They sat solemnly in the ambulance, along with the injured man and a couple of nurses. Ms Marrie hadn’t said anything to her, but Pravaana cast her eyes down. She felt ashamed she hadn’t offered to help the injured man. She had been too shocked to do anything, but it didn’t quite qualify as an excuse.
The nurses had handed the man’s wallet over to Ms Marrie. She examined it for anything that might say something about the injured man.
“His name’s Ali.” Ms Marrie announced gravely. Praveena looked up and watched Ms Marrie as she continued to rummage in his wallet. It was a black leather wallet full of fresh notes. Praveena watched as Ms Marrie took out and examined a few cards from the wallet. She recognized a credit and a debit card. There was also a blood donor identity card and a driver’s license. There was a photo attached to the wallet. A photograph of a small girl with jet black hair and black round eyes. She was smiling. For some reason, looking at the smiling girl calmed Praveena. She noticed Ms Marrie staring at the picture and assumed she felt the same.
“Give me your phone,” Ms Marrie asked Praveena. She did, and Ms Marrie dialed the number on the identity card.
“How’s he?” Ms Marrie asked the nurse, her finger hovering over the call button. The nurse took a look at the unconscious man and replied, “It’s critical, but he’ll be fine.” Ms Marrie nodded once and called the number. She spoke in a quiet voice to the man’s wife, Praveena assumed. She told the other woman about the accident and, though her husband’s condition was quite serious, he would be fine. “Nothing the doctors can’t fix.” she assured the woman on the other side. She gave her the name of the hospital and other details, the location of the accident and the condition of his motorcycle. Once she had disconnected the call, she returned the phone to Praveena with a quiet “thanks.”
About an hour and a half later, they walked out of the hospital leaving Mr Ali in his wife’s care. As they went through the busy hospital corridor, Praveena turned to Ms Marrie. “I’m sorry, Miss” she apologised.
“Why would you be sorry?” Ms Marrie asked, curious. She looked at Praveena as if seeing her for the first time.
“For not helping that man,” Praveena was worried she had watched silently while a man had almost died. She hated herself.
“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “I understand you were too shocked to react.” she smiled, “just be aware of things from now.”
Praveena nodded acknowledging Ms Marrie’s advice.
They didn’t speak until they had boarded a bus. Having settled herself comfortably, Praveena observed, “People aren’t too helpful are they, Miss?”
She had startled Ms Marrie out of a deep thought. “What do you mean?” she responded in confusion.
“Those people back there,” Praveena said “they just watched — unflinching.” she said surprisedly.
“It’s not like that,” Ms Marrie corrected her. All of them could have faced the same dilemma you did,” seeing Praveena’s perplexity, she continued, “They must have expected someone else to help him. If you had noticed, once the ambulance arrived, those onlookers helped the nurses lift the man onto the stretcher.” She laughed. “It’s a queer psychology of humans — the ‘Bystander Bias’?” she asked Praveena as if trying to remind her of something. “It’s common.” she added.
Suddenly it all came to Praveena. She had heard of the Bystander Bias — she had studied about it in her first year.
“But,” began a worried Praveena not understanding what Ms Marrie said, “If it’s common,” she spoke slowly, making sure spoke what she meant, “then is there a way to not give into it?”
Ms Marrie smiled broadly, “of course there is,” she took Praveena’s hand in hers, and when Praveena raised her eyebrows in doubt, “Knowledge.” Ms Marrie replied. “When you’re aware of the thing that is holding you back, you can easily overcome it.”
Praveena smiled, but she wasn’t quite sure if she understood what Ms Marrie meant. She decided to figure it out for herself. For a whole minute, she thought over what Ms Marrie had told her and finally, it dawned upon her. She slapped her forehead hard, why hadn’t she realized it earlier?
She turned to Ms Marrie and noticed she had been watching her as she figured it out. They smiled at each other. “Thank you, Miss.”
