I was in Surat, India in late January 2008. My wife was sick. This is how she spends much of her time in India, so she went to bed. Her uncle Adij-bhai, #2, #3, which is what I called the other uncles because I couldn’t pronounce their names, and Neil, Tejal’s little cousin, wanted to take me out and show me Surat on a scooter. It was about 11 at night.
I looked at Neil who was 13 and asked, “Do you have a license?”
“Gearless. Gearless,” he replied.
“You don’t have a license, you’re not old enough to drive,” I said.
“Gearless. No need license,” Neil said.
I think my father-in-law knew he wasn’t legit, but he let it slide because we were with the Uncles.
As we drove through dark narrow back-alley’s, we merged onto a street into traffic. Thousands of people were still out on the sidewalks, hanging around shops and traffic was still very heavy.
After 15 minutes of driving, we pulled up to a sidewalk, which hundreds of people were standing on, to a little food stand. Many of the men were smoking and everyone was looking at me like I was lost. I hadn’t had a cigarette in days.
“You like pan?” Adij-bahi asked.
“What’s that?” I said.
“You try,” he said.
There are two types of pan one is beetle nut wrapped with a green edible leaf. You chew it like tobacco and spit the juice. The other type of pan is dessert and wrapped in a leaf. It is sweet and you eat it whole. We had the second kind.
I asked for a Coke which was handed to me in a glass bottle.
“Want anything else?”
“Yeah a menthol cigarette,” I said.
I’ve never seen anyplace that sold single cigarettes, but this place did.
I ate my pan with dozens of people watching to see if I would spit it out. I chewed and swallowed it. Then I took a big drink of Coke.
“Does it taste the same as in America?” they asked
“Yep. Sure does—exactly the same,” I said.
Then a beggar came up and started tapping me and asking for money. Hemmel-bhai, a.k.a. #2, said something in Gujarti and the beggar scampered away.
I smoked my cigarette and we climbed back on to the scooters. We drove around the city. We happened upon a street intersection. There was a guy walking his bike across the street. We had a red light. When the light turned green, the guy walking his bike stopped in the middle of the intersection. Hundreds of rickshaws and scooters took off and b-lined straight towards the guy. He tired to make his way through the traffic, then we heard a loud bang. A rickshaw had flipped over.
A cop ran over to help. Then everyone realized that an old woman and two children were in the back of the rickshaw. Instead of trying to get them out, the cop grabbed the guy with the bike and punched him several times in the head and face. Then four other guys jumped in and started kicking and punching him too.
Neil pulled the scooter up right next to the scene. We were only about four or five feet from the chaos. Neil started laughing hysterically.
“The guy get punched, hah?” Smiling and shaking his head up and down.
I did not want to get caught up in the mini-riot and I started yelling at Neil, “Go. Go. Go!”
“Go over there,” I screamed into his ear and pointed at the sidewalk across the street.
When he finally got us to safety I yelled, “Why did you go over there? You don’t even have a fucking license!”
He laughed and said, “Gearless,” and waved his hand in the universal sign for don’t worry.
A couple of minutes later the Uncles pulled up.
“Did you guys see that?” I said.
“Yeah,” #2 said. “In India there’s no need for courts on things like that. You handle them there in the streets. It’s called street justice.”
Sometimes I wish we could do things like that here in the States, that is unless I’m the one who caused the accident.