An after-midnight struggle with a foreign concept

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 July, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 July, 1997, 12:00am

Midnight. The hour decreed by some inflexible law of Indian bureaucracy for international flights from almost anywhere to dump their bleary-eyed and helpless passengers at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport.

A turmoil of taxi-touts screams for custom.

The shouters are easy to ignore. Not so the whisperers. 'Taxi, sir. Come this way. I am having taxi.' I do all the right things: head for the prepaid-taxi kiosk, where you know the price is right and dismiss the cries of: 'Not needing prepaid. Price is same. Where you go? Delhi, 450 rupees [about HK$10] only.' I head to the front of the kiosk scrum, desperately guarding luggage. Putting down the prescribed 190 rupees, I grab the ticket and am bundled into a hot, musty Ambassador taxi and settle in for the nerve-wracking journey into town.

Things start well. We force no bullock-carts into ditches, drive open-windowed past no belching exhausts.

Suddenly a car lurches out of the night, crosses the path of the big diesel truck overtaking us, smashes across our stern, tearing off the rear bumper, and hurtles into the embankment.

Grim faced, the taxi driver gets out, announces the bumper will cost 5,000 rupees to repair and twists the loose end of it into the boot with the luggage. Then he strides over to remonstrate with our attacker and is nearly run over as the other car reverses out of the dent it has created in the mud and speeds off into the night.

I feel the G-force pushing me into the seat as the taxi heads off in hot pursuit. Think: 'Never catch him.' Sigh with relief.

Wrong. Taxi driver passes a hidden turning, catches a glimpse of gleaming metal, screeches to a halt, reverses into oncoming traffic and into side-road.

Then he jumps out, pulls the other driver from his car and starts smashing his fist into various vulnerable parts of the man's head and torso.

This is not Week Ending's finest moment.

Sitting in the taxi. I have heard too many stories of dumb foreigners getting into trouble by getting involved.

Suddenly the bloodied victim finds his strength and starts hitting back. Taxi driver cries out. 'Please help me, sir. You must help.' Valour is sometimes the better part of discretion. Dumb foreigner gets involved in trying to pull the two apart, fearing the alternative may eventually be worse. Luckily, they are both fairly respectful of foreign skin. Screams for help bring no one, although guards of some sort appear to be watching from the darkness maybe 100 metres away up the closed military road.

The two drivers shout at each other, grab each other's car keys and run out into the main road, fists flying. Foreigner takes out his luggage, prepared to hail another taxi.

Just then a policeman appears from nowhere. Starts hitting the driver of the other car about the chest and back.

Foreigner is ordered to put his luggage back into the taxi and we drive off to the police station. This is not, it turns out, to make a statement or give ourselves up for arrest. It is to fetch reinforcements. Three strapping cops pile in and accompany us back to the scene of the crime.

By the time we return, the other driver is lying in front of his car, unconscious, in a pool of urine. The policeman who waited with him greets his colleagues and disappears into the night.

The cops take a statement from the taxi-driver in which the only English word is repeated several times - by the interrogators, not the driver. It is 'accident'.

An auto-rickshaw is hailed, the limp body dragged into the back and the rickshaw-wallah sent off to the nearest hospital.

I am grateful (oh, shame) to be ignored by the police, as I'm driven off to the hotel.

'The police beat him up,' I say to the taxi-driver, by way of conversation.

'Yes. Indian police no good,' agrees taxi-driver.

'Are you in trouble?' 'Yes. You OK. I go back to hospital.' For the rest of the night I struggle heroically with my conscience.

Should I report the incident? To whom? The police? Alert the local media? End up having to appear in court and possibly be beaten unconscious? In the end I comfort myself with the thought that anything I say will only mean bigger trouble for the taxi-driver. And so the foreigner goes to sleep.

Conscience, you understand, is an alien concept in Hindu India. Especially to the police.