When Chet finally reached Dehradun, he stepped off the train expecting something different. Instead, everything seemed familiar. The air was slightly cooler, but the dust and the noise and the regular busyness of a station were all very recognizable.
Chet had read the instructions in the guidebook about catching a bus up the hill to Mussoorie, but he wasn’t feeling inclined to a bus ride. Another common option, apparently, was a shared taxi, so he planned to make his way to the taxi stand near the main road to possibly find others going in the same direction. Chet ended up waiting for almost an hour before pushing himself on two Japanese travelers, a young couple looking very cautious about their liaisons. After agreeing on a three-way price with the driver, Chet offered to sit in the front seat and give the back to the nervous couple. It wasn’t long, however, before his own nerves were being tested beyond what he was ready for.
The road wound gently out of the city without covering much elevation. The taxi driver seemed to know his way and his car – a late model Ambassador Classic, the roundly shaped, four-door sedan often referred to as the “king of Indian roads.” It is a product of India, made by Hindustan Motors since 1958 with very few modifications over the years. The Ambassador is used extensively as a taxi, especially in cities, and is the car of choice for many bureaucrats. With its vintage body style, it gives most people that feeling of nostalgia. It worked for Chet.
It was quite apparent that the Japanese couple had been fighting before embarking on the taxi ride. They were not talking to anyone, especially not to each other, and they seemed miles apart in the big back seat. As soon as Chet began to feel relaxed, the taxi began to climb the hill. Suddenly, everything seemed to become pronounced – the sharpness of the curves, the speed and sway of the vehicle, and the height of the cliffs. Equally disturbing was the steady flow of vehicles rolling down the hill, some literally – with their engines turned off to save fuel. Chet's senses were awakened and his nerves were triggered. His feet hit the floorboards inadvertently once or twice before he decided to strap on the seatbelt at his side. He scrambled for the familiar safety device, and yet quickly found out that this one lacked the spring-loaded feature that makes most seatbelts tighten up around your body to give you that sense of safety. As he clicked it in, he looked down at the loose strapping and feared that if the car were to stop suddenly he would be jerked around in his seat so badly that he might be better off without the belt. But before he could further entertain his desperate thoughts, a massive bus came around the corner toward the taxi. Immediately Chet thought to himself, It’s over – we’re dead. In that split second, he was sure that they had nowhere to go, and that the bus would not be able to alter its course or its speed within that fraction of time. The taxi driver swerved violently, perhaps preferring a free fall off the cliff to a head-on collision with the big bus. Chet closed his eyes tightly, and waited for the impact. But there was only silence, pure silence. His first thought was that they were perhaps airborne, waiting for impact on the hillside below. But there was nothing. Then, slowly the sound of reality came back. With his eyes still firmly shut, Chet could hear his heart thumping recklessly in his chest; then, a soft whimper coming from the young Japanese girl in the back seat; then, the driver muttering prayers. As Chet opened his eyes, he could see dust swirling around outside. Then, he could see another taxi coming down around the same corner and passing slowly in front of them, as if in slow motion, its passengers peering at them with inquisitive faces. There was no sign of the offending bus – presumably still storming down the hill. Their taxi was perched on the shoulder of the road near to the cliff, but safe. Chet could not explain it. It was a miracle.
It is good, once in a while, to look death in the eyes, and then to go on living.