Lying on a bed propped up by white pillows at her uncle’s house in West Delhi’s Janakpuri, Neha Saini looks nothing like her Facebook profile photo. The long, flowing hair is gone, the big eyes have been dulled by sedatives and her head is swathed in layers of gauze. It is 10 days after the newly married Saini, 26, a journalist with The Tribune, Chandigarh, miraculously survived a freak accident when her helmet came off while go-karting.
Since her wedding on 22 November, Saini had been busy settling into a new life and a new city. Her husband, Varun, 29, a manager with Future Generali in Amritsar, had been busier—Q3 was about to end, and their big, fat Punjabi wedding had taken up all the leave he could manage. The honeymoon had to wait. So when Neha’s Delhi-based aunt invited the couple to celebrate her retirement on 31 January, it was the perfect excuse to take their first trip together.
Traumatic: Saini with her parents at her uncle’s home. Ankit Agrawal/Mint
On the afternoon of 1 February, the couple took Neha’s siblings and cousins for a day out at the Metro Walk Mall and Adventure Island in Rohini. After a few turns on various rides, at around 3.30pm, the group of six headed to the go-karting arena. Neha—a spirited young woman who loves to take her car out for a spin and go on long drives with her husband—was keen on it. She, her brother and a cousin bought the tickets and signed the bonds while the others decided to watch. As the trio stepped on to the tracks, they were given helmets. Neha’s was about two sizes too large and she asked the attendant for a smaller one, only to be told that no other sizes were available.
“It was the standard-issue size, and I could take it or chuck it, they said,” Neha says. She put it on as best as she could and went in. “The karts were not the kind which have covers over the wheels or the engines. These were completely exposed and there were no seat belts or any support for the head,” she adds. And because the go-kart was low-slung, the exposed engine and rear wheels were only a foot or two away from her head as she sat down.
The go-kart started with a violent jerk and shot ahead. Her head snapped back, the helmet came off and her waist-length hair came loose. Within moments, it was entangled in the axle, and before anyone could come to her help, all her hair was ripped off. Her entire scalp, from the forehead down to the nape, came off, exposing the skull.
It was some moments before her family could react. “She was about 100m away from us but I felt paralysed. Then she began screaming in pain and we rushed forward. It was gut-wrenching,” Varun recalls. According to the Sainis, the management was completely unprepared to deal with such emergencies. “For about 10 minutes I lay there, bleeding profusely. Not a single official came forward to help. I got no first aid. As people started shouting, my brother and cousin were told there was an ambulance service but they’d have to fetch it themselves. It’s the only one for the entire park, and a most basic one at that. Except for the driver, there were no staff on it, not even a nurse,” Neha says. “The first medical aid she had was at the nearby Saroj Hospital where we took her,” Varun adds.
The Speed Devils Club, which runs the go-karting facility at Adventure Island, denies the allegations. Sumit Maluja, owner of the Club, says safety precautions are in place: “There are prominently placed noticeboards with clear instructions and stating the risks. We also have helmets of all sizes. It’s unfortunate what’s happened, but it’s an accident.”
The Prashant Vihar police have registered a case under sections 287 (negligent conduct with respect to machinery) and 337 (endangering life or personal safety of others) of the Indian Penal Code and were waiting for reports from the hospital and from the authorities in charge of the go-kart’s mechanical examination before taking further action.
At the hospital, Neha needed six units of blood and in a 4-hour surgery, Dr P.K. Gambhir and his team grafted skin from Neha’s thigh on to her head. She has to undergo two more surgeries before her scalp is fully reconstructed. “There are two-three patches that may need more grafting, but it all depends on the results of the first surgery,” says Varun. “The doctors say it’ll be a year before I recover completely. But I doubt the hair will grow back. Even if it does, it can’t be the same. The doctors too won’t commit to anything yet,” adds Neha. Her voice catches and she swallows.