Like a Cat that has Three Lives!
What do you think about, when you may face a possible end to everything good in life? Have you ever thought about it? Let me tell you some ofmy experiences on that front!
I was a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University in State College in the early 1980s. At that time, Mita and I used to rent a one-bedroom student apartment on the campus. The warmth of central heating in this apartment made us feel quite cozy in winter. However, there was a marked difference in summer. The still air and the sweltering heat inside the apartment without an air conditioner made it sometimes difficult to sleep on summer nights.
In those days, making a phone call to India was an expensive affair. First of all, you had to reserve a time with the operator for the phone call. Then you had to wait patiently for the phone to ring – when the operator would connect you with your folks in India. Once you were on the call, you had to keep shouting at the top of your lungs, because otherwise, the people at the other end of the line could not hear you – the phone connection was so feeble! Needless to say, our calls to India were few and far between.
One wintry evening in February, we suddenly got a call from my father back in Kolkata. Mita answered the phone.
“You have to immediately come back to Kolkata!” was my father’s plea to Mita.
Why, what happened?
“Your father is very ill,” said my father to Mita.
We found out from him that Mita’s father had been paralyzed from a sudden stroke. Being the youngest daughter, Mita felt dejected to hear the sad news.
“I have to go to Kolkata soon!” she exclaimed.
The next day I called a travel agent in New York to arrange for her plane ticket. We decided that she would fly to Kolkata on the following weekend. This was the first time she would go back to Kolkata after our marriage. Thus, it was imperative that she take some gifts for our relatives. At that time, there was only a small shopping mall with one department store in State College, but there was a much larger shopping mall in Dubois, which was about an hour’s drive from State College.
On Tuesday of that week, after work, we went to Dubois Mall to do our shopping. It had snowed over the past weekend. There was ice piled on both sides of the narrow single-lane state highway that we took to go to the mall. We purchased a few gift items from the mall, had burgers for dinner at McDonalds, and then decided to head back to State College.
We started from the mall at around 9 PM. The highway was very dark on that winter night. We were mostly guided by the headlights of our own car. Sometimes, the beams of light from the oncoming vehicles would blind us for a few seconds. There were a few sharp turns on that road.
At one such turn, I failed to maneuver the curve and lost control. The car travelled beyond the curb of the road and climbed over the ice pile. Beyond the ice pile was a small ditch. The car fell in the ditch, and overturned. I did not know what was going to happen next. Never before in my life had I experienced such a violent accident! Would the car catch fire? Did the imminent end to our lives arrive? Would I try to remember some of the good things that happened in our lives before I would pass out? The fear of the physical suffering from the accident numbed me. I was scared to my bones to say the least.
Our car however, came to a stationary position within seconds -- back again on its wheels. It went through a complete flip. It was all mangled up. The glass on the front windshield was shattered, but fortunately we did not get hurt. We had our seat belts on – so we were also not ejected out of our car.
All of this violent commotion created a loud sound that tore the veil of an otherwise silent night in that neighborhood. There were a few houses nearby. The residents came out to find out what was the matter. They immediately called the state police. Soon a cop car and an ambulance car arrived. The medical workers came out with stretchers to rescue us. But with the help from the cop, we walked out safely from the damaged car, with just a few scratches.
Where are you from? Asked the police officer.
We are from State College.
What are you doing here?
We were returning to Sate College after shopping at Dubois Mall.
How did this accident happen?
I lost control of the car at the curve.
Did you fall asleep?
No! was my emphatic reply.
Can you call somebody from State College to pick you up?
We then called our friends in State College – Chinmoy and Jhumi Gosh, who gladly came with their young son in their car to rescue us from that accident and to take us back home. We were so dumbfounded by the loss of the car, and from the shock of the sudden accident, that we could hardly speak. Our friends realized our sorrow, and tried hard to console us for our loss.
“Shubho, you can always get another car. Thank God that both of you are alive and well!” Jhumi said to comfort us.
*** *** ***
Several years after this incident happened, I was at my work on a winter day in February of 1990. At that time, I worked at an office building owned by Polaroid, about a mile away from the Interstate highway -- Route 128 in Waltham, close to Boston.
I was busy that entire day with experiments in a research laboratory at work, and did not worry too much about the fact that a snowstorm had hit Boston. Around 4 PM that day, I went back to my office cubicle on the third floor. I observed from the office window that the parking lot was covered with a few inches of fluffy white snow. White snow flurries came down incessantly from the grayish-colored and somber-looking winter sky that evening, much like the flakes of cotton that filled the air, flying from the budding of the cotton plants in early spring in Bengal.
I came out of the office building and tiptoed to the parking lot around 6 PM. It was bone-chilling cold outside. The snow was blowing somewhat in the light wintry wind. I covered myself with my bright blue-colored parka, and put on woolen gloves to protect from the cold. Our office was on top of a small hill, and the parking lot was located down the slope. I came down the hill and walked in the snow to my car in the parking lot. My car at that time was relatively new. I had just got that new car two years ago; it was a tan-colored four-door sedan.
