Monday, March 14, 2016

A trip that never happened..

March 2014

It was the month of Public exams. While every kid in the block was busy preparing for their board exams, we at our office were frantically studying for a crucial test. It was a client visit. You might be wondering what is there to 'study' for a client visit. Well, it was one-off-a-kind wherein the client wanted to quiz us on the area of operations that we worked for them. It was a four member panel waiting to shoot us down with questions. We wanted to do well since this was an opportunity for us to establish the confidence and trust in Client's mind on our capabilities. 

It's been 5 months since the Project had started and it was already a roller coaster ride for us. Every day was a battle. We were sweating it out to make a mark, create a positive impact. A new domain, demanding client, loads of work. This quiz programme added to the heat of the moment. It was a pressure cooker situation. We badly wanted a break wherein we can relax, rejuvenate and resume fresh to take on the challenge that lay ahead. Thereby started my endeavour for the perfect outing plan.

The first hurdle was to round off on the location. It was meant to be a 3 day outing (Friday to Sunday). The location should not be too far, yet should be eye-pleasing. It should not be too crowded, yet safe. It should not be a typical tourist location yet worth the visit. It should be remote, yet accessible. After hours and hours of investing time on browsing through various travel sites, blogs, trip advisor etc. I finally rounded off on Chikmagalur. It’s a town known for its coffee plantations and moderate climatic conditions. Located in the foothills of Mullayanagiri range (the highest peak in Karnataka), Chikmagalur, I thought will be an ideal base location for us to visit some of the scenic locations around.

Rather than a typical picnic type of an outing, I wanted my team to experience a different kind of a travel. The itinerary had all possible geographic diversities that I could package within a 3 day span. A half-a-day easy trek that will offer a breath-taking, panoramic view of the hill range, lake visit, waterfalls, forest accommodation, tent stay, camp fire.. It was scripted to be the best ever outing experience that I could offer my team. It was not just an outing for me. As a Project Manager, I was looking at this as a team bonding exercise, spend time to know each other well and further strengthen the bond that we all already shared. With the client visit around the corner, we all had decided to have the travel after the quiz so as to be free of any anxiety or heavy thoughts on the quiz preparation.
5th Mar 2014

As always with any examination, we were preparing till the Nth minute. Frantic exchange of notes, training sessions, mock reviews. It was all happening. Trust me, I have not taken even my board exams this seriously. However we had a surprise waiting. Client suddenly decided to defer the meeting. Due to other commitments they could not make it on March 5th. It was pushed for March 10th. Half the team was happy that they now had more time to prepare. The other half was not happy since they wanted to take this head on and get back to normal mode instead of continuing the anxiety.

10th March 2014

It was the D-Day. Along with the planned Q&A session, we had other prospective business opportunities also scheduled for discussion. The most dreaded panel made it to our premise at 3PM. After the initial handshakes, status updates and Business topics, the most awaited event happened. It was around 6PM when the quiz started. The rules of the game was, for every correct answer a bar of Toblerone chocolate will be awarded. For the most prolific contestant a book to be presented. The Client was hoping that all the chocolates will be given away soon and someone will get to claim the book. My entire team, my Program Manager all were waiting with bated breath for the game to start.

First ball was a googly from the veteran in Client's side. We had a half answer for that but not convincing enough. It was followed by a bouncer wherein we had to duck. It was a bad start to the innings. In between we did score some runs and managed to earn a few chocolates. However after a point of time, the Client realizing that the scoring rate of chocolates was low, deliberately threw us some juicy full toss and half-volleys to be scored. It was an Australia Vs Bangladesh kind of a match. The only difference was, they wanted us to win. The ordeal continued for close to 3 hours. At the end of it all, it was a mixed emotion. We were relieved that it was over and Client was dissatisfied that nobody was qualified to earn the book!

It was like a few kilograms were taken off our shoulders! Despite the outcome of the quiz we were all quite relieved and looked forwarded to execute our outing plan. While some opined that the quiz was equivalent to a premature examination conducted even before the course was completed, others felt it was a crazy idea for our client to conclude and assess our capabilities based on such a mechanism. Irrespective of all this, we were determined not to be bogged down or demotivated by what happened. It was time to chill out....

