“Wake up! Wake up!” a hand was shaking me firmly and vigorously.
I did not realize I had been asleep. Somehow, I roused myself and peered at my tormentor. It was a man in a uniform. He was not a policeman. Sighing in relief, I sat up on the hard park-bench I was lying on and rubbed my eyes. Shivanna, his name was. Originally from some rural area of northern Karnataka, he had come to the city of dreams like everyone else. To make his fortunes. He was now the groundskeeper of this public park that had been my home for the past few months.
The morning dew had made the newspapers I had arranged below me wet. And my turning over them had torn the sheets to shreds.
“Late again today, huh?” Shivanna said and smiled. His teeth were yellowed and broken off at different sizes. He looked menacing, but he was gentle as a lamb. I had never heard him yell or say a harsh word to anyone in all these months.
Pointing to a nearby paper-wrapped object, he smirked. “The usual.”
I handed the torn sheets of newspapers to the him. With that, he tugged at the hand cart holding assorted weapons of the cleaning industry and wandered away down the path. Half asleep and yawning, I looked my well-scratched and worn wristwatch as I extended my hand to stretch.
I was late.
I grabbed the wrapped sandwich off the bench and bolted down the path. Several familiar passers-by and vendors nodded as I rushed past them.
“Go get them!” Someone yelled at me as I ran.
“Thank you pops!” I yelled back at the wizened old man under the shade of a nearby tree. Pappinder, as was his original name. He had been a hulky stout guy in his prime. He had worked for years as the bouncer at a local bar. Now, no one paid attention to him. He spent his days under a tree shouting advice to anyone that came into his earshot.
Rushing out the gate, I spotted a taxicab parked nearby and ran to it.
“Available?” I asked, knocking at the door.
The cabbie woke up. “Running late, huh? Come on, then.” He said, sitting up and firing up the engine.
His name was Rajan and he had known me for a while and had accompanied me to most of my interviews. He knew I had no money to pay him. I had run out of my meagre savings a long time ago. He took me still. Purely out of friendship. Rajan was a good man. In a city that was always rushing away somewhere, there were still a few good men. Like Rajan. Like Pappinder. Like Shivanna.
“Where to today?” He asked, nulling the meter for the ride.
“Bandra Technology Park” I said. It was a popular and very busy section of the business district. “Really? The meter?” I asked him sarcastically.
“I gotta do it in case I get stopped.” He shrugged. It was officially a crime to run a taxi without its meter running. “Where in Bandra Technology Park?” He asked, looking at me with some admiration in his rear-view mirror as he pulled away from the kerb.
I told him the name of the company where I was headed for today’s interview.
He whistled through his teeth. “Best wishes man!”
I laughed and waved my hand. “You’ve said that the last hundred times as well.”
“You will get this one. I have a feeling,” he said turning on the radio and weaving through the traffic like the pro he was.
He always had a feeling I would get the job.
He dropped me with not a moment to spare at the gates of a very large building. It took me over an hour to get through the sign ins at the various desks on different floors, get scanned and finally reach the suite of rooms where the interviews were taking place. I rushed straight to a desk they had set up there in a corner by the door.
I was the filthiest person in the waiting area. Everybody looked at me for a moment and then looked away in disgust, some in horror. A few even pinched their noses. I couldn’t blame them. I had one set of clean clothes. Rajan took away the set after each interview and returned them to me the next day, washed and neatly pressed. But it had been a month or two since I had had my last bath. I had not seen a soap in a year.
While I thought most of the interview had gone off well, when they bid farewell to me, I heard them say the dreaded words as I walked out of the interview room.
“We will let you know in a few days.”
That usually meant that you didn’t make the cut. Oh, why couldn’t they just come out and say that!
Rajan was waiting for me outside the gates.
“How did it go?” He asked with a smile. “Treat time?”
I shook my head and told him the story while he drove back to the park. He listened quietly, making noises of concern and shock at the appropriate times.
“You know, I have a friend that could help you.” He offered when we were stopped at a traffic light.
“A friend? In my line of work? You? How?” I stammered.
He shook his head vigorously. “No. Not in tech. Doing this.” He said, banging down on his steering wheel. “Become a cabbie.” He grinned.
