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Seeing a dead body is one of the most unnerving sights on offer: whenever I think of Hobart in Tasmania, I think of two pale, bloated bodies washing up from a sunken car in the dock, trailing frothy white vomit on the black water. Worse than this is to watch someone die, to go from alive to dead in the blink of an eye, a pleasure I have yet to witness. But surely the worst sight of all must be to see someone still alive, but dying slowly and desperately in front of your very eyes, without a hope for survival; this is why fatal cancer and AIDS are so frightening, because there's no hope. At least a bullet in the head is quick.
Halfway between Janakpur and the Nepal-India border the bus blared its horn and swerved to the right, not unusual behaviour in this part of the world given the number of potholes and slow trucks that need to be overtaken. From my window seat on the left-hand side of the rusting vehicle I was idly staring at the passing scenery, the distant cloud-shrouded Himalayas providing a backdrop to farmers' fields, bullocks pulling ploughs and women carrying bundles of sticks on their heads. But as the bus swerved onto the right-hand side of the road I saw what had caused the driver to punch his horn. In the middle of the eastbound carriageway, a woman was dying.
I must have had a total of two seconds to take in the scene, and initially I didn't register quite what I was seeing: it was only an instant later, after we had left the whole scene behind, that it hit me what I had witnessed, and it smacked me in the guts like a rabbit punch. On the side of the road was a crowd of about twenty people, standing stock still in frozen amazement at the sight in front of them, nobody moving a muscle. Buses screamed by in both directions, the thought of stopping to help not even a faint flicker in the minds of the driver and conductors, and fifty yards further up the highway children pedalled their rusty bicycles on errands for their parents, just another hot day on the plains of the Terai.
But back there on the searing tarmac lay a woman in a spreading pool of blood the colour of rusty sump oil, a victim of a hit and run. I have seen countless wrecks on the side of the road, both in the West and in the Third World, and hulking and mangled metal is disturbing, but an accepted and acceptable fact of life: what I have never seen is the human cost. The photographs of fatal car accidents that I'd seen in Kuala Lumpur had shocked me into realising the severity of road death – the butcher-like quality of the lacerated leg and the tyre-crushed cranium – but the sight of death in reality made those photographs seem pathetic.
She was still moving when we passed her. Lying in a position similar to that of the unfit man doing press-ups – legs and belly still on the ground, shoulders raised by her palms pushing on the tarmac – her arms were clawing at the bitumen in an attempt to pull herself up. But what she couldn't see was the mutilated mass of raw meat that had once been her legs and pelvis, a sight that reminded me instantly of the death throes of water buffalo in Sulawesi, and throughout her struggles to cling onto life the crowd stared, unmoving. Two minutes up the road a flock of vultures preened itself, oblivious as yet to the potential meal slowly growing colder and less aware just down the road, and within half a second of us flashing past, the scenery was back to normal. 'An accident?' asked my neighbour, a friendly Christian from Janakpur. 'Yes,' I said, 'an accident', thinking how inept the terminology was. An accident is when you spill milk on the kitchen floor or don't make it to the toilet in time; it hardly applies to a lonely and painful death while the village looks on, friends frozen in fear.
I found myself trying to imagine what was going through the woman's head. The pain would be so severe as to make a death from shock as likely as a death from loss of blood; with Nepal's hospital facilities being almost non-existent, let alone a national health plan, there is no doubt that by the time I reached India the woman would be dead. Her frantic clawing was futile in the extreme, but what else could she do? I imagined her calling to her friends for help while they looked on in a mixture of horror and fascination; for people who have not been educated with biology lessons and horror movies, it would be amazing to actually see inside a human body, to see bones, flesh and blood. Besides, it would be the will of the gods that she was struck down, and who is the man in the street to interfere with the will of the gods?
And I felt a rush of guilt, an unfair feeling seeing as even if the bus had stopped, I could have done nothing to help. I saw a woman dying on the road from a severely crushed torso and massive haemorrhaging, and I was absolutely helpless. The same applied to her onlookers, who would have had no idea about first aid; indeed, a skilled doctor could probably have done nothing except administer painkillers and talk to the family. But I will remember that desperate scrabbling for a long time, and I have no doubt that the first memory of the eastern Terai that springs to mind will not be of happy festivals in Janakpur, but of a dying carcass on the road.
Someone once told me that the reason buses and trucks constantly use their horns in India and Nepal is that women who carry things on their heads cannot turn to see if there is anything coming, so the traffic blasts away to stop them walking across the road. Perhaps she didn't hear the horn, or perhaps the driver didn't bother to sound his blower; whatever, the result was another insignificant death of another peasant worker, or that's how it would have appeared to the world at large.
It was far from insignificant to the western tourist who flashed past on his way to the border.