In those days, Mita and I used to rent an apartment in Woburn, about fifteen miles from Waltham. Although I could take the back roads from Waltham to reach Woburn, I preferred to travel on Interstate 128 highway – which was normally a quicker way, provided there was no traffic jam. So, that day also, I decided to follow the same route. Who knew that the events that culminated from my decision would stay in my memory for a long time to come?
I got the car started, and then cleaned the snow off the front windshield with a brush. In those days, most cars did not have anti-lock braking system. Thus, I slowly tapped on the brake, because I was afraid that if I pressed the brake too hard, the brakes would get locked. The car would then skid and hit the curbs of the parking lot. Anyway, I was able to maneuver the car out of the parking lot through the office complex onto the main road in the town and then stopped at the traffic light.
As the light turned from red to green, I took a slow right turn, and stayed in the right lane of the two-lane road, because I had to soon take the exit for Route 128 highway. This exit was located at the top of a small hill, and my car had to come down the slope of this hill to enter the highway. It was getting dark on the outside, and traffic was moving at a very slow pace, possibly because every car slowed down on the slippery and snowy highway.
As I came down the hill to enter Route 128, the car picked up speed. In order to slow down, I pumped on the brake of the car – probably a little harder than was necessary under the special circumstances of the slippery road surface. Immediately, I felt that the brakes of the car got locked, and I had lost control of the steering wheel.
My car started to skid, and in order to avoid collision with oncoming cars on the extreme right lane of the highway – where my car was heading, I steered the car towards the right curb of the highway – away from the lane of the fast-moving traffic. I noticed with alarm that a mound of snow had been piled up on the right edge of the highway by the snow ploughs that cleared the road surface throughout the day.
OMG! I panicked as my car went up on that pile of snow, which was packed solid. In front of my own eyes -- my car slowly flipped over. This all happened in a matter of split seconds before I could do anything to prevent the flip over!
The car then came to a complete stop in an upside-down position, with the wheels on top, and the roof of the car on the surface of the right edge of the road. I kept hanging in a perilous position parallel to the roof of the car, restrained to the driver’s seat by the seat belt. At that moment, I was not sure what was going to happen next. Would my car get hit by another car? Would my car burst into flames? Was this the last day of my life? I panicked. My whole body became numb and I guessed the end was near! The images from my life rolled in front of my eyes like a movie. I kept on thinking about whether I would ever see Mita again.
The way the events turned out from then on that day went beyond my imagination. Fortunately, the car did not catch fire. Soon a couple of concerned drivers stopped their cars, next to my car on the side of the highway. They came out of their cars and bent down on their knees to determine the condition of the unlucky driver in the upturned car!
“Are you okay?” asked somebody who had stopped by to help me.
Can you breathe?
Can you unfasten the seat belt?
We will call the police.
One of them was kind enough to dial immediately the emergency number - 911 for help.
Soon enough, I was startled by the loud noise of the sirens and the flashing red and blue lights of the police car that stopped by. The police officer helped to bring down the window glass on the driver’s door. He then helped to unfasten my seat belt and slowly pulled me out through the window.
Oh, what a relief it was to come outside of that car and get a whiff of the fresh cold winter air! After all, I came out of the accident without any broken leg or arm, and I could walk and move around without any pain. But for a while, I could not stop looking with shock and disbelief at the pathetic condition of my two-year old car.
How could this happen to me? What a major loss! I thought. Now what will I tell Mita?
Soon, a tow truck arrived at the scene of the accident to tow my ramshackle car away to the towing company’s lot.
Sir, you are lucky! You came out alive with a few scratches only! The policeman was surprised.
May be, you should go home and purchase a lottery ticket tonight – it’s your lucky day!
Do you need a ride? He asked.
Can you please drop me off at Polaroid in Waltham? I asked the cop who helped me.
I got in the back seat of his car and he dropped me off at my office building. My boss was kind enough to give me a ride back to my apartment that evening. Soon, I called my friends Rahul and Swapna Ray on the phone to narrate to them my scary car accident. They promptly showed up at our apartment within an hour that evening, to console me on the loss of my almost new car!
Subhash, you can get another car within a few days, but if you had lost your life, you would not be here talking to us! Swapna consoled me.
The shock of that accident stayed with me for several days. I also thought fondly about the kindness of the passerby who had called the police that day, and the genuine help I got from that cop to extricate me from the mangled car. To this day, I cannot believe that I had walked out of a topsy-turvy car which skidded on snow with just a few scratches -- for the second time in my life! Was it just a stroke of luck that fortune smiled on me each time?
*** *** ***
Several years after this incident had happened, we moved to Greenville in South Carolina, around Thanksgiving Day. I worked as an engineer in a factory in Clinton, which was a good thirty-minute drive from Greenville, on the interstate highway to Charleston, South Carolina. Mostly Caucasian young American males worked in that factory, with just a handful of African American coworkers. The facility was located in an impoverished part of South Carolina.
