Guilt Trip (07 August 2020)

I’ve always had a mordant fascination with the notion of fate. This is not to say I harbour any unconditional love towards what fate has to offer me, but curiosity? Yes. Obsession? Perhaps. Contemplating about fate generally involves the mundane repertoire orbiting around free-will, destiny and other such concepts that humans have been tediously pondering since the beginning of time. What I am captivated by, however, is the idea of guilt, and how it’s driven by the caprices of fate. Discussing this would require me to delve into an unfortunate incident from the summer of 2015; an outlandish tale that often appears too surreal to be true.

I went for a vacation to Puducherry with my family in the summer of 2015. This was when I was segueing into 12th standard; the vacation was meant to serve as a much-needed break before I faced the brunt of academics for the rest of the year. I spent my last vestiges of liberty traversing through the country-side, braving the tropical heat and humidity. The open skies and the lush fields were a stark contrast to the industrial city life I was accustomed to. The rural roads were surprisingly well-maintained, allowing us to cruise through the countryside on a bus. I visited a number of quaint villages dotted across coastal Tamil Nadu — quaint enough to elude maps and the GPS. What stands out, however, is a particularly memorable trip to Auroville.

Auroville is this commune somewhere along the edges of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Named after the social reformer Sri Aurobindo, it was a stab at creating a utopia with unabashedly progressive ideals that would put our resident champagne socialists to shame. I was rather impressed by the sophisticated architecture and the ostensibly peaceful aura that its premises evoked. Nevertheless, the chronic sightings of what seemed like drug-fueled hippies besmirched my impression of Auroville a fair bit. Beneath the plush tapestry of spirituality and brotherhood lay concealed an adolescent craving for hedonism and freedom. While I was grappling with my mixed feelings towards Auroville, it was time to head back to town of Puducherry where we were lodged. This is when fate began to unravel.

After a long day of sightseeing, I was to board a bus back to Puducherry. I found myself at this roadside shack indulging myself in some well-deserved coconut water. Although my parents and our fellow passengers had already boarded the bus, I thought to take it easy and spend some time blissfully sipping coconut water in the backdrop of the somber rural landscape. Finally, after a bit of hounding from my parents and a frustrated honk by the driver, I called it a day and boarded the bus. I was in no hurry to return to Puducherry, and felt no misgivings about making the bus wait for a bit longer.

I rested my eyes as soon as I was seated comfortably in the bus. Shortly after the bus started to cruise, my mind was racing with scrambled thoughts of the trip, juxtaposed uneasily against a reluctance of going back home. Home meant a return to the humdrum of competitive exams and the boards — the dreaded rite of passage all of us were doomed to suffer. I had hardly begun reminiscing when I felt a violent thud that threw me off of my seat. Before I could open my eyes, the bus screeched to an abrupt halt. We instinctively knew something ghastly had happened. The shattered windows left debris all across the bus. I heard wails of terror in the background. I was relieved to note that my parents were unharmed. We cautiously disembarked from the bus to make sense of what just occurred. I wasn’t quite ready for what I was about to witness.

The front of the bus was wrecked beyond recognition. The dark smoke from the engine obscured the full extent of its damage. A mangled motorbike lay around 20 metres away. Further away lay its erstwhile rider — surrounded by a motley crew of good Samaritans, curious onlookers, and babbling busybodies. I think I caught a glimpse of his motionless corpse in a pool of blood. There was no doubt in my mind that the poor biker was dead on the spot, having rammed into the bus head-on.

The ensuing cacophony was viciously chaotic. The bus driver, who just a few minutes earlier had been frustratedly honking at me, was now pale beyond recognition. He earnestly pleaded his innocence to the mob that marshalled at the scene, consisting of the denizens of the nearby village we started out from. Despite his tearful protestations, he was beaten by the vengeful mob. They were baying for his blood. After inflicting a few violent knocks, the mob let go of him for a moment, just long enough for him to swiftly flee the scene in a passing auto. While we were waiting at the scene for the next bus to arrive, I heard an account of the crash from the conductor. According to him, the biker swerved onto the wrong side of the road, straight into the speedy bus. Nothing much could’ve been done, since both the bus and the bike were running fast. The conductor blamed the crash on bad timing, on fate; the bike rider was merely a victim of circumstance.