I stared contemplatively at him. His face, pock-marked from a childhood case of chickenpox, was genial and likeable. When he smiled, it didn’t scare people away. Especially not the many children he usually ferried – he had been engaged by several families to ferry their children to and from school. On his head was a Maharashtrian boat-shaped white cap, that was called a ‘topi’.
“Look at it this way,” He grinned and continued. “You love to drive. You will be doing that all day. You love meeting all manner of people and are friendly and approachable and all that shit. All the stuff that this job requires.”
“Hmm.” I was confused.
When the light turned green, instead of heading straight off, he turned into a smaller lane and stopped at a little tea shop.
“Bhai, two teas please.” He called to the elderly man wearing a well-worn topi, and vigorously mixing through boiling milk. All tea vendors did that. Why? I wondered.
We sat on the rickety bench off to one side of the street. There was actually no place to sit grandly and drink your tea. This was Mumbai. One found a way to do that still.
“So, what do you think?” He asked when we were seated.
I swatted at some flies that buzzed around us. “It sounds good. But…”
He started pulling out his phone. I put my hand on his arm.
“What about getting a car? The licenses and permits…” I shook my head sadly. “And, face it, though I’ve been here a while, I practically know none of the roads here.”
“Bhai-mere!” He said with a laugh. “Those are all silly things to solve.”
The tea arrived. We took a glass each.
“I think you already have a drivers’ license. Correct?”
“Phir teek hai na! You drive my cab for a while.” Before I could object, he continued. “I will show you the ropes and the roads. Then when you are ready to do it on your own, we can arrange a car for you.”
“But how would I get a car?” I mused putting down my tea glass much to the joy of a hundred flies that descended on its rim immediately. I picked up the glass and swatted them away.
“There are people.” He nodded. “I will help you. You get these things for rent. Later we can go to a bank for a loan and get you a car.”
He seemed to have a solution for every new problem I managed to dig up. Finally, I agreed.
“There is, however, a small matter of payment.” He said as we walked back to the car.
“I don’t have any money.” I was aghast. I literally had nothing.
He laughed again. “No, I was talking about dividing the fares we would collect while you were my trainee… driving my car.”
“Oh.” I said sheepishly. He had found a boulder on his own. And removed it as well.
“At the end of the day, we deduct the expenses. You know, fuel, bribes and the like and you can keep the rest. After all, you’re the one driving around.”
I looked at him with raised eyebrows. “What would you do for money if you gave me everything?”
“I am not poor.” He said patting my back and starting the engine.
My heart sank. The truth of what he said hit me like a ton of bricks. I sank back into the seat and tried to look outside and for the first time, understand the roads we were taking.
It was evening when he finally dropped me back at the gates of the public park.
“Are you sure it is still a ‘no’?” He asked.
I nodded. “No.” I said, entering the gates.
He had been inviting me to leave the park and come and stay at his house. But he was newly married. I did not want to impose on them.
I watched the sun set behind the buildings and reminisced about how I had got here. I had not been always this way. I had done well in school, breezed through college. I wouldn’t say I was a straight A’s student, but I was good. I had wooed and married a girl from my college. And we had had a happy life. For a while. Then bad things happened that turned everything into sticky shit. First, it was the recession. Someone somewhere on the other side of the world took out a very big bad loan on a bank. The bank crashed and brought down the world’s economy. So much for globalization, eh! I had had a stable well-paying job at a top technology company. Swiftly rising through the ranks. When the recession hit, the company did its cutbacks. One of which was my job. For a long time, I struggled. No one came to our aid. Within a year, our savings were gone. We had bought a house on loan and the bank came calling and took almost everything. Unable to find a job, my wife asked for a divorce. After a hard and bitter battle in the face of deep adversity, I threw in the towel and let her go.
Now, I was here, sleeping on a hard park bench. I watched the life I had pass me by and insult me every day. But like Rajan reminded me, I had not stooped to crime.
The elderly police constable who came on the nightly rounds at the park, shared his dinner with me as usual. A repast of dried phulka rotis with lentil curry and some smashed up onions. He spoke in a pure Marathi dialect and I understood nothing of what he usually spoke. But we talked to each other anyway. I told him about the day’s interview and then rambled about Rajan’s suggestion of driving my own cab. That got his attention suddenly.
“Cab? Taxicab?” He asked suddenly.
I nodded and indicated turning a steering wheel of a car. “Cab. Yes.”
