The autowalla zigzagged through a jumble of cars, scooters, and a pushcart stuck at a crazy angle against the flow of traffic. A van rumbled past, splashing muck into my open-sided auto rickshaw. Unfazed by the muddy tsunami, my autowalla burst into an old Hindi movie tune. “Yeh hai
He drove hands-free for agonizingly prolonged moments, squeezing the red rubber ball horn till it tooted in shrill protest. I gripped the sides of my seat and fumed in silence. This crazy autowalla was my only hope of reaching home. Torrents of rain punctuated with lighter showers had cascaded upon the city since last night. The drains were already overflowing. I was new to
The autowalla crooned on, his voice resonant against the drumming of rain on the plastic sheet roof. Cool raindrops sprayed my face and swished away the pervading big city smell of exhaust and stale food. I almost forgot how our office Fuehrer had heaped the work of three people upon me today with a sermon on efficiency. I was about to tap my feet to the autowalla’s just-broken adolescent voice, when the vehicle reared on its hind wheels and then dropped down with a splash. I screamed and grabbed the iron framework of the roof to stop myself from sliding off onto the street. The reckless crackpot must have raised the front wheel a clear foot off the road.
His very first words when I hired him should have alerted me. “Don’t say another word. I know exactly where you want to go. You live behind Holy Spirit Hospital, right?”
I couldn’t help letting out an audible gasp. How did he know?
“Don’t you remember me?”
No, I did not. I was sure I had never boarded this driver’s auto before. Or maybe I had, but never bothered to notice. In fact, even at this moment, I didn’t know whether my autowalla had a square or round face. Were his eyes were narrow or large? I hadn’t a clue. These fellows always sat with their backs to passengers and were as significant and interesting as the rickety contraptions they drove. They were conveyances to take me home and nothing more.
“I know you well,” he had continued, as though sensing my unspoken doubts. “You always arrive by the seven o’clock fast train from Churchgate and hire an auto to Holy Spirit Hospital. We autowallas at the Andheri Station auto-stand all know you. You’re famous.”
At that moment, I had been grateful to get transport at last. There had been no empty autos in sight when I got off the train at Andheri. I had waited in the downpour for almost half an hour before this autowalla had signalled me to get in. I had never stopped to ask what he meant by ‘you’re famous’.
On a normal day, I would never have accepted a ride from an autowalla who looked as though he’d stepped off the set of an old Hindi movie. Rejecting the autowalla’s usual khaki uniform, this fellow opted for a shirt with huge red and black squiggles. He wore his longish wavy hair with a side parting in the style of Amitabh Bachchan. He’d even mimicked the super hero’s intense ‘angry young man’ glower as he stopped me before I could tell my destination. This namoona, this bizarre specimen, fit to be displayed in a museum, this cartoon; he couldn’t possibly have been an honest-to-goodness autowalla.
But I had been too desperate to be picky.
From the moment I hired him, he had compensated for the battleship grey dullness of the sky with impromptu histrionics. Changing theatrical styles with each turn of the steering, he had spewed a perennial stream of dialogues from old Bollywood movies.
“Come on, Basanti.” He had patted the dashboard and coaxed his three-wheeler as though it was Hema Malini’s horse in Sholay. Then he had burst out into a foot-tapping number as he swerved to avoid the rear of a bus.
He might have been weird, but he was also wholesome, unsullied fun.
I had forgotten to ask what he meant by ‘you’re famous.’
As the auto regained balance after that equine leap, the autowalla turned back and spoke waving both arms, leaving his vehicle to find its own way. “Don’t be frightened, jaaneman.”
I shivered. Rain-laden clouds blacked out the fading twilight, plunging the city into premature night. “Did you see that huge pothole?” he asked. “Missed it by a whisker.”
Hoping to discourage familiarity, I stared out in silence at the tangle of traffic, at rows of offices and shops that receded as we sped ahead. In retrospect, I should have reprimanded him for calling me jaaneman. Imagine such endearments from a raffish autowalla!
But at that moment, I only thought of returning home safe to Mrs Britto’s. I’d run the hot water, wash the mud off my dress and take a long, relaxing shower. My musty rented room would be so cosy now despite my creaky bed and that damp patch spreading like a giant amoeba on the wall. On a squally night like this, even the mushy khichdi Mrs Britto usually concocted for dinner would be pure bliss.
