It was pouring cats and dogs – in a December evening!
As if the chill in Delhi wasn’t enough, the rain God might have decided to make it more soggy. I couldn’t see through glasses clearly as they were covered in few drops of rain. My shoes were making sound of a squelching bellicosely every time I took a step forward. I would have preferred to walk much faster if not for the wet and slippery road. The cab had stopped a little ahead, with blinkers on.
I knew all the customary steps in hiring a cab. First look nonchalant, confident and well versed with the locality. Then haughtily declare the name of the place you wanted to go to and finally ask how much the cab driver would charge. I had also learnt from my travails that the key to successful bargaining was to appear ready to walk away from the cab if the amount was not what you had in mind. Delhi cabs were not meter-friendly. Despite the legislation, this suited both the cabbies and the passengers.
But that night I did not look the cool and unruffled daily commuter. Being wet, cold and late took care of that. I reached the cab, pulled the door open and sat into the seat – dripping wet. After removing my hazed glasses, I realized that the cab driver was eating his snack from a tiffin box.
“Oh… sorry, I thought you stopped for me.”
The cab driver didn’t say anything but smiled. His mouth was full as it took a little while for him to answer.
“It’s ok Miss! I’m done and free now. Where do you want to go?“
I sighed and shivered at the same time. This elderly guy seemed better mannered than most I meet on my daily commute between office and home. But that didn’t mean I was going to give in to the exorbitant fare he would definitely charge, for a ride to the suburbs on a cold, rainy day. In my head, I had already played back and forth the dialogue that would precede an agreeable charge.
“How much will you charge?“
I was carrying a surety in my voice thinking that it would let him know that I was a no-nonsense commuter lady. And sure enough, the cab driver was curt in his answer.
“I charge by the meter, Miss. You can check the ‘zero’.“
This was unexpected to expect and experience an honest cabbie in Delhi especially when its too late. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or be suspicious. It was a known fact that meters were rigged, but it was also true that I really didn’t have much of a choice today.
“Ok then, let’s go. And take the ring road – that’s faster.“
I was sure that doubts if any, about my knowledge of Delhi roads would be put aside after that comment. The roads were overflowing with traffic. Traffic lights chose to shut down instead of braving the sudden outburst from the skies resulting in the clutch-brake routine as a characteristic of rush hour traffic. Usually I use the drive to catch up on my telephone calls for the day. But that day I was exhausted and distracted at the same time. Exhausted because I had too much on my plate, and distracted because I was bored. Maybe Dad was right about this too. Dad had this uncanny ability to get to the root of any problem; not a very comfortable situation when you are not ready to face that problem head on. I was not running away from problems. I was just waiting for the right moment to tackle them. But Dad thought differently. He wanted to get right down to the micro analysis of ‘how to solve the issue’. I sighed again. Even today would have us going through the micro analysis again. After my Mum passes away, Dad is my world and I always feel he takes an advantage of it.
The cab was warm, clean and smelled of incense. The Older guy obviously loved his cab. You could see it the way he was driving. I couldn’t even feel gears being changed. In a city road, that’s the sign of a good driver.
“So! Miss, you work here? I think I have seen you here before.“
There were colorful little bangles tied up together hanging from the rear-view mirror. Blue, red, green and yellow. The streetlight was reflecting off the bangles, throwing bright spots of light onto the roof of the car; like a kaleidoscope. I didn’t realize I was smiling till I saw my face in the rear-view mirror.
“Yes. I work here. Those are your daughter’s bangles?“
The cab driver laughed. His eyes crinkling at their corners as his laugh spread to his eyes. “No, no, Miss. My granddaughter’s….. I am not very young. I have a son and a daughter of your age!“
Now it was my turn to laugh and I sank a little further into the seat, the faint smell of incense almost comforting in its familiarity. I must have dozed off in between, because we reached the gate of my apartment home much faster than I expected. The cab driver switched on the light so that I could scrutinize the numbers in the meter.
“Miss! I stay nearby. And I drive down to the city every day for my taxi service. If you travel every day, maybe I can drop you and pick you up. It will take me only fifteen minutes to reach here from home. You can call me on my mobile when you have to be picked up….“
I had to admit, it was a surprisingly simple solution to my daily commute and this elder guy seemed honest. He was holding out a scrap of paper in which he had written down his number.
“Ok. I leave at around nine in the morning.“
The rain had stopped, and so had the squelching in my shoes. I had reached the front door and before ringing the bell, I could hear my son Anuraag squealing the way he does when he plays with my Dad. He would turn three years in a few weeks, and his baby talk was vanishing slowly. I would miss that! I rang the bell. The squeals grew louder. I was glad to be home.