He smiled and gave me a thumbs up. “Karo! Taxi karo!” he insisted and patted my back violently and laughed. “Good work. Good money.” He laughed, giving me a lot of thumbs ups.
I slept fitfully that night. The weather was also turning chilly.
When morning came, I found myself with a decision already made. I thanked Shivanna for the sandwich he gave me as usual and left to find Rajan. He was not parked at the usual spot.
“Passenger.” Remarked an autorickshaw driver who recognized me, nodding knowingly.
“Interview?” He asked and patted to the passenger seat of his vehicle. “Come.”
I shook my head. “No interview.” I signalled with my hand. “Talking.”
Bored, the man looked away. I waited under the shade of a tree. The nearby sherbet vendor offered me a drink on the house. I took it gladly. For a while, I watched the passers-by. I listened into other taxi drivers talking and haggling with their passengers. Free tuitions.
Finally, Rajan arrived.
“I’ve made a decision.” I told him when he sat down next to me and we were both sipping another tall glass of sherbet. “I want to become a cabbie.”
“Good boy.” Rajan said, patting my thigh.
“Come with me.” He said when I had finished and led me to his car.
We rode in silence, we wound through the roads and side streets until we came into a slum.
“Know this place well.” He said. “It’s called Dharavi.”
I had heard about it.
“Isn’t it…?” I started.
“Dangerous? All places have everything. Some things get highlighted more.” He said.
He parked in a spot. It looked like he came often. A lot of people wished him, and he wished them back. We walked through smaller and smaller lanes for a while. We came into a larger courtyard. Somehow, there was a car parked there. We had walked through roads tough enough to wriggle a motorbike through, where did the car come from? I wondered. And it was not an old car either.
He ducked under a worn, dirty and torn blanket that hid an open doorway and headed in. I hesitated and waited outside.
After a minute, he popped his face out and called to me. “Come!”
I followed him in.
“Meeta, meet Arjun.” He said genially.
When my eyes adjusted, I saw a young lady about our age, draped in a faded light blue sari that she was quickly draping over her head approach us.
“Bhaiya, welcome.” She said, offering a glass of water to each of us.
“This is Meeta. My wife.” Rajan said.
“Please don’t call me that.” I said blushing. “I don’t think I am that much older than you.”
She blushed shyly and stood there in a corner.
Meeta was almost my height and beautiful in a simple kind of way. She was fairer than me, I could see that in the dim light in the shack. Her eyes twinkled and she had a warm welcoming smile. On her forehead was a faded dab of sandalwood paste. She must have gone to a temple in the morning, I mused. On the top of her forehead, at the start of her hair’s parting was a thin spot of vermillion that would have been a line when it had been drawn in the morning.
He spoke with her in Marathi for a while. From time to time, she looked to me and smiled and nodded. It seemed he was narrating my story to her.
“Go with her now.” Turning to me, he said at last. “Go and have a bath and change. She will give you fresh clothes to wear – don’t worry, they are mine.”
After my bath, the first one in several months, Meeta served a hearty meal. All the while, she was looking at me, judging me for every movement and bite. She did not comment, they were the judgements of observation.
Over the course of the next two weeks, I stayed with Rajan at his house. We left early in the morning and returned late in the night. He would drive during the first part of the day, showing me the roads, making me memorize landmarks and important things like one-way streets and shortcuts. Mumbai as a large metropolitan city had horrendous traffic jams during peak times. We were once stuck on a bridge for over two hours, hardly moving an inch.
Back home, Meeta insisted I learn Marathi. It was the only way I could survive independently in the city. I let her tutor me on alternate days. I would practice what I learnt on long-time regulars of Rajan’s cab. They laughed a lot at my errors but helped me too by correcting my enunciation and grammar.
One day, we were heading back to the park, his usual parking spot, after dropping off a fare. An elderly lady flagged us down. She stared sternly at me as she got into the passengers’ seat at the back.
“Ready ho?” She asked me curtly and angrily.
“Ready for what?” I asked her politely.
“Iskeliye!” She exclaimed, passing over a sheet of paper over the seat.
Since I was driving, Rajan held it up against the windscreen for me to see. It was my taxi permit. I could now head out on my own. Tears of exhaustion and thankfulness flowed freely from both eyes.
“Park.” Rajan tapped my shoulder gently.
I pulled over and switched seats with him.
