“Naaaa I don’t want to fall, I am scared, heeelllpppp” Chitra woke up screaming. For the next few minutes, she lay disoriented; shiny beads of sweat dripping down to the sheet from her forehead. She tried to push the scary dream out of her thoughts. It was the same nightmare that had been haunting her off and on since the past one month. She looked at her cell phone to check the time; it was seven o’clock already. Sleeping again was impossible at this hour, so she decided to get up.
Namita had indicated she was going to pick Chitra up at nine thirty. Then they would pick up Aman and Prateek. And then, Chitra thought happily, off to Rishikesh and Jim Corbett National Park in Namita’s red hatchback. Yes it would be a welcome change from the never-ending dreary office work. With her spirits lifting up, the nightmare already pushed away to a forgotten corner of the mind, she got up to get ready.
Namita was half an hour late, well within the expected deviations by Indian stretchable time --- even Chitra was not ready before five minutes to ten. Crossing Ghaziabad, the car entered the National Highway 58 as the four friends caught up on the lost gossip since their last get together. By the time the enthralling hills of Uttarakhand greeted them, Chitra had no recollection of her nightmare.
At Rishikesh, exhausted by the five hours drive and the post lunch short hike around the lodge, she dozed off as soon as she hit the sack in the night. She woke up to a clear wintery January morning --- to warblers’ chucks-chucks and chee-chees, to a brilliant view of a tree line of sals in the overlooking Rajaji National Park, to animated butterflies flitting from flower to flower. She was the first one awake among the four and eager to start a new day, she dragged the others to the breakfast table in the next fifteen minutes.
One hour later, they were on their way to Jim Corbett National Park. Namita loved driving and although others offered to take turns, she insisted on driving herself. Chitra reminded when they started out, “Don’t forget the seat belt, Namita”. The mood in the car was upbeat and amongst the status updates on mutual friends and acquaintances, winding roads over gorges where streams appeared and disappeared out of view, sudden sprouting waterfalls in the boulders, stretches of shesham trees in the backdrop of hills; the four of them did not realize when two hours had passed and they were already in Dogadda, a small town surrounded by mountains.
Chitra had the lowest tolerance to cold among the four. She had the most layers on. Most of the way, she forced the others to roll their windows up allowing just a teeny weeny space for air circulation for others’. Her own window was completely airtight. Now that it was around eleven and slightly warmer, Namita refused to obey Chitra any more and rolled her window down half way “What’s the point in being in high altitudes if you can not feel the mountain air?”
They were climbing a hill now; the hill was itself on the right towards Namita. Respecting the ravine on the left, she kept her speed low and steered clear of it. Chitra seated next to Namita in the front, pointed excitedly to her left down the gorge, “There’s Ramganga again with its rapid currents”. Prateek, who sat immediately behind Chitra said, “You know you can fish for Mahseer in the river. It needs the fast-flowing water and the cold climate to survive.” Aman seated next to him, now pointed ahead towards his right “The waterfall in the mountain above us has created a stream through the road from right to left”. Namita had seen the stream ahead of her too and paying due reverence to it, slowed down further.
All the while admiring the vista outside, none of them had paid much attention to a motorbike in the front, or at its sole occupant. Unlike Namita however, the bike driver had not slowed down in time for the waterfall. Before their horrified eyes, the bike skidded on the flowing rivulet, throwing the non-helmeted driver in fluorescent green T-shirt right in front of the incoming tyres of their hatchback. Namita on reflux swerved the car to the left and just about managed to avoid trampling the biker. That was the last time that she could control the car.
It swung to its side and with screams and shrieks from within, found itself partially lodged in a depression at the edge of the road. It refused to obey Namita and with gravity calling to it, tilted decisively to the left. Chitra felt a chilling sense of déjà vu --- she was living out the nightmare! As the car tumbled and spun in full circles along the slant of the hill, Prateek and Aman who had not put their belts on hung to the seats in front for their dear lives. Still every time the car’s roof hit the ground the taller Prateek got a nasty head bump.
Chitra could not make herself to look any more --- eyes tensely closed and fists tightly gripping the seat handles, she dreaded the worst. With each successive whirl, her mind kept switching between the present and the past dreams --- the identical sensations of falling into an abyss, of the incessant gurgling water, of space squeezing on her, of a powerful force pulling her down… Even in the brief few seconds when the tragedy was unfolding, a thought crossed her mind, “Was fate trying to warn me beforehand?” Her mind was busy recollecting, “Did I survive the accident in my dreams?”
Inexplicably the spinning stopped after four and a half turns --- the car thumped down hard on its roof with all four of them left hanging upside down. The stiff necks craned at impossible angles as the ceiling shrunk and crumbled. Nobody dared to breathe. After what felt like an eternity, the tremors stopped. The hushed silence was intolerable now --- Chitra relaxed her eyes to peer out a little. Suspended head down, out of the battered window, she caught sight of Ramganga flowing with brutal ferocity at a steep fifteen feet drop. A muffled cry came out as her eyes involuntarily closed again. She couldn’t decide what was worse --- the height or the water --- she had always been wary of both. Even if one outlasted the fall, leaving aside the fact that she was a novice swimmer, she knew it was not only Mahseer who inhabited the river --- mugger crocodiles and gharials ruled over it. She wanted to cry out loud like in her dreams, but the words choked at her throat.
With great resolution, she opened her eyes back. She felt a sharp pain in her legs --- the front of the car had come caving in around her and Namita’s legs. She found that they had rolled around ten feet from the road. Miraculously the car had been deposited between two large boulders jutting out from the hill. More incredible was the fact that the two boulders had clasped it firmly breaking its fall, breathing the hope of life back into its passengers. Now Chitra realized they were not completely upside down, but at a tilt --- a no small mercy when hanging upside down as blood came rushing to the head. Cold and shivering, she now became aware of the sprinkling water --- the stream crossing the road had found its way through the boulders. Turning away the negative thoughts clouding her mind, she gritted her teeth, “better than a car on fire at least”.
