Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.
What do you feel when you just might die? What are you supposed to feel, when you are moments away from it all? I felt that I could fly.
We were actually flying, come to think of it. My friend is no stranger to taking flight, being a pilot by profession. But then, I guess that a flight of this nature was a novelty, even for him. He landed. The bike fell on his face. It was one of those moments, he later told me, that anyone who advocates helmets would identify with. That annoyingly effeminate yellow helmet had saved his life.
Being leaner, and consequently lighter, I was flung a fair distance. My flight took on a slightly more exaggerated parabola and I seemed to cover some extra distance in mid-air. I had fallen a distance of approximately three or four storeys, eighty feet approximately. Going by the laws of physics and the way in which gravitational acceleration functions, I don’t really think that it must have lasted for more than a few seconds, but it felt like several minutes.
We were riding back to the main town of Manali, after having ridden through some interesting terrain, up the hills and through some dangerous narrow roads. It was, what they call, a thrilling journey. Personally, I am not very fond of bikes, but for once, even I was content with not making too many photographs and just taking in the view, merely processing the sight of giant snowcapped mountains passing by. Every single time we maneuvered a difficult curve, I had my heart in my mouth. After all, we were the lone riders who had ventured this far, towards the sleepy village of Kothi on the way to Rohtang. The road is closed during the winters, as the path beyond is completely blocked due to snow. We reached the highest accessible point, said hello to a drove of horses and a bunch of enthusiastic cricketers, and then made our way back to civilization.
At most times, I ignored the fact that we were riding on dodgy terrain by just avoiding looking at the road. I guess you can afford to that when you are riding pillion—my friend was at the wheel. The road became narrow, the turns steep. Our bike had a few inches of room on either side, with a steep fall of hundreds of feet right beside. Some of the snow had started to melt, and the resultant slush was slippery, almost lethal.
We went past it all. After almost three hours of riding, we reached this ominously named place called Bhang. I laughed at the name, recalling past misadventures with cannabis. This, of course, was a regular road. No snow, no difficult terrain, no heights. We were on a tame flat road, with the only caveat being the fact that there was a deep ravine right beside.
I never realised that my memory can be this vivid. It swerved, turned and hit. Smash.
Riding on that regular patch of road seemed like a drag. We were due to go to the bus depot and figure out when the last bus leaves from Manali. I hadn’t made as many pictures in Manali, as I had done through the rest of the trip—in Delhi, Amritsar, Beas, Pathankot, Gogol, Dharamsala, Mcleodganj and Sidhpur. My camera was around my neck, on the left side of my body. As always, my right hand gripped the camera, my finger on the shutter-release, restlessly switching the camera on and off for no particular reason.
I saw a hint of blue on the horizon, a pretty harmless looking Army Relief gypsy, the kind that is supposed to help out people in distress and things like that. We were going to be a part of that category in only a few seconds.
While marveling at the splendid uncertainties of life, I have actually found it more interesting to think about the foreboding certainty of death. What lies between the two? Is there a thin line that divides them, or a third dimension that we need to break past…break through? It was something I thought of at each bend, each curve, when we were going down that mangled path. What would happen, I wondered, if something were to happen? But of course, we went past it all and were now onto good old flat road. It was like the anti-climactic plateau of a Hot Wheels action racing set.
A part of this Hot Wheels ecosystem was a blue gypsy that was probably not supposed to be there. We could see it as a blur in the distance, and like the magical hand of an ace cinematographer, we slowly saw it becoming sharper, closer, larger.
It swerved, turned and hit. Smash.
My friend had already hit the breaks, trying to avoid the gypsy that for some reason, had decided that it wanted to play Dashing Cars with us. This wasn’t Midtown madness. It was a maniac at the wheel who seemed to want to hit us.
Smash. We cried out that all-important word that comes to define the world. “Fuck.”
You know, the sheer helplessness of the moment. You see it. You realise what it is doing. You do your best to get out of the way. You stop. And all that is required for the world to be a happy family is for that retard to stop himself, to brake. He doesn’t. You anticipate the collision. You close your eyes.
I chose to keep mine open.
As the gypsy hit our bike, we flew into the ravines, grazing through thorns, hitting shrubs, through air that suddenly felt a lot colder than the subzero temperatures we were in.
In those few seconds, I wondered where my friend was. Was he too heading for hard rock, like me? Had he fallen as well? Was he going to survive? Was I? If I didn’t, how would my parents know? Would anyone know?