“You know what Praveena?” Ms Marrie asked her unexpectedly, “when I saw that man, injured, about to die,” Praveena noticed her voice shaking mildly, “I reminded me of — ” she swallowed, “of Kevin.”
She turned to face Praveena, smiling painfully. “That’s how he died,” she added nodding her head thoughtfully.
Praveena didn’t know what to say. Ms Marrie bade her goodbye at the next stop.
Praveena took the lesson to her heart. She had to travel a little further to reach her stop and kept mulling over the day’s incidents in her head. She looked through the window and noticed the withered trees that lined the streets. They were beautiful, trees that spread their warmth and shade throughout the world. It was a pity to see them lifeless. They stood tall, but without liveliness in those swaying branches. They were contaminated instead, by smoke and the sounds of the city.
Praveena looked around the city, her city. It was the place she was born in, and all she could see were slums and unclean drainage systems. It was rather painful to realize she called this filthy city home.
As the bus crossed over a bridge, Praveena saw a man in the distance. He moved back and forth heavily as if a strong wind had blown him off course. He seemed to be struggling to get his feet back on to the straight path. In his failed attempts, Praveena noticed he had stamped on the muddy puddles nearby sending mud water splashing all around him. He came to a swaying halt in front of a small thatched hut and banged hard on the wooden door. A thin woman emerged from the door and Praveena noticed she was forcing a small child to stay inside. The man shouted at the woman who answered in a low and crouched position. Praveena stared in horror as the man slapped the woman hard on the face and left the hut, swaying and swinging his hands in the air. The woman went back into the hut and shut the door.
As they traveled further into the city, they came across a school building that looked like it hadn’t been renovated in the last twenty years or so. It was a small building and the light blue paint on the walls peeled off. She saw a lot of school children, leaving the school in groups of four and five. A smile played on her lips as she thought of the days she used to walk alone from school. It was a while before she saw that most of the students were bare-foot. A couple of kids wore cheap-looking slippers but there was a little girl with dark short hair who had covered her feet in a bundle of sack held together with a string of sack rope. Praveena was just another passerby as she watched those children involuntarily stepping on stones and muddy pools, smearing their feet with mud, and countless diseases. Praveena saw those children heading towards the slum the bus had just past by. It was their life, she realized bitterly. She thought of an article she had read earlier that day. According to the local newspaper, a few of those slum residents had been allocated small homes in areas with better living conditions, but these people had turned down the chance. Praveena couldn’t understand why they didn’t choose better lives.
Some ten minutes later, she was still in the same bus, but her view had changed. The streets were levelled, the trees were cut and shaped; forced to grow in shapes humans wanted them to. There were plenty of boxed bushes gracing the pavilions of large housing plans. It was the cleaner part of the city, cleaner because it was the home of the richer people. Here, people dressed not just comfortably but also expensively. She sized up a girl walking with her earphones plugged in. She wore a jean and a tee shirt, both branded, and had an iPod in her hand which she kept caressing every two seconds.
Moving on, the bus entered that part of city occupied by the working class. Here people dressed according to occasions. A normal day in office would mean a simple pair of trousers and a shirt, whereas a special festival was celebrated in vibrant colours and traditional dresses, not to mention the fire crackers. The bus past a temple and in a fleeting moment, Praveena got the glimpse of a bunch of people pouring milk over an idol; a part of their worship.
It was a while before Praveena realized she had forgotten to get off at her stop. Her random thoughts had clouded her mind and she had come far away from home. Chiding herself for her mindlessness, she got off the bus and took another bus that went back the same route to get home.
Sitting on the bus she couldn’t help but wonder at people’s attitudes. They were willing to spend thousands of rupees on deities they don’t know exist but they were reluctant to spend on fellow humans.
‘Money,’ Praveena’s inner voice said, ‘is the root of everything. Some people don’t help others because they of psychology, but most people don’t help just because other people are poor. Rich or poor, all these people need help to see sense. But sometimes, people don’t want to be helped. They’d rather be desperate.’
Praveena sighed, agreeing in silence.