“Thank you.” I said to the lady at the back.
She was a clerk at the permit office. Rajan had arranged for the permit without telling me it seemed. A surprise. I would beat him up later, I decided. For now, I stared at the car’s dashboard. On it were arranged a set of gods and goddesses. From the rear-view mirror hung a doubled-up chain of rudraksh. He was a devout man. Faithful to his religion, faithful to his family and faithful to his friends. My eyes teared up for now and I couldn’t watch the road as he drove back.
Rajan talked all the way, of course. But I didn’t hear a word he said. I was lost in my own reverie.
And he had told Meeta. She had made ‘Patoli’ to celebrate. It was a sweet made of grated coconut, rice and jaggery.
For a few days, Rajan refused to take me with him. He insisted I stay home and finish learning Marathi. Meeta taught me well. I learned to ask for directions, bargain with passengers, fight with traffic policemen who might stop me and demand a bribe. She took me with her when she went shopping and made me bargain with the shopkeepers for the things she bought. That way, I also ended up learning what different things were called in Marathi.
Through this exercise, Meeta and I drew close to each other. When she judged I had learnt enough of her language, she told me her life story. She hailed from a small village on the southern border of the state. Her family spoke both Marathi and Kannada in a strange intermix that very few could understand. Most of the menfolk from her village had migrated to Mumbai and Pune a long time ago in search of work. Her family had run into quite a bit of trouble to find her a groom. Rajan came from a different village, closer to the sea. His family had been sea-going fishermen. But Rajan’s father had worked hard and sent his son to school. Meeta herself had studied only up to the eighth standard. She was intelligent, though not formally ‘educated’. Though they had met during a fair, and subsequently fallen in love, they had gotten their families involved and had an officially arranged marriage.
When Meeta had finished telling me about her past, she asked me meanings of various words and phrases she had used. After that, in broken Marathi, she made me tell her my story. Then she proceeded to correct my language heavily. Sometimes when I got things horribly wrong, she stifled a laugh and tried to maintain a serious face.
One day, Meeta’s elder brother came to visit us. He was a burly, swarthy man, with large hands. He had been working as a construction worker in Pune. When he saw the casual friendly sort of relationship that his sister and I had, he was suspicious at first.
I overheard him asking Meeta one evening, “I hope you are still loyal to your husband, sister.”
“Don’t be silly. He is like my elder brother.” Meeta had laughed at him.
Her brother turned to look at me suspiciously, nonetheless. Consciously, I kept my distance from Meeta, restricting our conversations to the bare essentials, while her brother was home.
When his visit was done, we dropped him at the nearby Mahim railway station in my taxi. She sat alongside me on the long front seat of the Premier Padmini car. We had just turned into the street with the old post office building when four men blocked our way. They carried long poles and looked menacing. I could not see the faces of any of them. My heart sank.
“Trouble.” I whispered to her.
She nodded silently. “Lafda karliya?” She asked.
I shook my head. I did nothing but fares. I rarely even engaged in conversation with any of my passengers. I usually shut them down saying I did not want to know.
One of the men came to my window and motioned for me to roll it down. The windowpanes had darkening film applied. I rolled it down.
“Bhai, what…” I began to plead.
He held up a hand for me to shut up and shone his torch on our faces.
“Kaun?” He asked gruffly, in Marathi.
“Behen.” I said, simply.
“Get out of the car.” He said, flashing his torch into the back seat. “Both of you.”
Not wanting to make trouble, I unlocked my door and motioned for Meeta to get off as well. One of the other men motioned for us to stand to a side of the road and held his pole horizontally across us to indicate we should stay there. I found myself shaking from head to toe. Until this time, I had only heard of such things or seen them in movies.
It was happening. To me. In real life.
I turned to look at Meeta and found her biting her lip. Her fists were clenched, and I could see the fear in her eyes in the light of the nearby streetlamp. I put an arm around her and hugged her reassuringly.
She was happy to shrink into my embrace. I could feel that she was shaking violently.
The man with the torch searched the car and even the trunk at the back. There was nothing there for him to find. Whatever he was looking for could have been very small, he even looked under the seats.
“Fine. You can go.” He said.
Still shaking all over, we got into the car.
“What are you looking for?” I tried to ask the man with the torch.
“Not your business.” He answered gruffly.
I drove off in a hurry.
