We tumbled out of the hatchback of the SUV. There were two of us stuffed back in the cargo hold with the luggage. We were at another rest stop. Nothing in all my life had prepared me for what it was like to be an automobile passenger in India. We started late at night. As the crowded streets of the city reluctantly gave way to a rural highway, the general attitude on the road and in car changed. The passengers became silent as the drivers seemed to grow teeth. No longer were we travelers trying to get from one place to another. We were at war, and it was vicious. Time after time, our SUV would pull out to pass. Sometimes, we drove in the left lane for a half mile as a long line of giant trucks fell behind us. Every passing experience was punctuated with a desperate dash back into our own lane, horns blazing, avoiding a head on collision at the last possible moment. This was made all the worse by the fact that often all we could see was the glare of multiple sets of oncoming headlights.
Periodically, we stopped for a break in the chaos. The different vehicles in our caravan would all stop at some business on the roadside. We would get out of the SUVs that carried and threatened us and laugh nervously with each other in the dark. The restrooms of these places were very telling. In the beginning, we relieved ourselves in some kind of structure. Before long, the bathroom hallway led to a broken wall without a roof. I remember staring off into the forest in one such place, looking over crumbling bricks and wondering how the girls were handling the situation. Once, I followed the signs pointing to the restroom up some steps, and immediately back down into someone’s front yard. I urinated among the chickens and goats that belonged to whoever lived behind the rest stop.
The rest stop of this story was a little different. We weren’t at a business. It was some kind of marketplace, or town square. All the buildings were set back, away from the road. Colored lights and florescent tubes were strung above us or crammed haphazardly in the trees. It was something like two or three in the morning, but there were people up and about as though it was midday. Some sat at what I assumed was a bar, others carried loads across the street. I couldn’t imagine why they would be awake and lively at such a time. Gradually, a woman attracted our attention. She was wrapped in green, and walking in a zig zag toward the highway. She made it out into the middle of the street, laid down, and covered her head with the length of her sari. The image of her lying there is irreversibly burned in my mind.
I remember thinking that we were about to see a person get run over by one of the massive trucks that we had passed earlier. They traveled with loads much too heavy to be able to stop in time. I looked at a group of Indian men who had obviously noticed her, and obviously didn’t care to do anything. I looked to our group leader, wondering what he was going to do about it. He shrugged, and explained that it was how things were in India. I looked at the girls in our group huddled together. One of them made eye contact with me, and her face pleaded with me to do something. That look is also burned in my mind. It was sorrow, panic, and helplessness embodied. My guts churned in compassion. My decision to help was motivated primarily to prevent those girls from seeing a human killed like a dog in the street. The woman’s life was important, but not as much as the girls I felt so responsible for.
“Let’s go!” there may have been more, but I only remember two other guys coming with me. Several things passed through my mind as we crossed the distance between us and the woman. Part of me recognized that although there was something terribly wrong going on in front of me, it really was just how things were in India. If everything else I had seen and experienced in the last few hours could be true, then this woman fit right in. She belonged in the road. The other part of me decided that this was not how things were going to be in India while I was there. I brushed these thoughts aside, and wondered what the consequences might be of what we were about to do. The group of Indian men did not mind if the woman tried to kill herself, but they might mind very much if some white Americans touched her, picked her up, helped her. I did not know if we were about to break a cultural rule. I made up my mind that the consequences were worth it, no matter what they might be. And then we were next to her.
We stood beside the road and urged her to get up and move. She lifted the sari and looked at us in confusion. We knew that she wouldn’t understand what we were saying in English, but our posture and hand motions made it obvious. She laid back down flat and covered herself again. I looked at the other guys with me, and told them that we’d better pick her up. Just as we got ready to do so, the group of Indian men showed up around us. It seemed to me that we had shamed them into action. They ignored us and began shouting and motioning to the woman to get out of the road. One of them stepped in front of her and directed a few juggernaut trucks around her. Finally, she rose and passed through the group back to the safety of the dirt. We did our best to thank and congratulate the men who helped us. They seemed to be doing the same for us, wagging their heads back and forth in their version of an affirmative gesture.
Back among our group, we talked over what had happened and kept our eyes on the woman. At one point, she made a call at a pay phone. Later, she sat down at what I still assumed was a bar. I was confused. Suddenly she was acting like everyone else. Suddenly, she was no longer distinctive. Maybe at one point or another, everyone in that town laid down in the road. Maybe that’s why nobody paid her any attention. I climbed back into the cargo area of my SUV and we drove away.
Ever since that night, I have carried the woman in the green sari around with me. I see her when I close my eyes. I don’t understand why she should be the one memory that stands out so distinctly from all the others that I collected while serving in India. I met a boy without a foot, a woman without fingers, and a child without eyes. But, it is the woman in the road who haunts me.
When I think about the woman in the road, I always wonder what happened to her. Did she go back into the road after we left? How long did she wait? An hour? A day? A year? Perhaps, that is what bothers me about her. We helped to get her out of the street, but we didn’t do anything to change whatever situation she was in to make her go out there in the first place. This idea colors my memories of India. I think about all the good things we did, all the people we helped, and it is not enough. I remember, on the last day of the medical clinic that we were involved in, they secreted all the Americans away before they told the people still waiting to be seen that the clinic was closed, nobody else would be seen. They were worried that there might be a riot. It will never, ever be enough. I think that this is a part of the draw of India for me. I can’t wait until we can get back and pick up where we left off. There is so much to do, so much pain to heal, so much injustice to answer. What can I do to help such a situation?
Nothing. We won’t ever fix India.
Anything. Every little bit of salve on a wound, every drop of water on a fire, anything at all that can be done, must be done