The Best Hotel
Jharkhand has a smooth, wide highway, but like many parts of the state, parts of the highway have no power. To compensate, drivers switch on their high beams. They honk urgently. Trucks and buses make a sport of overtaking each other, so there are often two enormous vehicles hurtling towards you, one directly in your lane.
We were in the smallest car on the road. It didn’t even have working lights, but this fact, instead of humbling our driver, prodded him to a maniac competitiveness. He hunched over the steering wheel and slammed on the gas. ‘I do this all the time,’ he cried. ‘It’s my job!’
After an hour or so, the traffic faded. But for the moon, we would have been steeped in darkness. It gleamed clear as a torch on the road, illuminating the forest on either side, revealing pathways and ponds. It was a moment of unexpected beauty and I was grateful for it.
Then Ramesh rolled up his window. ‘Watch for Naxalites,’ he warned.
In Jharkhand, we watched constantly for Naxalites. The leftist extremists planted bombs on buses, trains and bridges, but they also struck in the dark, robbing and killing people before melting into the nearby forests or mountains. To be in ‘Naxalite territory’, as we were now, was to be ready for ambush. If that happened I was to step up with my media credentials, making clear I was worth keeping alive.
What would Ramesh do?
‘I will hug my comrades and invite them to dinner in my home,’ said the innocent.
So we rolled up the windows, switched off the radio and accelerated, speeding down the highway. We willed the border to come. But what we saw ahead could not be blamed on the Naxalites.
Traffic had backed up, and the dozens of buses and trucks that had raced past us now stalled, deflated. Drivers, all of them men, strolled up and down the highway, shadowy figures grasping cigarettes and cellphones. They passed on the news – there had been an accident. The police and an ambulance had only just arrived.
We parked behind everyone else, and our driver turned to me. ‘You wait here,’ he said. ‘I’ll go look.’
Ramesh agreed. ‘Wait inside the car until we know what’s happening.’
They were afraid for me, and their fear was not unfounded. Women were a reliable target around here, even when it wasn’t dark and chaotic with men. But I could not afford to be a captive of their fears, or to succumb to mine. If I did, I would retreat, if not from this place, and this pursuit, then some other. If I did, the men might not win, but I would definitely lose.
So we got out of the car together and started walking to the head of the traffic jam, past the buses and trucks, the accumulations of fractious, fidgety men, the women seemingly secure but still vulnerable behind rolled-up windows. We walked for fifteen minutes.
A policeman said the driver of the motorcycle, in overtaking a bus, had flown into the face of an oncoming truck. The driver was thrown off the motorcycle, and there he was – a misshapen heap, broken but still breathing. He was no more than a teenager. When the truck hit he flew, but the young man sitting behind him was plucked off the bike and dragged along, in the opposite direction. No one got the truck’s number plate, or even knew where it was now. But several of us could see the young man.
‘Look,’ said someone. ‘A finger!’
A policeman pounced on it and stuck it in a garbage bag.
With the help of bystanders, using their cellphones for light, the police then gathered up the body parts they could see – a hand, a leg, some unidentifiable bits – and eventually, at the base of a tree down the road, the young man’s severed head.
The family members arrived. There were six of them, and they stepped out of their white Maruti van in order of gender. First came the men, and they went straight to the driver of the motorcycle. Then came the women, in salwar kameezes and saris, high heels and glass bangles, and they were still, as though they had expended all their energy in that single step from van to road. If they spoke, or even wept, I didn’t hear them – several of the truck drivers had got tired of waiting and they pounded their horns like bullies.
A family member walked over. ‘They had gone to buy mithai,’ he said, with a bewildered expression. ‘So many guests had come, but there were no sweets to feed them.’
Images by Sonia Faleiro
From ‘The Best Hotel’ by Sonia Faleiro; the full story can be found in Granta 124: Travel. You can now buy the issue or subscribe and receive four issues a year of the best new writing.