In India, I have come to suspect that there’s a sentence that makes sense to American drivers that never crosses the mind of Indian drivers. That sentence is “I almost got in an accident!” We Americans feel a great deal of stress at near-misses–and I’m not going to give up that fear. In the famous areas of Rishikesh, the only vehicles allowed are motorcycles and official Jeeps, which ferry people from one end of the street to the other. Unless you get on a Jeep at one of the far ends, you have to walk, and the Jeeps come barreling through with no reason to stop. When I was walking with my friend and his children, this particularly disturbed me. I’m going to take this as an absolute: you should always slow down when you see a six-year-old in the road.
But the feeling that something almost happened, that a near-miss is important to note, seems foreign to Indian drivers. You didn’t almost get in an accident, they seem to say. You didn’t. If there was no accident, there was no almost-accident.
The different states of India are all one nation, of course, but they have different road taxes, and drivers must often stop and pay when crossing from one state to another. My day-long travel had me in a short space of time crossing the corners of a few close states: Uttarakhand into Himachal Pradesh into Haryana into Punjab. At the state crossing, the driver would pull the car over, say, “I need to pay tax,” take his documents with him, and be back in moments.
It didn’t seem different, at first, in the last border between Haryana and Punjab. The border seemed a little more elaborate than others, with a line of toll booths, and my driver stopped before them to get out and pay. (I presumed that hired tourist vehicles needed a different approach than private cars, that could pay the toll and go.) So he left the car running and left me alone. To wait. And wait.
I texted my friend in Patiala and told him the border where I was waiting. He replied, “Good, so you will be here in 30 minutes.” I replied, then explained the American saying “God willing and the creek don’t rise.” And I waited some more.
I grew concerned. But nothing was happening.
Then a police officer came and knocked on my passenger window. I said “Hello,” tentatively.
“Hello sir.” He paused. “Would you like some tea?”
“Yes, thanks. That would be great.”
He nodded. “Would you like a cold drink?”
“Yes, that would be better.”
A nod. “Would you like water?”
I paused. “No, thank you.”
“Would you like a cold drink?”
He walked away.
A while later, four other policemen approached. “Hello, sir. You are from which country?”
“USA,” I said. “America.”
“Ah. Which city?”
“No, no. Detroit.”
He turned his head. “New York?”
“I guess… it’s near New York.”
The officer looked at me. “When you come to Punjab, you come to enjoy your visit, you come to be happy. And you see the people of Punjab, and you want the people of Punjab to be happy, right?”
He pointed to the other officer. “His son, he lives in New York. His son lives in America.”
“So you come in Punjab, you are going to Patiala, yes?”
“Yes, when my driver gets back.”
I thought over what he said. There was something to the tone of what he said, something much like, “We can take care of it right here in Brainerd.” But I really didn’t know. So I took out my wallet and grabbed a 100-rupee note.
“Oh no,” said the officer. “No, I don’t need.”
Soon the officers were starting to walk away. “Your driver will be back in two minutes.”
I looked at the time. “Two minutes from now will be 3:36.” They walked away.
Maybe I hadn’t offered a sufficient bribe. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to bribe. Maybe they were coming back to drum up some charges that I was trying to bribe an agent of the law. Bribe, let me say, to get them to do exactly what they were supposed to do. But I thought I could have some digital evidence in my favor.
I texted Rupinder. Okay strange thing
Punjab police came to my car where I waited
It sounded like they wanted a bribe
He asked me how it happened, but in a moment, the driver came back. The older police officer spoke to him at the window while one of the officers gave me a plastic cup of Mountain Dew. He asked for my phone number. It seemed like he wanted somehow to keep track of which foreigners were staying in the area, but when I gave him the card, he said something again about his son in New York.
And soon we drove on.
The driver said that the police were just getting their lunch when he arrived, so they stopped to talk. Then they wondered if his passenger was getting uncomfortable waiting alone, so they came over to make sure I was doing okay.
I realized I was still caught in the way of thinking. I was in a situation where my fears were raised, and I clung to the idea that something almost happened. Maybe nothing happened. Maybe the police officers were just curious. Maybe it was a kind of theatre–press the tourist to the point where he thinks he’s being asked for a bribe so that you can tell the tourist that police do not take bribes. But nothing almost happened at the border to Punjab. Only what happened happened.