Wednesday, September 02, 2015

A Dystopian Understatement

It was almost dystopian.

Mr. Basu was known for overstatement, but even by his standards this was an utter overstatement. Except it wasn’t a statement. It was a general surmise he had made but not articulated. So, by his standards, it was actually a gross understatement.

The only reason he hadn’t made the understated overstatement was that he was too stunned by the sight that met his eyes. In spite of the loud thump that had woken him up at the wheel, he could see nothing in front of the car. He closed the door with a loud whump, and then instantly regretted it when the side mirror shook threateningly upon its one remaining hinge. The one remaining hinge was becoming less reliable by the minute and was clearly on the verge of breaking off.

He walked over to the front, trying his best to regulate his breaths. He failed spectacularly in this endeavor in spite of the visual assurance of seeing no one in front of his car, as the more disturbing possibility of something beingunder his car had just occurred to him.

As it transpired, there was something under his car. He had hit a road sign asking drivers to “Drive Safe”.

He extracted the sign from under his car and examined his car. The bumper was a bit scratched, but the budget-oriented nature of the sign meant that it hadn’t been able to do much damage. The budget-oriented nature of the sign also meant that Mr. Basu, a very much midlife-crisis-plagued man, could easily straighten it out.

Mr. Basu made to throw it away and then saw that the budget-conscious government had painted another message on the back of it. The message on the other side read “Sign Not in Use”. In fact, what Mr. Basu thought was the back of the sign was its front. The road security agency had installed a sign at that spot since it had had strict directives to maintain a sign/5 km ratio on the highways. Someone had pointed out that the sign was blank, upon which the agency had painted “Sign Not in Use” upon it – the only message that seemed to make sense for a sign installed in the middle of nowhere. When the self-defeating irony of the message had been pointed out, the agency had proceeded to simply turn the sign around and paint an equally meaningless message on the other side.

The rather literal bureaucratic interpretation of the sign/5 km directive had also resulted in several signs that warned drivers of speed bumps that they had passed a few kilometers back (less than 5 kilometers, of course), the imminent presence of narrow bridges where there weren’t any, and the start of a mountain road just as the road started to descend. The road safety agency had even moved the location of several – 3 at the last count – toll booths so that they could coincide with their signs.

Mr. Basu didn’t know any of this, of course, but he still thought it was dystopian that a road sign should proclaim that it was not in use. He didn’t say it out loud, chiefly because he wasn’t entirely sure what the word ‘dystopian’ meant, and, more importantly, there was no one around to say it to.

Having ascertained that the road sign was the only object he had hit in his slumberous drive, Mr. Basu finally managed to get his breath under control. He then compulsively smoothed his sleeve and rolled it above his wrist, over which it had compulsively drooped. He always wore perfectly tailored clothes, but somehow they didn’t always seem to be perfectly tailored for him.

Having thrown away the sign in the shrubbery at the side of the road, thus inadvertently setting off a process that would result in at least three road safety agency meetings and the sacking of one supervisor, Mr. Basu got back into the car and sank into the driver’s seat.

He had fallen asleep at the wheel and that was not okay. He had to make sure it didn't happen again. He closed his eyes for a while and did a meditation trick an old girlfriend had taught him. Then he remembered that she had left him for his brother, and this woke him up better than anything else could have.

He turned on his car radio and cranked up the volume. He shut the door with an unusually vigorous swing and turned on the engine. As he drove back on to the road, he glanced at the side mirror and realized that the mirror had finally come off, because of which he hadn’t seen that the pickup truck was already crashing into the side of his car.


The road safety agency rep was on his way to replace the sign with one that said “Sign Now in Use”. He had been driving the pickup for hours and in the budget-conscious pickup with no air-conditioning, this was turning out to be surprisingly soporific. Apart from being awake, there was nothing he could have done when the sloppily driven sedan had swerved suddenly into his path.

It was almost dystopian.