There was no flash of white. But there was, for sure, a lot of light. I do not have a recollection of my senses ever being so heightened, of being so aware of everything around me. A cluster of sharp thorns scraped my forehead and took away the cap that I was wearing. The fall was almost as scenic as the surroundings. I remembered wishing that I keep falling, that it doesn’t stop, that I have the time and ability to shoot pictures while I fall, while I fly. My right hand gripped my camera,
I observed an oddly shaped branch that looked like it had eyes. It reminded me of a doodle that was gifted to me by one of my closest friends. I thought of her, and remembered the last time I had met her. I wondered if I could whip out my phone and call her up, while I was in mid-air. Or maybe just send her an e-mail. What the fuck, I was thinking of e-mail threads at a time like this.
I tried to cover my face with my right elbow, whilst still trying to see what was happening. My narcissistic self did not want anything to happen to what I consider an extremely good-looking face, but I wanted to see what was happening. The elbow covered the face, but the hand still gripped the camera. It almost fell like support.
Somewhere along the way, I realised the sheer height through which I was falling. This was it, surely. I had exhausted the boundaries of possibility. But what a waste it would be, to die, after a fall that was so incredible. What a waste it would be, to not remember. To not recount.
So wait, if I was not going to survive, would anyone be able to see that awesome photograph I had made the previous day? Only if someone finds my camera, but wait, how would the camera survive a fall of 80 feet?
In the whole tangle of trying to cover my face with my right elbow, peer through my right hand and shield that expensive piece of gadgetry with my left elbow, I fell right on my camera. My left shoulder hit the camera. That was that. Investments of over a lakh and a love affair that was a little more than a year old. My camera.
I have no idea how I survived. Somebody must really be in love with me. Or I might be, with a few people here and there. More curiously, I have no idea how the D700 survived. It had, after all, fallen on hard rock. It had taken the blow, taken my weight. Without a scratch.
As I came to, I saw my friend. He seemed to be alive, unless were already up there. But surely, heaven or hell must not be blurred. Everything seemed so out of focus.
Actually, one contact lens of mine had fallen along the way. My right eye has a scar bordering it, I am a little amazed that the scar chose to border the eye, rather than rupture it.
My friend shouted at me, ordering me not to move. He was alive. Dead people do not shout. I guess.
The doodle flashed across my mind again. I remembered that friend again, and then thought of another close friend, this one from college. I imagined her shouting at me for getting into a situation like this. I then thought of the doodle again, and blacked out.
A hand held mine as I came to. There was a group of locals who had rushed down the ravine, almost like guerilla warriors. I could barely see, but their chants of “Mar gaya? Zinda hai? Kaise bachega? How will anyone survive?” seemed like background music. One of them picked me up, hoisted me on his shoulders, carried me up. The Army Relief gypsy, of course, had run away.
The date was 09.02.11. Nau. Do. Gyaarah.
Ironies of life. You battle through crazy terrain, without a single scratch. You ride on a regular highway and crash, boom, smash. How many people get hit by an Army Relief vehicle? On nau do gyaarah, of all the filmi dates possible. And the contrasting nature of people around you. One kind soul took me in his car to the hospital, carried out all the paperwork formalities, stayed till the doctor gave his final diagnosis. A minor fracture in the shoulder, along with ruptured tissues. A dodgy ankle and little finger. Bruises on the legs, forehead and beside the eye. Not much else. A minor miracle, if there ever was one. Of course, after this person helps me out, I insisted that he leave. An hour after that, my friend and I got out of the hospital, limping away in plasters and bandages. A car approached us, we signalled for a lift, and the driver dropped us to our hotel which was 50 metres away. He charged us Rs. 100.
Two days later, I was in Delhi, showing off the camera that survived. I work for a photography magazine, handle equipment every single day, but had never ever imagined that a camera would survive a fall of over 80 feet. I narrated what happened, explaining the sense of relief mixed with disillusionment I had felt when I had finally gained consciousness and was carried up by the locals. I had pressed the shutter of the camera, and an image of those people’s feet got registered. It worked, yes.
I showed that picture to my friend and for the first time in two days, scrolled left. I saw a picture I didn’t recognise. I don’t know what it was. Sheer restlessness, instinct, bizarre bravado or dumb fuckers’ luck. The camera had gone off while I was in mid-air. This was how it all happened.