It was all set. Itinerary finalized, budget approved, train tickets booked. The below were the places planned as part of the itinerary.

a.    Sarpadhari to Mullayangiri trek
b.    Hebbe falls
c.    Z point
d.    Galikere lake
e.    Ayyenkere lake
f.    Belur Temples

Some people were on a shopping spree, some were equipping themselves by buying shoes for the trek, few were planning on what to do during the camp fire. Excitement was in the air! People were briefed on dos and don'ts.  Some of the area where we go through do not contain telephone signals for private operators. Hence people were advised to carry BSNL since that was the only chance of some connectivity. We were to board the night train to Bangalore on 13th March night, reach the city around 5am next day and take the tempo traveller to Chikamagalur. I had made travel arrangements for the tempo traveller guy to pick us up from the station. We were totally 11 members including my Program Manager. Two of our team girls did not make it for the trip. One, because she was married and the other because she was due for marriage soon. Despite much persuasion they opted out. I had plans to take my wife along. But March 14th was the day of Karadaiyan Nonbu (a festival wherein women pray for longevity and welfare of their husband). She had to be part of the rituals and protocols back home. Hence she was not allowed to join me. You might be wondering why am furnishing such irrelevant information...

13th March 2014

We were all there in Chennai Central, waiting for the train to start. Everyone were excited. The trip had finally materialized. All of us were looking forward to a great time together. We had infact carried a set of same coloured clothing so as to make a good team photograph. Co-incidentally most of us were wearing black t-shirt. I had carried my trek pole hoping that it will be of use. The seatings were scattered across multiple coaches. It took us time before we managed to swap berth with co-passengers and settle down. After an hour of chit-chatting we all hit the bed.

14th March 2014

Around 5.30am we reached Bangalore. We thought of freshening up a bit before boarding the tempo traveller. As always with a big group, especially ones filled with women, it took us almost 2 hours just to finish our early morning chores and get ready. Meanwhile, the driver had called me multiple times. Finally around 7am we all boarded the tempo traveller. It wasn't a great vehicle. It looked a bit old, dinghy and cramped. There was no seat next to the driver. It was not the sophisticated, fully equipped kind of a vehicle which I had in mind. Infact the main disappointment was he did not have a music system which supports USB. It immediately put me off. Music, for me is one of the entry criteria for any travel. I thought of changing the vehicle. It anyway looked to be just an average vehicle. But we were already delayed and a change of vehicle will further delay us from reaching our destination on time, thereby the intended visits could get affected. Also the uncertainty of getting an immediate alternate vehicle loomed. With all this in mind, I dropped the plan of changing vehicle.
Enroute, we stopped for breakfast at a small time road-side shop. We were served hot Idlys that were slightly flattened and huge in size. Never have I seen such big idlys. It was sumptous though. We also managed to buy an aux cable that will help us make use of in-vehicle speakers and have the music sourced through our multimedia devices. We resumed our travel. I exchanged seat with Radhi who was sitting in the seat behind driver. Me and my Manager Devnath took turns in playing the DJ role to cater to the multi-linguistic audience. With refuelled tummy and music on, slowly it set-off the holiday mood for people. Few were singing songs, few chit-chatting while few resorted to slumber! For long we were going on a 4 lane road separated from the other side by median. I checked with the driver if we had crossed Belur since that was supposed to be enroute. He told me that we had already crossed it. I was surprised since I did not recollect seeing any sign board reading Belur. Thinking that I would have missed it when attending to a phone call I stopped wondering.

Rajinikanth's magnum opus motion picture Kochadaiyaan’s audio had just got released and the songs were going on a loop. Soon ghat section started. We began to cross quite a few coffee plantations. It was still very sunny and no sign of typical hilly climate. I was hoping that the climate will get better as we near Chikmagalur. With nothing much to do, I was just staring at the road through the windshield as the driver continued to drive us through the ghat. The road was narrow with hill's wall on our left side and right side was open downhill with no barricades in between. We were going at a normal pace. Just as we were about to take a left curve I saw a government bus taking right from the other side. The bus had just about half completed its turn and I was hoping that our driver will slow down to avoid a collision at the junction. But our speed never reduced! I was sure that we are going to hit the bus. On the background I could hear SPB's voice echoing "Engae pogudho vaanammmmmm" and before SPB could complete there was a loud thud and splintering of glass all over. Head on our vehicle collided with the tail of the incoming bus. The windshield crumbled into pieces of glass. The van started swiveling to the right directly towards the valley. By now the driver lost control of vehicle and failed to apply the brakes. The vehicle nosedived down the hill..

I could not believe what was happening in front of me. I could hear the girls screaming behind. The vehicle gained speed due to the 80 degree slope.. Running through trees and bushes. It was like a high speeding roller coaster dipping downwards. I did not know how far below the fall is going to be and if any of my friends would survive. I was so sure that driver, me and Dev will not make it since we were seated on the front. Things were happening so fast that I could not even shout, pray or think of my family. I was prepared to embrace death since it looked imminent.  Within seconds the van landed nose front on a road and toppled to the right.