It was like so many other nights when I reached home. Dad started his psychoanalysis again. This time it was the rain; just like I expected. I wanted to play with Anuraag but Dad seemed to be in the mood to use his high octave voice again that night. He was right of course. But I didn’t think there was need to over react just because of the rains. I always respect Dad and there is a beautiful reason behind that too. Three years ago, one evening wile returning home, I saw an abandoned newborn child on the street – wrapped in a cary bag and completely soaked in rain, crying. I brought him home. No-one but only my Dad supported me to adopt him and give a name when I said I wanted to. Dad was the only person who stood with me when I Decided to become a single mother at the age of 25. Its quite obvious he would let me bear his tantrums for the rest of my life. I am glad I have two sons. Dad is the superior one and Anuraag is stubborn.
“I really don’t understand why you don’t use the car.” Dad was trying hard to hold Anuraag back while I dried my hair.
“Why do you have to get drenched in the rain, or travel by a cab every day? Why did you buy the car in the first place? And why the hell do I have to drive us everywhere even when I have a screaming baby in the back of the car? I’m old and I demand peace.“
“Dad, can we not discuss this today? I really need to spend some time with Anuraag. Ok?“
And that triggered Dad to grumble his way into the kitchen and reheat dinner. He was sulking, and this had become a regular discussion topic for many days now. He had his own reasons, and I knew them too. We’d had our share of bad experiences with drivers. We had gone to parties where he was exhausted because despite of old age, he drove us to the party and back. Heck! He even had to drive to the hospital in high fever with me sitting next to him in the passenger seat.
I can drive. I have a drivers’ license. I used to be quite comfortable driving in notorious Delhi traffic till a couple of years ago, but that one accident changed all that. Mum was alive then and I was pursuing my engineering. One moment we were happy, and the next moment Mum was screaming. I jammed the brakes as hard as I could, but I could not stop the car from ramming into the truck on the road. I lost my Mum in that accident. That was the last time I held the steering wheel in my hands.
That was over three years ago, the car got repaired, all the dents got smoothed out. But the dents in our life and heart remained. Dad never blamed me for the loss but I couldn’t accept the fact that he and I are alone because of my fault. Dad and I are not feeling lonely anymore since the day Anuraag is into our life. We experimented with various drivers with car pools but somehow, nothing seemed to work. That’s when I started taking cabs.
The cab reached promptly at ten the next day. His name was Rahman. He didn’t know his exact age, but his drivers’ license said he was 72. He had one son, one daughter and three grandkids. All of them stayed together. His wife used to pack his lunch for him every day and he would never eat from the roadside dhabas. I always found the cab freshly cleaned, and smelling of incense. Rahman would offer me his lunch every day in the morning and I would politely refuse every time.
On Anuraag’s birthday, the day was a little brighter than usual. I had called Rahman Uncle earlier so that I was home well in time for a little family dinner at a restaurant. I knew Dad would fret a little, but I hoped he would drive us to the restaurant. After all Anuraag had now stopped crying when he’s in the back seat.
Rahman Uncle held out a little packet wrapped in newspaper for me when we reached my apartment that day.
“Happy birthday to baba, Miss. It’s nothing, just a few chocolates.” I knew my jaw dropped. I thanked him with a stiff handshake. His hands were wrinkled and pale yet was warm. As I ran towards the lift, I realized I had never even offered him a cup of tea.
Within a few weeks Rahman Uncle and I had exchanged views on everything from politics and movies, to children and retirement. One day, he was a little upset about his son not helping him pay off the loan taken for the taxi. I was aggressive in my disdain for his son; I was already thinking about what I would do if Rahman’s taxi was confiscated by the bank. I had started sitting in the front seat with him and our daily discussions were something I looked forward to every day. Soon I found someone very own beside my Dad and Anuraag.
“You know so much about cars, Miss. You have a car?“
Somehow, that didn’t come out like a question, but a statement.
“No.” I must have sounded curt. Because we didn’t speak for some time.
“Yes. I have a car. But I don’t drive it. My Dad drives it. He needs it much more than I do. He has to take Anuraag to the doctor. He does all the household shopping. So I don’t use it.“
I don’t know what made me defend my owning a car I didn’t drive. I expected him to ask more questions, but he caught me off-guard with his next question.
“Let me guess, Miss. You have a blue colour car, no?“
He was smiling his crinkly-eyed smile again. I didn’t have to say anything. The answer was written all over my face. I didn’t ask him how he drew his conclusion, and he didn’t explain. But we laughed, and the air was cleared of the weight that my car had brought in – we were friends again.
The next time Rahman Uncle brought up the topic of driving was when we were having tea and samosas. His wife had not been keeping well, and so he had stopped carrying his steel tiffin. The tea was my idea as I suspected he had not eaten anything for lunch.
“You know, the first time I held the steering wheel of my taxi, I was in love. I cannot imagine doing any other job. Driving is like listening to an old Rafi song. The mind thinks a million thoughts, but one does not worry.“
I laughed at his comparison.
“You really love driving, don’t you? I knew it from my first ride in your taxi.“
Rahman Uncle did not pick up the bill when it came. He gave me slight nod in appreciation when I picked it up. We walked out quietly like two friends with a remarkable age gap. We were companions who did not need words to connect with each other. Once we reached the gleaming black taxi, Rahman Uncle held the key out to me.
