I was having my Onam vacation in college, so Amma and I decided to pay a visit to Dad, who was in Surat at that time.
It’s a nice place. Surat. Mom and I enjoyed visiting Acha a few times there. His quarters in the BSNL colony was HUGE. Three bedrooms, a huge hall, a nice balcony, a lovely fire-staircase at the back of flat. Good neighbours, nice climate, a colourful Navrathri festival.. All in all, it was a great vacation.
I met a lot of people during Acha’s tenure at Surat. A lot of his office friends from different parts of the country.
But one that stands out is Vinay Bhaiyya. Acha’s driver.
In his early thirties, Vinay Bhaiyya was a rotund, good-natured man, always with a smile to offer. He never spoke too much, only when spoken to. He was always there when Acha or we needed him, without so much as a grumble. He would tell Acha that he’ll take me and Amma shopping during the day-time. He used to persistently invite us to his house to meet his wife. He had been married only two-three years. He was so happy when finally we paid a visit to his house. They treated us royally. He even got his sister, who owned a tailoring shop, to take me and Amma around the markets in Surat so that we could get a good deal while shopping. Everyone in his family knew us well, because we treated him more as family than just a driver.
It was finally time for Amma and me to return to TVM. My sister had come down to Surat from Mumbai for a few days of family time as well. The plan was to catch the Rajdhani Express from Baroda. The train departed from Baroda at 10:40 PM. So Acha suggested that we go by road till Baroda, since it’ll be a bit of extra earning for Vinay Bhaiyya also. We were to leave from Surat by around 4:30 in the evening. Surat-Baroda is a 5 hours journey by road.
Somehow by the time we left, it was 5. There were many last-minute visitors who had come to say bye to me and Amma. We knew we were a bit late, but nevertheless, confident of making it in time.
We set off in the Maruti Omni. We seemed to be doing well on time. Mom and I were excited that we were finally getting to travel in Rajdhani Express, a long-cherished dream of ours. I was dreaming of the luxurious seats, the yummy food, etc… My sister was to take a train to Mumbai from Baroda the same night, at 10:45.
At around 9, we stopped on the way for dinner. A small little dhaba. We told Vinay Bhaiyya also to have dinner. He sat at the table next to us and ate.
We set of at 9:30 again, Vinay Bhaiyya assuring us that we were pretty much on time and had nothing to worry about. Even when there was traffic block on the highway due to trucks, he kept assuring us that we will be on time.
By around 10, we started to get a little apprehensive. Dad, who was sitting in the front seat, kept asking him how much longer it would take. He kept assuring that we were almost there. He had started to drive at an insane speed by then. The traffic went past in a blur. I felt as though we were in one of those race-cars. Our worry was no longer whether we would reach the station on time. It was whether we would reach the station alive or not.
By 10:30, dad asked him whether we would reach the station at all. He said “Bus pahunch gaye sir. Aage hi hai.” ( We’ve almost reached sir. It’s just a little ahead).
We did reach. At 10:38 PM. We could hear the train’s departure being announced. And just as it happens, our train was not on the platform we had arrived on (Murphy’s Law at work in full force). We had to climb the foot-bridge. Vinay Bhaiyya brought the Omni to a screeching halt in front of the station, grabbed a few bags himself, and then we all ran. We ran. Mom and I had quite a lot of luggage, so it was no easy task. When we finally reached the other platform, we were told that the train had just left.
My Rajdhani dreams came crashing down.
Then dad and Chechi ran to another platform to see if she’ll get her train at least. Well, Lady Luck just didn’t want to favour us that day. Both of them came back, dejected, exhausted, out-of-breath.
Dad told us to wait where we were, while he went and cancelled our tickets. Vinay Bhaiyya said he would go keep our luggage in the van and wait there, as he hadn’t parked the van properly.
All of us were still in a daze. We had never missed a train before, after all.
Finally, by around 11:15, we decided to drive back to Surat, and then travel again after a few days. The four of us trudged to the entrance of the station, where our car was parked. We couldn’t find Vinay Bhaiyya anywhere, though. We tried calling him, he wasn’t answering his phone.
