I’d just driven through a tiny village called Ste-Calixte de Kilkenny in the Laurentides region of Quebec, around 150kms from Montreal. I was doing a sedate one-twennie, Bunty (my Civic) hardly even twitching, so perfectly surfaced is the Autoroute 335. You could easily doze off at the wheel and stray over the deliberately knurled band created at the border of the asphalt to make the vehicle wobble and jerk you awake.
Dusk wasn’t far off and I wanted to get home before it got really dark. I began speeding up a bit when a pick-up truck careered by me going the opposite way, kicking up a cloud of dust and gravel from the side of the road. For an instant, visibility in front turned to zero and I didn’t see the metallic object, the size of a small suitcase, fall off the truck onto the middle of the asphalt. Before I could react, my front left tire went over it with a sickening crunch. I knew that I’d be lucky if it was just a flat.
It wasn’t just a flat. It was a flat with a badly bent rim that had taken the shape of the number ‘5’ in Bengali -> ৫. I groaned and then, quickly suppressed it. We Dutts are known to rise to any unforeseen debacle with a song. We hum loudly in moments of stress. I remember my father on the #3 platform of Durgapur Railway Station, at 9pm, watching the Delhi-Kalka Mail diminishing in size over the horizon, with us kids by his side. We’d just missed it. He broke into “Na, jeyo na, rojoni akhono baki “(Don’t go away, the night is still young). A cycle rickshaw had taken us back home that night.
I picked a hum that was suitable for the job ahead. It couldn’t be too fast-paced, as then it would take my breath away and sap my energy. I had a wheel to change. A hard physical task by any standards. I was tired and grimy from all the dust, so I settled on an old one by Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Keno chokher joley bhijiye dilem na, shukhno dhoolo joto'(Why didn’t I save my tears before they turned to dust).
As my humming auto-selected it’s frequency and amplitude, I opened the trunk. And I gaped. The insides of the trunk had been swept clean. There was no spare tire, no tools, nothing. Even the rechargeable flashlight was gone, along with my tennis bag. It’s then that I noticed that the paint had come off around the trunk keyhole, with multiple deep scratches, a clear sign of unauthorized entry.
There was a culvert by the side and I sat down to take stock, while I looked around, drawing in deep breaths, trying to calm myself. This was real back country, so flat and desolate that you could easily discern the curvature of the earth. And then there is the raw beauty of the landscape. For a while, I couldn’t help but stare in awe at the countryside.
It was simply gorgeous. Manicured fields, rolling from horizon to horizon, rich with corn, the stalks swaying drunkenly in the breeze, bursting to be harvested. In the distance, stood white farm houses and barns with lipstick red roofs, stainless steel grain silos glinting in the setting sun. Neatly bundled bales of hay stood at equal distances, ready to be carted away. A massive harvester lay still at the far end, like a slumbering diplodocus, by the edge of a thick pine forest which went all the way round the perimeter of the farm. The air was so fresh, any carbon monoxide molecules loitering around would automatically achieve minority status.
The farmhouse/barn complex had a beautiful fence all around. The roof bristled with satellite dishes and antennae. Several fancy cars were standing by. Sociologically, with satellite TV and every amenity available close by, rural settlements have now turned into mini urban centers. Lifestyles of rural folk now closely resemble city dwellers, the only difference being that if you want to visit your neighbor, you have to drive there. And of course there is the astonishing natural beauty all around.
I gazed at the surreal scenery. All that was missing was one of those once-ubiquitous church spires. Church attendance has definitely seen a decline in Quebec over the past two decades, with recurring revelations of skulduggery and pedophilia among catholic priests. Nevertheless, it felt like I was inside a picture postcard. Who’d have imagined that one day, a haggard looking, balding, blarney-writing Bengali would be found sitting on a culvert next to a cornfield in Quebec, humming Rabindra Sangeet.
Be that as it may, I kept my humming volume down. Even the corn have ears, they say. Corn have ears, ears of corn. I giggled at the play on words, then immediately grew serious at the thought that I could perish here and never be found, to be excavated 10000 years later, mummified by the freezing cold. I could be the next Otzie, the guy who was found in 1991, mummified on the Austrian Alps, 5500 years after being jabbed multiple times by a spear from behind.
They would give me a name too. Maybe ‘TP206’. (TP – Tired Peter), so named because they would determine that I’d had too much sex when I was alive. I would be researched and written about extensively. Pretty research assistants would be asked to stay back late to shtup their project guides over me. Kinky women who liked to make it with mummies would hover over me. You could google me, TP206, in AD4679 and find a million page views.
As I sat there, my hopes of surviving the night diminishing, I thought I heard a deep rumble. It sounded like that baritone voice on Mount Sinai, in 1379BC that had spoken to a guy called Moe and given him a list of ten things that we aren’t supposed to do. I must be hallucinating, I thought and then began having more immediate concerns. I didn’t even know how to build a bloody fire with sticks. How long would it take for me to freeze to death? Will I be able to live off the land like those special forces guys? Maybe I could eat the corn. Wish it was a chic-pea plantation and not corn. Chic-peas make you pass wind. Like Chernobyl, the smell would carry and soon folks in that farm house over there, would come out to investigate.
Another noise cut in. An approaching tractor, with 2 pink-cheeked guys, one around 60, grizzled Edward G. Robinson look-alike, redneck written all over. And the other not a day older than 10. Mark Lester clone. The tractor eased to a halt and both regarded me, their faces deadpan. These parts, folks don’t get to see very many brown humans.
“Besoin d’aide?”(need any help?) Edward G. grunted. Mark Lester huddled close to Grandpa and peeped out from under his massive arms.
They gave me a lift between bales of hay on the trailer behind, to the village mechanic and made him spare a wheel, on the old man’s word that it’d be duly returned at a later date. I jotted down the mechanic’s phone number. The two then drove me back to Bunty and helped me fix it on her.
Everything happened at a leisurely pace, without the exchange of more than five words. They looked like they had all the time in the world. They never once asked me where I was from. It didn’t concern them. Mark Lester gestured at my watch. “Quel heure est il?” (What time is it?), he asked. Before I could reply, his grandpa grunted something which, in English, roughly meant, “Who gives a shit?”
All in all the two spent a good two hours on my car. The boy must have been tired and hungry, but he never once showed it. He pranced around while his Grandpa and I attended to Bunty. Finally it was fixed and as they got back on the tractor and Edward G started the engine, I held out to the boy the box of Nerf Longstrike60 plus 50 bullets that I was going to surprise my son with. His eyes popped and he glanced toward his grandfather, who nodded. He grabbed the box with a ‘Mèrci’ and immediately started taking off the wrapping. The tractor leapt forward and was soon out of sight.
It was quite dark by now. I decided to go sit on that culvert for a while and breathe in the quiet freshness all around. With grimy fingers, I took out my packet of Du Maurier and lit one. I have quit smoking now but I still remember how the first drag after a bit of manual labor feels. Just great. And so it did, the smoke curling up in the still air, until I chucked the butt into the cornfield.
Far to the west, there was still a faint afterglow. Left behind by the sun. It resembled the one inside me. Left behind by two hillbillies.