My auto sputtered on. Advancing darkness transformed the familiar streets. Shop fronts and apartments blocks vanished and reappeared from behind curtains of rain. My autowalla veered off the busy main road into dimly-lit, narrowing alleys.
“Hey, which way are you going?”
“There’s a traffic jam ahead, ma’am. I’m taking a short-cut.” He sounded so respectful and matter-of-fact now. Had I imagined the earlier cheekily familiar jaaneman? I stiffened and clutched the cold sides of the auto to steady myself from constant jolts. I squinted to see a familiar street sign through the swirling vapours. Where were the apartment blocks and malls I passed daily? I had never, ever, seen those decrepit warehouses and, oh, those rows of dark shanties.
Where was he taking me?
Should I ask him to stop at the next traffic signal and pay him off? No, that would be suicide. I would never find another auto in this downpour and be stranded on these strange, deserted streets. I wondered why he chose to remember me from among the thousands of commuters who spilled out of the station each day. I wished I had never hired him. I now had no real choice except going along with him.
Why did I allow him to bring me this far?
I closed my eyes as my colleagues’ grim warnings replayed themselves in my mind.
Only this afternoon, while we were sharing coffee and fresh pineapple tarts in our cubicle, Sheila had read out a newspaper report about a woman found raped and murdered on the city’s streets. She never tired of discussing such news items with pointed glances at me as if to say, ‘see what happens if you aren’t constantly looking over your shoulder’. What I loathed most was her condescension, never missing a chance to treat me like a country bumpkin just because I wasn’t from
“Sheila, please. You don’t need to always play up such crimes. These are exceptions, not the rule.” Sheila folded her arms across her enormous bosom, drew up her five-feet-frame on six-inch stilettos, and glared. She looked as ridiculous as a crow perching on a classical marble statue. Mr Kumar lifted his shrivelled raisin of a face from his terminal while Rajiv tweaked his moustache with feigned nonchalance.
“There’s no need to obsess and shove your phobias down other folks’ throats,” I continued. “You’ll drive us nuts.”
Mr Kumar bared his nicotine-stained teeth in a cadaverous grin and I’m sure I caught Rajiv winking at Sheila. Then, Mr Kumar took Sheila by the arm, whispered in her ear, and led her out of our cubicle. Rajiv tapped on at his keyboard, his sharp features impassive. I could understand a fastidious old pickle like Mr Kumar siding with Sheila, but Rajiv? That office charmer who had a sweet word ready for every occasion, he too was ignoring me. I was sick of their silent putdowns just because I’d moved in from a small town and didn’t know a soul here except them. The pineapple tart tasted like congealing glue in my mouth, but I was glad I had spoken my mind. Sheila would think twice before tossing more cautionary tales at me.
But when my autowalla led me into an even darker by-lane, I knew my friends were right. I should not have snapped at poor Sheila like that. I really was too simple to deal with the dangers lurking under the disciplined façade of
Tall buildings towered on either side of us, but these were neither apartments nor offices. I could see only a couple of dimly-lit windows amid looming walls of darkness. A window slammed, male voices bellowed in raucous laughter, and something crashed right ahead of us with the clunk and ensuing tinkles of shattering glass. A garbage can clattered off the pavement and blocked our way. Its contents spilled out around our auto, spreading the stench of rotting fish. The lone street light shone upon a used condom floating away into the gutter.
My autowalla stopped. There wasn’t enough space between the footpath and the huge garbage can for the auto to pass. So he got down and tried to heave the can out of the way. It was then that I saw another building barely 20 feet ahead; a solid dark mass blocking the end of the road. We were walled in from three sides. Turning back was the only option.
This autowalla surely knew his way around his own neighbourhood. Then why had he brought me into this lightless dead end? A grotesquely stretched demon of a shadow slithered up from behind. I blanched, not knowing whether to cower inside the auto or run screaming toward those godforsaken buildings. The warped shade writhed towards me.
My autowalla stood aside to let the shadow pass. I forgot to breathe and dug my nails into the tatty plastic cloth covered seat. The owner of the shadow stopped. In the faint light, I saw a well-built youngish man say something to my autowalla. The autowalla waved his hands and pointed towards me.
Then I was sure. My autowalla had deliberately brought me into this desolate dead end and… I understood what he meant by saying I was ‘famous’. He had been stalking me. The newcomer was his accomplice.
If I were back home in
Who would miss me here if I lay bleeding in this desolate alley the whole night? The autowalla had been observing me. He would have chosen me as his victim knowing that I was alone and friendless in this city.