“Miss, if you are not ashamed of driving my taxi today, could you drive till we reach your locality? I will take the wheel after the highway.“
I stood for a few seconds without reacting. Rahman still kept holding the key out to me. Images of Dad screaming still loomed in front of me. But the images seemed blurred now and I took the key from Rahman Uncle. He promptly sank into the passenger seat and put on his seat belt. I followed his lead, sat in front of the steering wheel, snapped the seat belt on and waited a while. The little bangles were shimmering in the orange light of the setting April sun. I imagined her little arms and her little squeals of laughter – just like Anuraag’s when he played with me.
I realized I was holding the key tightly because my palm started hurting with the metal digging into it. Rahman Uncle was quiet, and did not ask me to hurry. I looked at him and he was pale.
“Are you scared I am going to bang your car?” I smirked, almost glad to have sensed a crack in his trust, glad to know he had flaws too.
He smiled back. A pained smile but not entirely free of mirth.
“Miss, better you than the bank, no? You know more about cars than anyone I know, and you could drive it with your eyes shut. And see? My hands are on the handbrake, so don’t worry. Let’s go now.“
The steering wheel was cold and solid. I put my foot on the clutch, the brake and the accelerator to measure the distance. Rahman Uncle had his right hand firmly on the handbrake; ready to use it, just in case. The rear-view mirror looked back at me with a face that showed no fear – my face.
Driving Rahman’s taxi was indeed like listening to music. The sounds of the engine reverberated to match my pulse and I remembered how much I missed driving. I looked at Rahman Uncle only after I covered a few kilometres . Maybe I was anxious he would decide to take back the wheel or maybe I didn’t want to know what was going through his mind right then – sympathy, pity, curiosity or happiness. Rahman finally spoke in a low voice.
“See Miss, you don’t need my services any more. You should buy another car if your Dad needs the blue one.“
I turned to look at him and I realized that the eyes that crinkled up in laughter did not look young any longer. He was even older than my Dad. In spite of his brightest smile, he still looked pale. I noticed that he was not holding on to the handbrakes now. His wrinkled hands were one on other and resting on his lap.
I was nearing home now and I was reluctant to give up the wheel but Rahman Uncle was insistent. We reached home and he got off the taxi with me. I walked to him, wondering whether a handshake would be adequate to express my feelings. He took my hand in both his weary hands.
“Miss, this is for you. It has been lucky for me and I am sure it will help you too. And give my blessings to Anuraag baba. He must be a handsome and well mannered boy.”
Tears were in my eyes. I struggled my best to hide them. I opened my palm to see the little colored bangles that he treasured.
“Rahman Uncle..Thank you for everything. And yes…… driving is just like listening to a Rafi’s songs…“
I hugged him for once. His body was old and cold. He calmly hugged me back in affection. I was feeling the guilt in my heart was melting away. I wasn’t sad anymore. I wasn’t blaming myself for my Mum’s death. I wasn’t afraid of the steering wheels anymore. It was Rahman Uncle, an old taxi driver who was gifting me his precious treasures, those bangles. I stopped venturing any more words, as my voice threatened to give away my emotions.
“And don’t forget to pick me up tomorrow morning”, I called out as I walked towards my apartment. “We have to try out that other tea shop – this one was had really bad samosas.” His chuckle was infectious and left. I was smiling even as Dad opened the door to let me in.
One call on my mobile came when I was in the shower the next morning. I was singing in the shower, and Dad was baffled because He couldn’t imagine why I keep on doing such activities. He had taken the call and banged on the bathroom door. “Someone called Rahman says he wants to talk right now. You want to take it?“
“Hello, Miss? I am Rahman’s son. Ammi told me he used to pick you up every morning. So I just thought I’d let you know. He passed away last night. We took him to the hospital but he didn’t make it. They said it was his heart.”
After the call, all I know that I was in the shower for a long time because Dad got worried.
“Is it your job? Well, its ok! You were working too hard anyway. We will sort it out. Is it your health?“
Dad was holding my face with both his palms and trying to read my eyes; without any micro analysis this time. I smiled, and took his hands in mine.
“Dad, can you get ready in ten minutes? We need to go someplace.”
Dad was looking even more bewildered than before. But something in my eyes must have told him the answers would come soon. He turned to go to the bedroom to get ready.
“Dad, it’s a funeral of someone very own.”
As I saw Dad’s eyes widen, I shook my head.
“No, you don’t know him. I’ll tell you later. I am going to the car with Anuraag. You change, lock the rooms and come down.”
He was already out of the room when I suddenly remembered something. I opened the drawer, and took the little colored bangles and lifted it to the sunlight. The little bangles looked just like Rahman’s weary twinkling eyes. I also picked up a piece of twine to hang up the bangles on the rear-view mirror of my blue car. Before heading out the front door, I remembered something else.
“By the way, Dad! you don’t need to wear flats. I am driving today.“