He managed to straighten himself, but before he could step on the accelerator or drive into the space the car ahead of us had made, he collapsed on the steering wheel again, and this time I couldn't wake him up.
My heart felt like it had stopped beating for an instant. I didn't know how to drive; I had never learned. My husband and I didn't even have a car. I wanted to help Sardarji, check on him, but I couldn't, I couldn't even breathe, and suddenly nothing seemed more important than breathing. I had taken it for granted all my life and now I couldn't breathe without feeling my insides rip open against the onslaught of the spice in the air.
I opened the taxi door and pushed into the people who swarmed around the car. There was no relief for anyone.
Someone got into the taxi as soon as I left and I saw Sardarji's lifeless body being pushed out of the driver's seat onto the road.
I looked around as people jostled me, searching for a way out. People were running in all directions and I wondered, Which one was the right direction? Which direction gave you life? I moved aimlessly, going first in one direction and then in another. The world revolved around me in slow motion as my eyes started to shut on their own accord. I knew that I was going to join Sardarji.
It was then, when I was almost sure that I was going to die, that I saw an army Jeep, and it looked like a beacon of hope. I cried out for help, but my voice was drowned by the voices of others, screaming and yelling and demanding the gods for an answer.
I think the Jeep driver saw me first, and then someone from inside called out to me. They knew my name and they knew whose wife I was. I felt relief sweep through me, even as energy seeped out. Just like it happens in the movies, I quietly collapsed onto the asphalt road.
My eyes had trouble adjusting to the whiteness. Everything around me was white. But I knew I was not dead. I knew I was in a hospital because of the telltale smell of medicines. I lifted my hands but couldn't see anything. I could feel there were tubes going into my nose and some were coming out of my hands. I felt like an octopus.
I wanted to talk, to ask someone what was going on, but my throat was clogged, and then I remembered in fuzzy detail the night I thought I had died. I breathed in with trepidation and was relieved to not feel any burning, but my lungs still felt full and heavy, as if water had been pumped into them.
I licked my dry lips and tried to speak. I called out for my husband and waited, but I wasn't sure if I was making enough sound to attract his attention. I wasn't even sure if anyone was near me. I could hear some voices at a distance, far away.
I could not concentrate clearly on anything, but I heard the faint voice of a newscaster saying something about a Union Carbide factory and some gas that had leaked into the city of Bhopal.
Excerpted from A Breath of Fresh Air by Amulya Malladi. Copyright 2002 by Amulya Malladi. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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