemed undamaged and was ruled a stall, and thus invalid. Randy led 10 to 7, and Jon still wanted to quit. We rolled into a rocky canyon and spotted a sign that read: “Danger. Accident Zone.”
“See, Jonny?” I exclaimed. “It’s a sign, I mean, an omen that you should hang in there.” The bus slowed as we encountered heavy winds swirling around the steep rock walls. The road ahead was illuminated, and we watched transfixed as a colorful lorry about 50 feet in front of us slipped on a turn and skidded across the wet road. The world went into the kind of slow motion that occurs when complex events are tightly packed into a small amount of time, and milliseconds seem like minutes. As the driver braked sharply, the lorry jackknifed, its cab twisting clockwise around its trailer, then struck a four-foot retaining wall on the right side of the highway.
“Oh God,” cried Randy. The rest of us were speechless, but no one missed the fact that Jon had scored a five-point bonus. At the same moment, our driver jammed on the bus’s brakes. With a loud “pssssssssshhhhhhttt” from the air cylinders, the bus skidded on the wet pavement, and the right rear end fishtailed and smashed into the retaining wall.
We heard a disturbing crunching-scraping sound as we hit, but the impact was not too jarring. No one was hurt or even badly shaken up. We looked up the road at the wrecked lorry. A small cloud of steam pushed out from under the hood. The driver and his boy jumped out, unhurt, and lifted the hood. Cars streamed past them at high speed.
After we all sat there for a moment, silently contemplating what might have happened, Jon jumped from his seat, threw his hands in the air in the touchdown signal, and yelled, “I won!” There was an outburst of yelling in the bus—about the lorry, the game, the rain, the accident, the traffic, the scoring. We all agreed that Jon’s five-point bonus for witnessing an accident in progress had tied the game. In any case, our own fenderbender gave Jon an instant win.
Months later, Jon told me that this time of triumph was “the moment when we all realized what assholes we were.” The game settled, we started to feel foolish. We trooped out of the bus and discovered, with a shudder, that we were on a bridge over a huge chasm. The low retaining wall was actually the side of the bridge, and it was too dark and too far to see the bottom of the ravine beneath us. The nine men in our party stood next to the bus and relieved themselves over the edge into the canyon. More than one of us calculated silently, not how close we had come to a calamity, but how our numbers would have won the game for Randy, if not for the instant-win rule.
Cars swooshed all around us. Manju waited inside. Our driver examined the side of the bus, which showed minor scrapes and dents. We shook his hand and laughed and congratulated him on avoiding injuries and minimizing damage. We got back on the bus—bored, tired, giddy, jet-lagged…assholes.
As we pulled slowly away, we passed the wrecked lorry. The driver smiled sweetly at us and called out something with that odd Indian sideways shake of the head. The boy waved. A large painting of Ganesh, the god with the elephant head, watched us from the side of the lorry. We drove on into Mumbai in silence. Game over.
Bill Zarchy is a free-lance director of photography based in San Francisco. Over the past thirty years, he has shot film, video, and HDTV projects in two-dozen countries and three-dozen states. “Wrecks and Pissers” is a chapter from Bill’s next writing project, Roving Camera: Tales from the Road, a book about his work and travels. Recently he shot interviews with three former presidents for The West Wing Documentary Special, which won a 2002 Emmy Award. He was also Director of Photography/Virtual Sets for the feature film Conceiving Ada. He has a BA in Government from Dartmouth and an MA in Film from Stanford, and he teaches Advanced Cinematography at San Francisco State University. His father, Harry Zarchy, authored more than 30 books on crafts, hobbies, and the outdoors. More information can be found online at billzarchy.com.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.