Aman with the advantage of unfastened seat belt was the first to straighten himself, head up. Even the slightest movement in the car rocked it violently, resulting in amplified heartbeats in the four corners. So with as little impact as possible, he tried his side of the door --- it was no easy feat since the door was bottom up. He exclaimed in glee as it opened and led to a foothold in the boulder. He gingerly climbed out; he was free! Prateek followed suit and soon to his relief, he was crawling out through the same door. “Namita, you try next”, he cried anxiously. Namita unfastened her seat belt, rolled herself face up and somehow squeezed to the back seat. As she cautiously stepped out, little unsteady from hanging down and soaked from the waterfall, she had very little time to notice the cuts in her legs. They still had to get Chitra out.
All three of them knew getting out Chitra would be harder, she was the one farthest from the foot hold with her side of the car precariously projecting out in mid air. But they never imagined it would be this hard. It started with the jammed seat belt --- it refused to undo at Chitra’s insistent attempts. Increasingly giddy and nauseated, she kept repeating to herself “Don’t give up, don’t give up…” Dozens of witnesses had rushed to the scene to help out; many others were heading along, thin tanned agile men, wearing colourful caps, mufflers and shawls, with generous dab of vermilion on their foreheads, nimbly navigating the serpentine lanes around the hill. The three friends now stood a little far away, too dazed to react to the turn of events that were beyond their control. A young man in his twenties wearing a blazing green T-shirt took charge of the rescue effort, directing others.
Soon a boy in his teens came rushing by with a stationery cutter --- that was the closest to a seat-belt cutter that anybody could find in the vicinity. Through the opening in the driver’s window, as she took the cutter from the boy, all Chitra saw was a blurred face with upturned eyes and prominent cheek bones trying to tell her something. Her mind registered some Garhwali to Hindi translations on how to use the cutter from one of the faces crowding around. The simple act of using the cutter was a strenuous exercise under the circumstances --- with restricted hand movements, laboured breathing, dizziness almost overpowering her. The struggle lasted not less than ten minutes, but at the end of it, she was free from the seat belt.
Then came an even harder part. As she tried to straighten herself she realized her left leg was completely numb --- it was a dead weight unable to respond to any directions from the brain. Every muscle in the body perspiring, the two hands and the right leg, with superhuman effort dragged the body, inch by inch, to the back seat. Then the slow wriggle to get out through the back door began. Once within the reach of the extended hands, they dragged her out gently and steadily, taking heed not to unbalance the car.
With tears in their eyes, her friends hurried to greet Chitra. The ordeal however was far from over. Cold and shivering, Chitra could not stand or walk or bend her leg --- the badly bleeding left leg would not budge. There was a severe back pain --- but there was no time to think about that. The others helped her to sit on one of the boulders with legs straightened. Twice the urge to throw up overcame her --- the onlookers looked worried about the impact of blood accumulating in the head for such an extended period. It was no ordinary miracle that she had made it thus far.
Somebody brought a rope. The volunteers were back in action now; they made Chitra clench the rope like in a tug-of-war game, the end of the rope wrapped around her body. She prepared herself for an inch-by-inch battle again. With two three helpers pulling the rope at the other end, two three more pushing her physically and with encouraging words, the climb up the inclined slope to the motorway was a very long one. There were times when she felt she could not keep up anymore; but then she would jolt back to alertness at others’ prodding. The twenty minutes felt like perpetuity, but it too was over. Her feet were at last on the road --- drenched and aching in the winter morning, smelling of vomit, exhausted beyond imagination, she collapsed as the ground beneath her became level.
After she was somewhat conscious, she was dragged to a nearby school with a dispensary, where the person in charge administered painkillers and basic first aid. The townspeople could help no more; the friends had to decide their next move. Delhi was too far away; Chitra needed medical attention urgently. A frantic call was made to the resort outside Jim Corbett National Park where they had their rooms reserved; the owner assured them he would be able to take care of their immediate medical needs.
Chitra now back at the scene, propped up on a stone with a backrest, saw a crane come into view. When its mechanical arm, twisting and extending, retrieved the hatchback from below, its sight drew a collective gasp from the friends. It seemed fantastical that they had come out alive from the disfigured misshapen mass, contorted beyond recognition. Chitra pulled her eyes away --- she had carried on till this point, she could not allow gloom to set in now.
The four of them got into the crane, which would drop them to the resort, at a distance of around one hour drive from Dogadda. Chitra with her unbending leg could only be placed in the open cargo area at the back. The next steps are a hazy recollection for her: reaching the resort, medicines and injections, massage and Ramganga freezing water treatment for her numb leg, high fever for two days finally brought under control, beginning of some movement in the left leg, agonizing commute to Delhi, calling up Ma Baba to say urgent official work has come up, admitted to hospital for the next twelve days…
She did not see the dream after that. Though her leg healed, her back continues to trouble her on and off. She can see the trauma of the ordeal in her friends --- Namita has completely shut out the world of travel. Prateek goes out of town now only on business. Aman does not call up any more. Barely recovered from the shock herself, Chitra is defiant --- she will not end up like them. It was undoubtedly death that had stared at her from Ramganga down below; but now that she has evaded it, she refuses to die every day with the mere thought of it. She knows the nightmare will continue to haunt her till she can free herself of it --- and for that she must celebrate life, she must savour every moment of her second chance to live.