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A National Highway Nightmare

A National Highway Nightmare

March 11, 2011

Flying along one of India's most dangerous roads at night is one good way of forcing your mind into the present.

National Highway 47 is a corridor of death, and as I write this, I have a ringside view for the carnage: the front left seat, adjacent to the driver, on a road-hogging Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) bus. I probably won’t see any destruction today, or tomorrow, or any of the hundreds of times I’ll catch these buses over the next few months, but with every near miss - almost always a matter of centimetres, and at high speed - the violent aftermath of a collision unfolds in my mind. Bus crunches into bus, cars get twisted and tossed into the mess, and bikes and their riders are crushed as this new mass of vehicles slides and scatters all over a road ill-equipped to handle the volume and attitude of its traffic.

I’ve never actually seen anything like that, but apparently it happens often. The Hindu reported in February that there were nearly 4000 fatalities on Kerala roads in 2010, and The Statesman provides more detail in saying Thiruvananthapuram district - my district - led the field in 2009 with 454. Right now it’s night, both the quietest and most dangerous time, when the volume of traffic dips to half its daytime levels and every driver keeps the accelerator pressed for an additional, body-crushing second as they careen into each of the National Highway’s innocent-looking curves.

It’s night, and I missed my bus. The last one back to Varkala in the evening stops in Kazhakkootam, where I work, at around 8:45 - never an exact science, it could be ten or twenty minutes later than that, but never before - and I got there at 8:48. The one day I’m late, it just had to be on time. I would have to catch a different bus to Kallamballam, then jump in a rickshaw which would take me home for 20 times the cost of a bus ticket.

It’s funny how knowledge like this can become so deeply ingrained, so procedural that it’s almost like thinking in a different language. In Japan, I would know exactly which door to enter a train at my home station so that I would get out in front of the stairwell to the exit. Here on Kerala’s NH47, my thoughts are flashes of distances, times, numbers and designs - the yellow swoop of the Fast Passenger bus, as opposed to the garish red-and-yellow letters spelling out a Super Fast bus, for example. I know how much every ticket on my regular route costs, I know how long each trip will take, and I know that if I miss one bus I could very well catch up to it with the next one.

That’s what happened here: a Super Fast, considerably faster than the Fast Passenger that was already speeding on to Varkala, had screeched to a halt just minutes after I arrived at the bus stop. I badly wanted to intercept that Fast Passenger bus along NH47 before the Varkala turn-off, a journey which would be so much cheaper and easier that it started to become a fantasy.

So, perversely, I want the driver to go faster.
I want him to overtake that motorcycle as it overtakes that four-wheel drive. I want him to crisscross with another overtaking Fast Passenger hurtling in the opposite direction, avoiding each other by centimetres in a nightmarish maneouvre that is every KSRTC bus driver’s stock in trade. He is bigger than almost anyone else on the road, so he will take up any and all inches of tarmac he desires. I look across to him as he leans on the horn through another overtake, his face expressionless, his moustache bristling. His beige uniform, either unwashed or very worn in, absolves him from any potential mishaps.

We reach Attingal, where I hope to see my Varkala Fast Passenger idling. Nothing. I’m resigning myself to the rickshaws now, though a jot of hope still lingers.

My agitation, in the face of hope and skin-bleaching fear, finds no company in the other passengers. Many of them are sleeping, some of them wives resting their heads on husbands’ shoulders; a group of teenagers play Tamil film songs over the loudspeaker of a mobile phone. As usual, there are almost as many passengers standing as there are sitting, and after every stop the conductor wrestles his way through the crowded aisle barking “Ticket! Ticket!” It’s a Friday, and a lot of these folks will be heading back to their native place for the weekend; the luggage racks overhead are full, as per normal for a Super Fast, where they would be mostly empty on a Fast Passenger and absent altogether on an Ordinary.

With only minutes to go until Kallamballam and my seemingly fated rickshaw, another red behemoth looms up in front of us. That’s the one. That’s my bus! We execute one last breakneck maneouvre, gliding past the Fast Passenger to Varkala just in time to avoid colliding with a rickshaw and an Ambassador taxi, and my heart’s thumping. Its increased rhythm settles as I hop off the Super Fast in Kallamballam and trundle back to the Fast Passenger, taking one of the many empty seats (in the middle of the bus this time, that’s enough excitement for one day). As we take off down the quieter Kallamballam-Varkala road, I feel like I’ve won a gold medal.

With my heart rate back to normal, my thoughts speed up once more. Is there less of a value on human life on these Kerala roads than there is back home in New Zealand, given the population density? Is it just that the accepted margins are so much narrower, centimetres rather than metres? Either way, when you get on National Highway 47 - driver or passenger - you enter into a bet in which the game is in those centimetres, and the stake is your life. I have learned to accept it... but that doesn’t mean the feelings go away. The sickness in my stomach whenever we pull back over from the wrong side of the road, the necessity to focus solely on the narrow gaps in the visible asphalt ahead. Sometimes it feels like meditation: it forces my mind away from whatever else is going on in my life and, switching to survival mode, plants it firmly in the now. 


  • NNNiiiXXX
    20.09.11 10:57 AM
    ROFL... This is an everyday event in Kerala... Nothin special... A few yrs in Kerala, you would have realized it urself...
  • Shrinidhi Hande
    Shrinidhi Hande
    13.03.11 08:47 AM
    is it not NH 17 that runs through Kerala mainly
  • anil
    13.03.11 03:49 AM
    man.. ksrtc does have good talented race driverz.. but much more talented are the private bus driverz.. dhey drag, dey drift, dhey chase n dey race.. once been to malapuram n the journey on a bus was lyk sittin on a rollercoster
  • Chandrima Pal
    Chandrima Pal
    11.03.11 04:47 PM
    Unfortunately it is not only in Kerala, the same is true in any other national highway and in any other road of India.
    I don't know when roads are going to be safer in India?
  • Aj
    11.03.11 01:44 PM
    cool! u just made me visualize those horrific ksrtc journeys i had during my childhood =)) we used to have green, yellow and white colored ksrts if i remember i always like taking the green one its the fastest of all =)) but looking back at it now its really a challenge to drive through those roads where these buses are racing, i dont dare to drive in kerala.
  • Indian Road Romeo
    Indian Road Romeo
    11.03.11 01:27 PM
    You can blame the land ownership pattern in Kerala partially for this. The people who live alongthe highway are not allowing the road to be widened and I think they have actually fought and won a case that allows the NHAI to relax the rules to have narrower roads on this stretch.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    11.03.11 10:41 AM
    Co-operative? He would have done it anyway!

    Thanks :)
  • umesh derebail
    umesh derebail
    11.03.11 06:22 AM
    Oh my dear, i believe you were damm lucky to have a co-operative bus driver to overtake all the traffic to ensure that you catch your linking bus. Lolz loved your narration

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