I could think, but lost all capacity to move. I remembered a rabbit I had seen in the zoo. Offered as fresh food, it shivered in the enclosure waiting for a coiled python to devour it. Like that rabbit, I had nowhere to hide. Goose bumps tingled on my bare arms.
Hidden in the dark interior of the auto, I watched the action unfold outside as if it was a scene from a murder-mystery movie. My mind froze, refusing to acknowledge that this was happening to me. The new man joined the autowalla and they continued to speak words I could not hear. Then he moved closer to the autowalla and together they threw their weight against the garbage can. The can rattled aside towards the gutter, leaving enough space for us to pass. The autowalla shook hands with the man and then climbed in and started his machine.
As the other man walked by within inches from me, I felt the heat of his bulky body. He stirred the humid air with the stench of stale sweat and alcohol, and it took me a while to realise that he was gone. The auto’s engine sputtered to life and it bounced and jolted straight toward the dead end.
Just when I thought we were driving right into the building’s portico, my auto swerved to the right and entered a perpendicular lane. I could see bright lights; hear the honks and rumbles of traffic. People rushed everywhere braving the rain.
Yes, there was the Taj Mahal Restaurant, where Nita and I sometimes joined the Sunday lunchtime crowds to savour their famous biryani rice. It was part of our occasional weekend outings and a welcome respite from Mrs Britto’s culinary fiascos. I let go of my grip on the seat and eased my face into a smile. We were in the main road again, minutes away from home.
“Why did you ever enter that awful alley?”
“If I hadn’t taken a short cut, we would have taken at least half an hour to clear that traffic jam.” The autowalla then burst into another song.
“Did you know that man?”
“Nope. I thought he wanted to mug us. I couldn’t possibly have fended that huge sot off. With you around, it would have been tough to make a run for it. I thought we were goners. But my sweet-talking worked, and he turned out to be helpful.”
The fresh monsoon breeze filled me with a sense of peace. “You sing well,” I said.
“Yes, ma’am. Everyone in my village in Raigad District says so. They urged me to come here and try my luck in the movies.”
I didn’t know if he would ever make it, or join the thousands who rebuilt their lives around broken dreams. “Good luck,” I said, and I meant it.
He sang his way past
I saw a light flashing ahead. It was Mrs Britto standing in the Gupta family’s ground floor portico and waving an emergency lamp. As my auto stopped, she lifted her sari and waddled towards me through the mud.
The autowalla lit a match to check the meter. I saw a small, longish face with a nascent moustache and a galaxy of pimples. He couldn’t have been a day older than my 19-year-old scamp of a kid brother.
I took out a 100-rupee note from my purse and said, “Keep the change.”
His eyes widened and he hesitated.
“Keep it,” I repeated with a smile. “And hey, just what did you mean when you said all the autowallas knew me; that I’m ‘famous’?”
He bent down and fumbled as though searching for something below the dashboard. “Thanks, jaaneman. You’re famous among us because… you’re so… beautiful.” The purring engine drowned out his remaining words and he then took off with a roar. I could hear him singing as he drove out of sight.
“My goodness!” Mrs Britto exclaimed. Her nasal, wheezy voice told me her asthma was acting up again. Neeta and I would need to take her to a doctor tomorrow. “You had me worried sick,” she said, her chest heaving as she took laboured breaths. “I was watching TV when the power blinked. They were showing flooded rail-lines and commuters milling around cancelled trains.”
She fussed over me like a plump mother hen with her freshly laid egg, and then continued in her usual school headmistress tone: “You’re drenched and shivering. Go upstairs and change those wet clothes at once. Take a shower, too, and no arguments! I’ve kept the hot water running.”
I followed Mrs Britto up the stairs ignoring her constant grumbling and helping her up the steps. Poor thing; the lifts weren’t working and the climb would aggravate her asthma.
Nita was waiting at the door. “Hey, wash up quick,” she cried. “I’ve brought samosas with hot mint chutney. Let’s share them while they’re still hot.”
The chatpata taste of tangy pomegranate seeds and dried mango powder in the potato stuffing, the crunchy outer shell, ooh, how I loved samosas. I loved Nita. I gave her a kiss on the cheek and on an impulse, I hugged Mrs Britto. And the old lady actually beamed a gap toothed smile.
It was good to be home.(Frog Urban Voice III: Bombay. A former banker, Monideepa Sahu’s short fiction has most recently been accepted into Temenos (