Once I was lost on my way to the factory, and had to take an unappealing detour through the town of Clinton. As I drove through the narrow town roads, I saw quite a few trailer parks filled with monotonous-looking white-painted trailer homes. The residents of these trailer homes were mostly Caucasian families, and some African American families. Other than those trailer homes, I saw some modest looking brown-colored single family ranch homes with black shingle roofs showing their age. There were a couple of gas stations with convenience stores, a Good Will store, a McDonald’s restaurant, and a small one-storied library building at the center of Clinton. I never stopped at the gas stations in the town to fill up my car.
After a few weeks of working in the factory, I got the vibe that most of the Caucasian workers in the factory had not worked before with an Asian Indian man.
What is your name? They would ask.
Subhas - was my reply!
What? Sub Hash?
Like sub quality of hash?
That was a common question!
Did they ask that question to deride me, or to show their utter disdain towards a person from another country? I was not sure about it. Did they never meet an Asian Indian man before? It was as if I journeyed into an uncharted territory – which was not very amenable to me.
How long you have been here?
More than ten years!
Is that right? Where did you live before you came here?
I lived in Boston for nine years.
I do not think that information was pertinent to them at that time. In order to get some meaningful work done on my project with their help, I had to team up with another Caucasian engineer working in that factory. I noticed that these workers were comfortable taking work directions from my colleague, and our work was always completed in time.
The incident that I am going to narrate happened in early December of that year, just after we had moved to South Carolina. I worked in the factory usually until 6 PM. On this particular Friday, I came to work in my wife’s car, and had it parked outside the factory in the parking lot. After spending the entire day doing experiments in the laboratory, and attending a teleconference with colleagues from other locations of the company, I called it quits. By the time I came outside to the parking lot, it was quite dark. It was chilly that night – but it was not snowing.
I walked to my car, unlocked the driver’s side door and got on the driver’s seat. I started the car, and drove away from the parking lot to the town road. I had to drive a few miles through the town to get to the highway on my way to Greenville. That day, as I drove through the town at a speed of about thirty miles per hour, I heard a strange sound coming from the car.
I focused my attention on this strange sound; it seemed like the whirring sound was emanating from the wheels of the car. Not only that, I felt the tires on all of the four wheels were vibrating with a wobbly motion. As I drove further through the town, the intensity of this sound picked up. I felt uneasy and decided that with this kind of sound coming from the tires, it might not be a prudent idea to get on the highway. There was a convenience store just before I entered the highway. I decided to turn into the parking lot of this store to check out the strange sound.
I shut the engine off and came out of the car to inspect the tires. I was not sure why the tires were vibrating when driven on the road. None of the tires was flat, yet those vibrated as I drove. You would not believe what I found from a close inspection of the tires on the car at that moment! If I had not stopped before entering the highway, my whole life story could have flashed in front of my eyes that Friday evening, much like that on the cold snowy afternoon a few years back in Boston.
To my utter dismay, I found out at that time that the lug nuts (which normally hold the tire to the wheel base) on all of the tires were quite loose. The loose tires on the wheel base vibrated when driven on the road and made that eerie sound. A few spins on the tires at highway speed would have definitely thrown the tires off the wheel base. The tires would have spun out of the car, and I would have lost complete control of the vehicle. Just imagine what a shiver went up my spine thinking about such a catastrophic event!
My very first thought was: who could have done this damage to me? It had to be somebody in the factory who played this cruel joke on me! What did I do to irk somebody to demonstrate such vengeance towards me? However, I came to my senses quickly and did not waste time at that moment brooding on this unknown fact.
The convenience store was located at the outskirt of the town in an empty area. I did not know where to seek help. I thought calmly about what to do next; then, I remembered there was a torque wrench with the spare tire in the trunk of the car. So I took this torque wrench out of the trunk, and began to tighten the lug nuts on each of the four tires with the wrench.
After tightening the nuts, I was all ready to resume my journey back home. As I drove home, I again pondered over the strange and untoward incident, and how close I had come to the imminent end! After dinner, I narrated this strange incident to Mita.
“Why would somebody want to end your life? Why are people in your factory so ruthless?”
I did not have a satisfying answer to her questions that day.
Today, I compare this obnoxious incident that happened in South Carolina with the car accident on a snowy highway in Boston or in Dubois, Pennsylvania. I still could not forget the kindness shown to me by complete strangers, and by my friends. I sometimes wonder whether the people in that factory in South Carolina were an aberrant group.
We stayed in South Carolina for just about a year, and promptly moved to New Jersey at the first opportunity. Since then we have made New Jersey our home.
(Posted December 1, 2016)
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Comments received from Rahul R. on December 9, 2016: "Enjoyed your three hair-raising incidents of brush with death. The most chilling is the third one. These are the people who have put you know whom in the top place. You have described the event impassionately, as if you were an observer, a good writing skill in my opinion. Godspeed to your writing."
Comments received from Debu M. on December 13, 2016: "All these 3 articles are fascinating... Thank you for your efforts in bringing out the enthusiasm among the Bengalis here to write about their experiences."