NEW DELHI — There are lots of ways to die in India. One-point-one billion ways and counting. You can cram all seven members of your immediate family into a rickshaw and get creamed by an oncoming truck. You can have a fight with your lover, then go chug the nearest jug of pesticide. Your riverside slum dwelling can be swept away in torrential rains, drowning you. A poorly built wall can collapse on you. Your next-door neighbor can rape your five-year old, causing you to douse yourself in kerosene. Your illegally zoned cement apartment building can come down in the middle of the night, crushing you. A spaghetti fuse box can explode in your face. You can die in a thermonuclear war, an earthquake, or one of many frequent and spectacular train and bus wrecks. There are lots of ways to die in India.
I know this because I've been traveling the subcontinent for a few months, and death is everywhere. I even saw a roadside corpse my first week -- a motorcyclist who'd run into a taxi at an intersection. Like most intersections in this country, it lacked traffic lights and basic order. And bad things happen without traffic lights and basic order, especially when a motorcyclist meets a taxi. You don't have to guess who won that match.
In metropolitan Delhi alone, there are nearly 2,000 road deaths a year, with more than 9,000 serious accidents reported. Last week, one of the capital's few traffic cops was clipped and left for dead in a hit-and-run -- a perfect metaphor for the nation's roads.
India's most famous death porn export is, of course, the train-wreck. Like Jenna Jameson, it's a global brand. We can all see the video clip just by shutting our eyes: the twisted train cars laying on their side, rescue workers in rags clearing the bodies, the languid crowds squatting on the roofs of surviving trains. We know this scene so well because every time a train crash registers a 5.0 or higher on the Dot-Head Death Scale, BBC and CNN roll by ever so slowly in their cable-news Range Rovers. The Indian train wrecks make us all feel just a little better about neglecting our own public transit. When the wires dutifully blurb the latest massive wreck, we gobble it up, shake our heads and silently and firmly remind ourselves to never, ever step aboard an Indian train.
It's not bad advice. The most recent CNN-tastic pile-up occurred on October 29, in the southern state of Andra Pradesh. The region had experienced bad flooding, and a surging river had swept away a stretch of bridge. Unfortunately, this was news to the conductor of the northbound train when it flew straight into the air, Road Runner style, before falling into the floodwaters below at four in the morning. Over 100 people were killed by the impact and by drowning.
Earlier in October, in the central state of Madya Pradesh, another night train derailed while going 55 mph in a 9 mph zone. The engine and six cars jumped the tracks, leaving a final count of 16 dead and lots more bloody saris. Railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav responded by promising victims' families the usual compensation package: $8,000 and, for one relative of each deceased... a job in the railways!
But the biggest crashes of 2005 so far pale next to the worst of the 1990s, when three crashes in '95, '98 and '99 resulted in 800 dead between them. The biggest was the '99 crash, when a Guwahati-bound express collided head-on with a Delhi-bound mail train in West Bengal, killing 303. The force of the impact left only 65 bodies intact enough to be identified. The government ordered the mass cremation of the rest. This was followed by an investigation and the usual ignored recommendations.
The overstretched Indian train-system may get the attention, but it's the buses that'll have you making mental lists of your favorite and least favorite life-form picks for reincarnation.