They say everything happens for a reason. That’s what they say, but what they really mean is that you only know the reason why something happened when it’s too late.
Take accidents, for example. If you turn your car to the right, you might fall into a ditch. If you turn it to the left you might not, but then again, maybe an oncoming SUV will hit you. If you eat too many cup cakes, you might get diabetes. But if you don’t, you might offend your mother-in-law. Whichever way you cut it, you are doomed. Or maybe not. But wait, if you stay home, you will definitely neither fall into a ditch nor be hit by an SUV. But who knows, you might decide to fix yourself the mother of all breakfasts and while you peel the banana that you are going to slice over your healthy whole-grain cereal, your hand slips, the peel falls to the floor, you step on the yellow side, your legs slide and you fall flat on your face and break a bone. Or not.
It all happened on one such yes/no toggle day. My nephew, his wife and their restless boys were prepping to go have lunch with the relatives at the beach. The jury was still out as to whether we would join them or not. We being the oldies, the jaded or perhaps just tired generation consisting of husband and wife, and third-wheel sister-in-law (that would be me), fresh out of Mon Pays C’est L’hiver, eager to acquire a tan to taunt her friends back home in Montreal.
Randa, my nephew’s wife, is actually very nice and so are her relatives, so turning down an invitation to join them for a protracted picnic in a retirees’ colony at the other end of Goa was a difficult proposition. So was accepting it. Randa’s mother and maternal aunt would be cooking this fantastic North Indian meal while Randa’s sister and husband would reminisce about life abroad, and their only girl would act like a boy with the boys. VK Sr, my bro’in-law, would be exchanging army stories with my nephew’s wife’s maternal aunt’s husband while VK Jr, my nephew, would captain the kids by the sea. Randa would be helping out with the food and Anita, my sis, the retired pediatrician, would boast of her grandchildren’s talent to the other grandmothers. And me? I’m good at smiling politely while soaking up the sun’s rays. And yes, at agreeing that Canada is very nice but cold.
The original plan was to have taken a ride in VK Jr’s SUV which seats seven, the exact number on our side of the family. But VK Sr wasn’t too keen on getting stuck the whole day at a far away beach with the clan, so we settled. We would let the young contingent drive ahead of us in their SUV, and we would follow them a couple of hours later in our compact car. Togetherness with independence.
But our car had seen better days and proved it by stalling on us twice during this holiday. It was originally handed down from VK Sr to VK Jr, who transferred it from Delhi to Wellington in South India and back to Delhi where it became the family’s spare car. It then made its way to Goa on the west coast, where it would do very nicely just for buying groceries and driving to the beach. My sister was all for selling it, my nephew was all for keeping it, while my bro’in-law pondered the pros and cons.
It takes me a couple of weeks to adapt to transatlantic jet lag and a couple of days to get used to Indian traffic. Traffic in Goa is another matter. I simply shut my eyes when our car enters a road, any road. On this trip, however, I congratulated myself on finally being cool about the whole thing.
But not on the eve of New Year’s Eve. As my bro’in-law deftly manoeuvred the car into National Highway 17, my only thought was that my cell phone had no Indian contact numbers. Just in case. All I had with me was my passport with its reassuring maple leaf. And an ATM card.
Me: “Are we taking the scenic route?”
Her: “Yes, of course!”
In no way does a highway qualify as scenic. But maybe she was right. The blossoming cashews and the ubiquitous coconut palms lining the highway caught my eye. As did the dad/mom/baby/toddler combinations riding “two wheelers”.
Goa is God’s country to its children, the issue of indigenous Konkani populations and Portuguese settlers. Unlike the rest of India, which was colonized by the Brits who looked down on intermarriages, the Portuguese were keen to marry the locals and welcome them into the bosom of the Catholic church. The result is a warm-hearted people who love to eat spicy shrimp curries washed down with feni, the local fiery drink. The designated driver is generally the man of the family, who is also the designated drinker. And they pride themselves on being sossegado, which roughly translates as relaxed.
But since its liberation from Portugal in 1961, God’s country has been invaded by tourists from the rest of India, and from far away shores where Russian and Hebrew are the languages of choice. They all need cars to get around but the highway system has not kept up with this bounty on wheels. Cops are seldom to be seen and traffic lights are unheard of.
So VK Sr took a right turn braving traffic from eight lanes: two heading east, two heading west, two coming from the north, two coming from the south. And us in the middle. This is where I shut my eyes and only opened them when the engine sputtered and then died.
My bro’in-law got out of the car while my sister eased herself into the driver’s seat.
“Steer while I push,” he commanded. So my sister, who hadn’t driven in months on account of her arthritis, steered while her husband held on to the window frame and pushed. Lacking the strength to push, I decided to just stay put.
“I’d better push from behind.” I turned to my right and saw my bro’in-law swaying gently back and forth.
“That bastard of a truck driver hit my foot!”
By then some of the vehicles had slowed down while others whirled about. My sister rushed to his side and, seeing his bleeding foot, sprang into action. I could see her from the rear window of the car, bending down in her baggy pants and long tunic. Today she had not worn the veil that modestly covers her breasts. Goa has that kind of liberating effect on traditional Indian women. But this was a decision that she would later regret as it would have made a great bandage. She tried to tear her tunic but modern polyester is tear-proof.
A bystander jumped off his scooter, pulled his shirt over his head, tore it into strips and helped my sister bandage the foot. He even offered to take my bro’in-law to the hospital, but the thought of a fainting man riding pillion would have been ridiculous, had it not been for the gravitas of the situation.
So he deposited him in the passenger seat, pushed the back down and shut the door. My sister turned the key, pressed on the gas and the engine responded like it had never done before. And she, a woman who hadn’t practiced her medical profession or driven a car in a long long time, was up to speed. That’s my sis, grumpy in good weather, calm during a crisis.
At the naval hospital in Vasco da Gama, an eminent military surgeon happened to be replacing the regular surgeon, so 25 stitches for a sliced-off heel was routine stuff for him.
“I get those all the time here in Goa,” he confided.
While my bro’in-law was in intensive care, my sis and I remembered we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so we headed to the hospital canteen.
“I was about to close, but you can have my masala dosa,” the cook offered.
When we tried to pay for our meal, he shook his head.
“It could have been worse. Don’t thank me, thank St. Anthony out there in the garden.”
So we placed the lunch money at the feet of St. Anthony’s statue, knowing the man was right. Had the impact not sliced soft flesh, the consequences might have been grimmer.
Two months down the road, sole and foot are still bonded, but what lurks beneath the blackened gangrenous surface? Diabetes can be a cruel enemy. The doctors don’t have any answers yet. Only St. Anthony knows for sure.