12 November 2012

No Country For Ambulances

Something happens to Chennai at around 6 in the evening. As though someone rang a giant school bell over the city, students, workers, teachers, parents and kids dash out onto the street, and simultaneously rush home. And like most people, I ended up in the passenger seat of a car, peering out at the endless pair of glowing red backlights in front of us.

Just as I was about to rant about the traffic, a faint wail caught my ear. I strained for a moment, until it became louder. An ambulance siren. My friend glanced at the rear view mirror and chuckled, perhaps more out of sympathy than apparent sadism. “That guy is screwed,” he remarked.

It was true. I’d always sympathized with the poor souls whose misfortune it was to end up in the back of an ambulance during rush hour. They might as well have turned off the sirens, ordered for a cup of coffee from the roadside vendor, and quietly waited for the roads to clear.

But presently, the ambulance, with unusual perseverance and tenacity, clawed its way through the traffic, nudging past reluctant auto rickshaws and bikes. Just as it neared us, the lights turned green. And for a minute, I was shaken.

For almost immediately, two dozen auto rickshaws, buses, sedans and bikes lunged forward. Most of them were just in front of the ambulance, and until then simply idling. But in a second, every motorist forgot about the siren. Like raging bulls in Pamplona, they charged forward, relentlessly trying to gain an extra meter.

As my friend calmly drove across the intersection, I saw the ambulance meekly trailing behind. Most of the cars did give way. Not by stepping aside or pulling over. Why do that when they could slam the accelerator and overtake?

It was just a sight. But by the time I reached home that image had fermented in my mind. The image of several men in khaki shirts, swooping down at the same time to kick start their auto rickshaws. And next to the auto rickshaws, helmet wearing bikers, most of them office goers, twisting their bike, trying to slip into the narrowest of gaps. And behind all of these eager motorists, a solitary ambulance, deaf to its own wailing siren, helplessly idling in traffic.

What hope remains for a society in which ambulances have to outrun autos, bikes, cars and buses, in order to save a life?

Relax, my friend chuckled in amusement, watching my face turn melancholy. “It’s because of the traffic, that’s all,” he offered. What more can you expect in such overcrowded roads, he added. I nodded my head, but silently refused to shake the thought.

It wasn’t because of overcrowding that the ambulance was left stranded. It wasn’t even because of the suspiciously long red lights. It was because of a simple thought of selfishness. The same thought that helped power bikes and autos when the light turned green. The same thought that ensured every inch of the road was occupied. For all those motorists, getting home, dropping a fare or catching the evening show at Sathyam was more important than taking a few minutes to let a dying soul pass by.

It’s that selfishness that frightens me. For its present in my auto driver, the biker who overtakes the auto driver…and perhaps most frightening of all, it’s present in me.

We’ve become a country that forsakes our ambulances. Sounds trivial perhaps. Until you and I peer through the windows of an ambulance someday, wondering why we are denied the opportunity to reach the hospital in time.
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