Indian highway photographs copyright: DAVID McMAHON
I was just twenty years old when a close friend and I faced an evening of adventure and danger. We were on the Grand Trunk Road in India, on an interstate highway holiday with family and friends, when a hidden rock on a culvert sheared off the fuel cock on the car I was driving.
The entire convoy of cars made a diversion to find a motor mechanic who was equal to the task. It was a routine repair, so we persuaded the adults to go on ahead and we would catch up an hour or so later. The mechanic removed the damaged fuel tank and drained it. Then things started to go horribly wrong ....
The explosion was louder than anything we had ever heard before.
Of course, the petrol vapour trapped in the metal tank after it had been drained had ignited immediately. It was like a bomb going off.
Patrick and I were knocked off our feet and the teenage mechanic had been thrown several feet away by the blast.
I truly cannot remember what happened to the oxy-acetylene torch, but I suspect it must have been dropped to the ground. Luckily it did not injure anyone or set fire to anything.
Everything seemed to move in slow motion.
People came running from everywhere in that wonderful Indian way. In no time at all, it seemed that there were more than a hundred strangers around us, the story of what had just transpired spreading among them like a bizarre game of Chinese whispers.
Satisfied that all three of us were unhurt, I remember looking around to make sure that nothing had been damaged in the blast. It was then that the next shop caught my eye. It was a gas-cylinder distribution centre. On the footpath was one of those wonderful Indian inventions, a cycle connected to a square-framed storage unit on wheels. In the storage unit in front of the handlebars sat was a full load of gas cylinders, awaiting the cyclist who would deliver them one by one, warning pedestrians to move out of his path by – of all things – striking the nearest cylinder repeatedly with a large spanner.
Nudging Patrick, I pointed out how close the explosion had been to setting off a chain reaction with the gas cylinders.
We turned our attention to the petrol tank that had caused the explosion.
It was, alas, unrecognisable. Its metal surface expanding as the exploding fumes blew outward in every direction, it was now shaped like a football.
It was clearly a write-off.
One by one, Patrick and I went through the options. The car was effectively disabled with nothing to store the fuel for the journey we had to make. We had no means of contacting our parents, who were well on their way. And even when they did reach their destination, we didn’t know whether the place had a phone or, if it did, what the number was.
Compounding our problems, we had no money, apart from the ten rupees we had been given to pay the repair bill, based on negotiations between Patrick’s father, Sidney, and the head mechanic, before our parents drove off.