It was a terrible fall. It took a while for me to come to sense that I was alive. I could not hear anything. Blood was dripping down from my head. I could not feel any pain. I thought I had lost my legs since I could not feel them or move them. Thankfully it was numbness. The furniture debris were all over us inside the van. I crawled and squeezed out from the vehicle onto the road. Public had gathered by then and were helping in bringing out my colleagues from the vehicle. One had fainted and lay near the vehicle, one seemed to have a fractured leg, others badly injured.. It was utter chaos. As we were counting to check if everyone had come out we noticed one was missing. It was Radhi! It sent a chill down my spine. I was praying that the fearful thing should not have happened. Immediately I peeped into the vehicle. I could see her stuck inside unconscious. We were all shouting at her to wake up. No response. Me and my colleague went into the vehicle again and tried pulling her out. She was badly stuck in between the window pane gap. I tried checking her pulse but could not sense if it was on or not. I shook her, beat her on the cheeks, shouted at her, tried pulling her. She did not respond to any of this. She lay there stiff.

It was a miserable feeling looking at her in such a state. The crowd around told us to give up on her and attend to ourselves. We were adamant that she be pulled out. An iron chain was tied to a lorry at one end and our van to the other. The towing attempt failed since the chain gave away. After much hardship for around 40 minutes, the public somehow pulled out Radhi. I immediately ran to her side to check if there was any sign of life. The public had declared her dead but somewhere we all felt that it’s just the unconsciousness. The place had no mobile signal. None of us could reach out for an ambulance. A goods-carrier vehicle came forward to take us to the hospital, which was around 20kms away from the spot. Five of us boarded the open roof vehicle taking Radhi along. Weeping and praying throughout the journey, we kept talking by her earside to convey that she is OK and will get up soon. Enroute we caught hold of an ambulance and tried shifting her to that. The ambulance guy refused to take her saying she was already dead and he can carry only us since we were injured and needed medical attention. After much persuasion he took Radhi in along with us. She lay in front of us with an oxygen mask. We were all praying that she comes out of this.

We were brought to the Sakleshpur Government hospital. Each of our address and other details were collected towards registration. First-aid was immediately initiated to all of us. Before the nurses could attend to me I went to check Radhi's status. The doctor declared her "brought dead". She had a crumbled rib bones and died of brain haemorrhage. I could not believe what had struck us. I was too dazed and shocked on the sudden turnover of events. Just a couple of hours back we were all happily awaiting our holiday destination and now we find ourselves in a hospital nursing our injuries and our dear colleague declared dead. It was tough to realize that the chirpy little one will never wake up and talk to me. The pain was unfathomable. She was a darling of a girl. One of the brightest team member and a stellar performer. It was unimaginable to think of what her parents will have to undergo the rest of their lives, losing their only child.

The news soon reached our head office back in Chennai. Some of our Managers and colleagues rushed to take control of the situation and complete the formalities. Help started pouring in from various corners. People who were directly and indirectly connected to us started rendering whatever moral and physical support that they could offer. The solidarity was overwhelming. That night, after post-mortem, Radhi was taken to Dindigul, her home-town. Since all of us were attending to injuries, we were advised not to travel. We stayed back in Bangalore for a health check and rest before taking the train back to Chennai.

A 11 member team had started off joyously, only to return back one member short. Little did we know that danger lurks and can strike anytime. If at all Radhi had not exchanged seats with me in the van, if at all I had decided to change the van in the morning itself, if at all I was awake to the fact that the driver never took us to Belur and had diverted more than 40 kms from the actual route, if at all I had never organized this tour, if at all I had shouted to the driver to apply brakes the moment I sensed a collision, if at all I had shouted to my colleagues to hold onto something during the fall.. There were too many Ifs. But nothing is going to change the script. Strange are the ways of God. If the Kaaradayan Nonbu prayer had saved my wife from becoming a widow, then what about the countless hours of prayer that Radhi's parents had offered in the temple all these years. For the wonderful people that they are, it was such a dreadful and cruel thing to go through. Nothing could be done to console them. It was heart-breaking to hear them say that the very purpose of their existence is lost. Even time may not heal the wound that they are suffering. Radhi was special. Someone on whom we had lot of respect professionally with the way she approached her work. A topper in any endeavour that she had undertaken. Wish she was not so harsh on us and given us a chance.

Two years on, even now a road travel gives me hallucinations. I still avoid wearing black dress during a travel. We walk across so many accident news and statistics daily in our life. However, to experience and evidence the emotional turmoil that such a catastrophe brings to the people concerned is beyond expression.