One Way Ticket

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As fellow-traveller on Kashmir’s mountain highways, Death’s commitment to his calling is second only to the lack of it among the state’s police and traffic authorities. Evidence seems to suggest that this, in fact, is a league of extra-ordinary forces, one driven by inevitability, and the other by incorrigibility. But even in this ghoulish pact, Kashmir’s officialdom comes out the clear winner – while the Old Man with the Scythe takes all the blame, his corporeal agents, better known as government officials, take all the cash. If Death has grown bolder on the state’s roads, he must be paying a higher licence fee than even the petty drivers and conductors and transport operators whose unceasing violations are overlooked by a rate-list constantly revised according to the graph of motored mortality.

In Kashmir’s plains, Death on the roads generally specializes in the retail sector, his single-digit transactions consuming an auto-wallah here, a commuter there, and a pedestrian in between, but the cash register never stops ringing. The steady flow is a spinoff from a liberalised driving-licence and route-permit regime where one does not necessarily have to come first (in a driving test, for example) to be first served. It is not even the question of the highest bid; a massive growth-rate of debt-financed vehicles has sparked off a high demand for drivers (and therefore driving licences), and the government can confidently maintain a fairly stable price-line with its inexhaustible supply position. Everyone goes out smiling – the under-aged spoilt scion of a millionaire family can get his kicks from a hit-and-run episode, particularly if he is a jilted lover; the minibus driver can merrily pack passengers like sardines, and just as merrily dump them into the nearest ditch when he overturns due to over-speeding; the police gets its headlines, and the case can be resolved out-of-court with a mutually acceptable sum.  Let nobody forget Charon who, too, gets his wages for ferrying the dead across the Styx.  

But it is on the mountain highways where Death’s wholesale operations are setting new trends by wiping out entire families, a new business strategy in which any number of closely-related people are transported to the next world at one go.  Often, vehicles are found to be driving with considerably more than there capacity for passengers, with several riding on the top; an automotive advertisement for free tickets to a bourn from where no traveller has been known to return, one which everyone hopes turns out to be a pleasure trip and not like a commuters’ ordeal in Srinagar and outlying districts.                   

Authorities have created a smoke-screen to safe-guard the secret of this thriving trade. They may have patented the formula, but no earthly competition for carrion can break the sub-continental monopoly on early, government-aided demise of mortals, which often crosses the two-digit-a-month mark in this counterfeit paradise. In official versions, the success of the venture is couched in repetitious, boring, and uninspiring terms, to keep rivals guessing. Whenever the government’s speculation makes a spectacular killing on the highways, it is either attributed to the vehicle having skidded off the roads when negotiating a sharp curve or the driver having lost control. Authorities would not even dream of letting anyone in to the secret of their success – that the trick actually lies in the government losing control. 

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