We are going to attend a condolence meeting to mourn the death of yet another tea planter in our district. Young Tirtho Das, around thirty odd years old, father of two adorable little girls -- the younger just a baby, just one and a half years old -- and husband of Sanchita, was killed in a car accident on the National Highway near Mal Bazaar two days ago. Yet another young life extinguished in an instant on a highway where nothing goes as it should, or stops when it should. This highway isnt wide enough to accommodate the kind or the variety of vehicles that travel on it.
It is a narrow road with dense vegetation on either side, for most of the way. There are no road dividers, and what should be a single lane serves as a double lane. Cattle, goats, stray dogs, and very often elephants are frequently encountered hazards. Two wheelers, rickshaws, pedestrians, cars , buses and heavy vehicles of every description are forced to vie for space. We do have jams, even though we dont have a heavy flow of traffic on a regular basis, now and then. This especially happens at the congested, ever growing towns through which the highway careers on without a bypass route.The highway has claimed the lives of many friends from our district, and many of them young. In the last two years, we've lost three young boys from gardens in the district. There are other victims whom we knew who were not from the tea community. There were others, tourists and bus passengers and pedestrians, an entire marriage party, and even a school-bus load of children who lost their lives and of whom we came to know through local information channels or the next day's newspaper.
It is horrifying to think of the numbers of people who are killed in road accidents, not just in our Dooars or the Darjeeling and Sikkim hills near us, but in all of India. When will something be done to control the occurrence of these terrible collisions of traffic? Are we Indians manufacturing too many lightweight and high speed cars? Do vehicle designers and manufacturers keep in mind the conditions of Indian roads and the volumes of traffic on these roads? Is there no chance of traffic ever being regulated into smoothly flowing lanes and divided by categories, so that all the vehicles can safely move together? Is there ever a chance that we will have a government that takes serious steps to pass legislation against drunken driving? Will we ever have effective police posts manned by officials who take in offenders and test them for alcohol levels instead of reaching out to accept a 'small something for chai-cigarettes'? The image of the drunken cop on duty who waved us ahead majestically at the Matelli Police traffic check post while we were coming back after a late night in the Western Dooars last week keeps haunting me. Let him not be the face of my India in the future.
All the horrors of our unsafe roads come crowding into our disturbed minds whenever there is an accident.
Tirtho was driving along what he thought was a clear stretch of road near Mal Bazaar at a good speed. It was nine o'clock in the morning. Most unexpectedly, a truck backed on to the highway. The collision was inevitable. There was no chance that the driver of the smaller vehicle could survive the impact of that crash, and we are all grateful that Sanchita did, sitting in the passenger seat as she was. Today, she's still in the ICU, after having been operated upon -- a procedure that took around eight hours -- for a broken jaw, broken teeth and a fractured knee and elbow. Merciful God spared the little children from any major injury or worse.
We at the club are all intensely distressed. We are all in a state of mild shock and disbelief, and deeply disturbed by the suddenness and unprepared ness with which this very nice young man met his end. Would he ever have abandoned his family so suddenly if he'd had a chance? But that was just what he didnt have, a chance. Lucky are those who are offered one. I wish we would each one of us count our blessings and thank the Almighty for every good fortune we have ever experienced, because good luck is as little under our control as bad luck. Not one of us knows what fates await us or those for whom we spend sleepless nights praying and worrying. Apart from our grief for this young family there is the grim fear that enters all our hearts : is anyone ever safe? Does anyone ever know what happens in the next moment?
There is an added trauma to the loss Sanchita and her little girls must face. They must vacate the home where they have spent what surely must have been happy years. The family was happy, without a doubt. Even the baby never did anything but smile and laugh when meeting strangers who pinched her cheeks or tickled her chin at the club! Their older daughter goes to primary school and now she must move -- school, home, friends, all will be left behind. Sanchita will leave behind all the dreams that she and her husband would have shared, including maybe dreams of being in really grand bara bungalows some day.
My friend Raj said something so poignant on the phone the day after the accident. 'We all depend so much on our husbands in tea, Gowri.' We do, indeed. The planter husband is a provider. He carries a lot of responsibilities which no one can share. When a planter marries, he undertakes to supply a home and to fulfill all the needs of the family. His wife's responsibility is to manage the resources which he provides. At most, a woman here can have a career which provides a supplementary income and the 'treats' that it can buy. Of course, this doesn't apply to the women who live and work in cities and only visit their husbands on the garden. They have another home in the city. Here, as in many sad cases in the past, husband, father and home are lost in one stroke. Every woman who marries a tea planter knows that it could happen in her life too. What a terrible thing, that so many losses should be borne together.
I know Tirtho worked for a good company and that the good people there will never let his family know want. Whatever happens, though, they will have to move out. I can only hope that our collective prayers will in some way help this young bereaved girl and give her strength, and that life may have some joys in reserve for her and the children.