He finally appeared after a few minutes, panting, struggling to talk. When we asked him where he’d been, he said he went to get medicine. We noticed that he looked a bit pale. He had been complaining of indigestion for a few days. We then suggested that we stay the night somewhere in Baroda, and return to Surat the next day morning. But he assured that he was alright, could drive, and that we can start right away. My sister offered to sit in front, so that my dad could relax in the back seat. We told Vinay Bhaiyya that we’ll stop for chai somewhere, and then start off.
It was around 11:45 by now. We had barely gone a kilometer from the station. The roads were quite empty by then. Suddenly, Vinay Bhaiyya collapsed to the side, onto my sister, in the middle of the road. But not before he had switched off the ignition, and my sister quickly pulled the hand brake. We panicked. His head was lolling from side to side, and he was unconscious, his breathing a loud rattle. We stopped a young couple who was going by on a scooter, and luckily the guy happened to be a doctor. He said we have to take him to the hospital immediately. He and I ran to a clinic across the road and got the on-duty RMO. By the time we got back, a huge crowd had gathered on the road, and they had somehow managed to put him in an auto. My dad was in no state to drive. The RMO said that we have to rush him to the nearest hospital, about two kilometres away. One of the on-lookers offered to drive mom, chechi and me to the hospital, while dad went in the auto with Vinay Bhaiyya and a few others who had gathered.
By the time we reached the hospital, they had already taken him inside. My dad was hysterical. One of the few times I’ve seen him so. Vinay Bhaiyya was taken inside in a stretcher. But the doctor didn’t need to even take him inside the ward to examine him.
He was dead. On arrival.
Cause: Massive heart-attack.
A man of 32, died of heart-attack. Apparently, he had major blocks in his heart, and he mistook the discomfort that gave to be indigestion.
It was like a nightmare. A scene out of a movie. It’s the sort of thing that you think happens to others.
Dad called up his family and informed them. He signed the autopsy papers, went with the attendants when they took the body to the mortuary… and finally, we all went to a hotel for the night. It was about 3 AM by then.
None of us slept that night. All we could see was his body slouching over to the side in the car. Over and over again. We all wished it was a bad dream, but that’s not how life is, is it? We were ridden with guilt. He was with us, and this happened… if only…
The next morning, when we reached the hospital, we saw his wife sitting in the courtyard, crying inconsolably. All we could do was hug her. A widow at 29.
We returned to Surat the same day. There was a memorial service at his house after a few days that we attended. All eyes were on us. They were greatful that we were there till his last moment. They were full of questions as to what happened. His wife even innocently asked us if he had said anything about her in those last few moments.
It’s been a few years now. Like they say, time slowly fades away memories from your mind. Life resumed as normal for us.
But what about him? His family? His young widow? The unmarried younger sister who he was responsible for marrying off? What about all his unpaid debts? What about his mortgage? Till dad left Surat in 2008, he used to go over once-in-a-while, help them financially, and generally keep enquiring. All of us felt terribly guilty for what had happened.
And as goes with human nature, our life became full of if only’s.… if only we had left half an hour earlier.. if only we had not wasted time in idle chit-chat with the neighbours at the last minute. If only we had finished packing earlier. If only we had taken ten minutes less with our dinner.
We could’ve saved the rotund, good-natured driver, who was always ready with a smile. Who spoke only when spoken to. Who heartily invited us to his home. Who came with dad at 3 in the morning to the station to pick us up. Who had had the presence of mind to switch off the ignition before collapsing, because he didn’t want his Sir and family to be in danger.
But ya, life goes on. With time, we might completely forget about him. I don’t even know why I suddenly remembered him today.
That’s why I wrote this down here. Because I never want to forget him or that night. It may not have affected our life the way it affected his family. But we were part of it. We saw him die right in front of our eyes. And even though we have no contact with his family in distant Surat now, every time they remember his death, they will automatically remember us too. And every time we remember our visit to Surat, mom and I will remember this incident.
And I wanted to share it with everyone. I know it’s an insanely long post. But he deserves at least this much, don’t you think? After all, he lost his life trying to get us to the station in time…