The Conflicted Samaritan

When a Neighbor Is Beyond Help

I was traveling by taxi from Delhi to Dehradun. It usually takes about seven hours over a very rough one-lane road. We were almost home, at the loneliest, darkest part of the trip, crossing the mountains into the final stretch. There were few cars about and the sky was inky black.

As we hurtled along, occasionally dodging an oncoming car, I thought I saw someone lying on the embankment. It took a few moments to register before I asked Sandeep, the driver, if he had seen someone too.

He laughed. “Probably some drunk fellow or one of the village idiots. He’ll get up on his own.”

“We should go back,” I said. “Maybe he’s been hurt.”

Sandeep laughed again, incredulous now. “Didi [Elder Sister], you must be joking! We’re in a jungle. This isn’t some foreign country. If I stop, I’ll be blamed for whatever has happened to him!”

At that very moment, my daughter Cathleen called my cell phone from Boston. “Mom, it’s a blizzard here!” she said, excitement in her voice. She was in great spirits. She had gotten her grades and had made the dean’s list, and her holidays had just begun. I tried to share her excitement, but she sensed my distraction and distress. “Mom, are you OK?”

I told her quickly what I thought I had seen. Just hearing my voice describing it and her instant concern gave me the strength to do what needed to be done. I hung up the phone and said more firmly than I felt: “Sandeep, we have to go back. I will take the responsibility.”

Muttering under his breath, he made a U-turn and we began to retrace our route. I peered into the darkness and had begun to think I had imagined it all when I saw the body on the side of the road. Sandeep made another U-turn and stopped a few feet away, his headlights trained ahead.

It was an elderly man. His face was weathered and lined, and he looked poor. He was dead. He had obviously been hit with great force, for his body was crumpled and broken, and his head had bled profusely. I knelt beside him and felt for a pulse, though I knew there would be none.

He was wearing a brand new pair of blue jeans, and it was this little detail that practically undid me. Were they a gift from a relative visiting from the big city, where he had recently gotten a job?

I was deeply aware that I was probably the first person to see him like this, his body now a shell, his soul so recently departed, and I wished there were something I could do to mark the terrible event that had caused his end. But Sandeep was in a panic, practically in tears at my delay. “Didi, please, please, let’s go. If they come and find us like this, they’ll say I did it. We have to go, please!”

It broke my heart, but I knew he was right. In India, stopping at the scene of an accident is unheard of. Were local people to arrive, they would assume we were responsible, and mob justice is instant and brutal. Were we to wait for the police, who knows what they would assume? It is a situation ripe for extortion, and on a dark and lonely road, miles from anywhere, we would be at their mercy. Sandeep could be beaten, I could be raped, and we would certainly have to pay for the privilege of going free.

I cannot count the number of times I have picked up injured people from the side of the road in my city and carried them into local hospitals. Invariably, people told me I was being reckless and foolish, that I would be blamed and held liable, that no hospital would accept the victim (many have signs in their emergency rooms stating ROAD CASES NOT TAKEN), and that it wasn’t my responsibility anyway.

I always feel it is. And, oddly enough, it has always worked out beautifully. The hospitals have always taken them in and no one has ever accused me of being the perpetrator. (Well, actually, on two occasions, the victims, confused and incoherent after head injuries, assumed I had caused the accident and expected me to pay their hospital bills. Both times I did, and both times the injured later realized their error, tracked me down, and repaid the money.)

The experiences always made me feel like the Good Samaritan. There is something so right about rendering assistance to someone in desperate and immediate need. There is no gray area. You know exactly what you should do.

But this case was different. For the first time in my life in India, I was afraid to do the right thing. The lonely road, the darkness, the driver’s panic, and my fear.

And in any case, the man was dead. There was actually nothing we could do for him. I touched his cold, still hand once more, said a prayer to speed him on his journey, and got back in the car, torn between shame and compulsion. I felt terrible leaving him alone and unprotected, but I thought that being poor, he would understand our reasons, grim though they were. I thought he himself might have urged us to flee, knowing that he was now beyond help. I felt glad that we had at least come back, sure that had he been alive, we would have done something for him.

We drove away in silence. I couldn’t get the irony out of my mind. What a country! One moment I was talking on a cell phone with my daughter from half a world away and the next I was face to face with this impossible situation with no good solution.

We had done what we could, I told myself again and again. In a better world, we would have lifted him up and delivered him to his family. As it was, we left him in the hands of God and continued down the dark, lonely road.

Published in the 2009-02-13 issue: 

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.

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