Days after the crash, I wondered if the bus driver did the right thing by fleeing the scene. I held a feeble grudge against him for staining my holidays with blood. The accident’s chaotic imagery played on loop somewhere in the back of my mind. However, I’m uncertain about his liability — couldn’t quite blame him for being unlucky. Or was it really about luck? That honk, that godforsaken honk returned from oblivion. My own actions in the moments leading up to the crash sprung into my mind. I was dillydallying around the shack and delayed the bus. If not for that delay, the bus would, in all probability, not have run into the biker. There was only one inescapable conclusion — I played a part in the crash. It happened…. because of me.

I’m not insinuating that I feel responsible for the crash. The circumstances simply do not lend themselves to such certainty. Instead, I’m plagued by sporadic surges of guilt, moments of regret connected to my momentary indolence. I never imagined the price of my lethargy would be someone else’s cruel death, but so it was. It was daunting to know that somewhere out there, in a life far removed from mine, someone inadvertently lost a father, son, husband, friend — because of me. How else have I unintentionally hurt people? What should I do to not hurt anybody again? I tried to reason out some answers to these questions over the last few years. I cannot say I have been successful.

In the early days of discovering my culpability, I tried to rationalise my way out of guilt. I was armed with a coherent set of arguments that I thought could acquit me through the sheer force of logic. I never intended to cause the crash when I was lounging around the shack, I could never have known the crash would have occurred. If history played out differently with me getting into the bus diligently, perhaps the crash would have still happened? It was, after all, just a matter of a few seconds. Or perhaps, the rider might’ve swerved into some other automobile. The possibilities were endless. The problem with these hypotheticals, of course, is that history did not play out differently, and there is nothing I can do about it. While I could appreciate the cold logic of such arguments, they failed to relieve my guilt. This is perhaps the way conscience operates — a realm that cares little for logic and rationality, and is enslaved to the mysterious impulse of sentiment.

The outsized consequences of my innocuous lethargy injected a sense of significance into every little decision I was making for a short while. After all, even the most innocuous of choices could avalanche into monumental consequences. Romantic comedies in the vein of About Time (really good watch, highly recommended) and Love Wedding Repeat (avoid at all costs) illustrate this point pretty well. The problem of course, is that it’s simply impossible to live this way. We make infinite little to large choices every moment of our lives. To subject every choice to a torturous calculus would be a hopeless endeavour. I had to accept that the human condition is doomed to be suspended in uncertainty. We never really know the real consequences of our actions. We think we do — but we don’t. Much of life happens outside of our field of vision; a vision that is hilariously myopic, unable to see much of life beyond ourselves — and not even that on most days. Occasionally, we come across instances of absurdity, where the idiosyncrasies of life fleetingly reveal themselves for a moment. One can only hope such moments, if unfortunate, are few and far between. My guilt was probably born in one such moment of uncertainty and absurdity somewhere in rural Tamil Nadu. It would be poetic if I could find a semblance of redemption amidst such a moment as well.

A couple of days after the crash, I was reading the newspaper. Buried deep in the local-news section was a story of a miracle. It was reported that the organs of a road accident victim in rural Tamil Nadu had been air-lifted to a hospital in Chennai for a transplant in the nick of time. I wasn’t quite sure this was the same case as the one I encountered because the location did not seem to tally precisely. The hope of it being the same, despite its ambiguity, has been vague source of consolation. Over the years, as I failed to rationalise my way out of guilt, I have grown to accept that this is the closest thing to closure I’m going to find. If not an antidote for my guilt, I am certain it makes for a happy ending.

Originally published at the NUJS Writer’s Block. I’d like to thank the good people at the NUJS Writer’s Block and the MagCom for giving me a platform to write stuff.

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