I would never forget the face of the man with the torch.
His eyes were like that of a cat, kind of a shade of green. And, I thought his corneas were long, not round. They seemed to open and close sideways. The man had a kind of creepy menace to him. He wore a kind of turban on his head, clumpy and hastily made. I wondered where he was from. His almost sing-song accent reminded me of somewhere further north.
A few days later, I was returning to my usual parking spot when I spotted the man who had accosted us that night, Torch Man, again. He was walking on the pavement on my side of the road. He was heading toward me. Well, not toward me, but in my direction. I tried to watch him as I inched the car forward. As he crossed, I shrank back in my seat trying to avoid being spotted.
That night, I had just parked and was getting out of the car when I heard a match flare. I looked around. It was him. He slouched against an empty barrel a few car lengths away.
Somewhere in the distance, I heard a crack of thunder. It might rain later. The weather was musty.
“Come here.” He beckoned to me. He did not look at me.
Reluctantly, I walked closer.
“You saw me today, didn’t you?” He asked.
I felt cold. I had never once seen him look in my direction earlier that day. And it had been a busy road. How had he spotted me? He was not looking in my direction even right now. Rather, he had his eyes firmly on the rough tarmac under our feet.
I nodded slowly.
“One word to anyone, and…” he completed his sentence with a quick sign with his free hand across his throat. The meaning of that was clear.
I swallowed hard and nodded again.
“Jao!” he said suddenly, waving me away.
I ran from there as quickly as I could.
Meeta ran out of the house as she heard my running footsteps approach.
“Kai?” She asked concerned. She saw the terror in my eyes and heard my rasping breath.
“Torch Man…” I panted. We had decided to call him that.
“Yes?” She asked, taking the lunch bag off my hands and leading me indoors.
I told her that day’s story as she made hot tea for both of us.
She looked at my furrowed brows. “You know nothing to tell anyone anyway.” She remarked.
I nodded. “Who knows, maybe he was returning after a…”
It started to rain as we spoke.
Meeta put a finger onto my lips to shut me up. “Shhaaa! Stop thinking about him. Go now and have a bath. I’ll get around to making dinner. Go!”
“Where’s Rajan?” I asked as I disappeared into the back of the house.
She shook her head. “Barsat.” She said indicating the rains. He would be late.
Rajan didn’t come home that night. There was a lot of lightning and thunder and heavy rain. In the morning, we found the lanes outside flooded in ankle-deep water. Luckily, the shack was built on a raised platform and the water was not high enough to breach it. Meeta tried a lot to get in touch with her husband, but cellular phone signals were spotty that day.
I could not help much. For one, I had no idea where he could be. And the TV said all the roads were flooded, I wouldn’t get very far.
I tried to sleep.
Meeta sat by the door, waiting for Rajan. She fell asleep fitfully, waking at every sound.
“Utho!” She jogged me awake. “Arjun, utho!”
It was the early hours of morning. The water receded enough for me to try and venture out. Meeta packed some dry clothes for her husband and me and fresh hot food in a bag.
“Don’t worry, I will bring him back.” I tried to assure her as I headed out and waded through ankle deep water. I was doubtful about how far I could get before I would need to give up the search.
I didn’t find Rajan right away. I was almost about to give up take a fare. There were too many people trying to get somewhere and too few vehicles on the roads.
That was when I spotted a car, parked a little way inside a municipality park. I waved my potential fare away and drove toward the park.
Could it be Rajan? I wondered.
The park had a broken boundary wall and the driver of the parked car had managed somehow to get his car between the gap. Apparently, he was trying to get the car out of the water’s reach. Parking on the side of the road, I went up the little rise for a closer look.
It was Rajan’s car. But the man was nowhere to be found.
“Rajan!” I called, my hands cupped to my mouth.
“Here… I am here.” Answered a weak voice. I looked around to find him up a nearby Neem tree.
He seemed weak, wet and tired. And hungry. With some trouble and help from passers-by, I managed to get him down. He felt hot all over.
“I am fine. Take me home.” He insisted.
“You are burning up. You have a fever.” I admonished him. “Let’s get you to a hospital.”
Leaving his car behind, I took him to a nearby hospital.
I called Meeta and told her where to come.
“Where is he? Where is he?” She called worried, running in through the ward doors.
I pointed to the bed in a far corner. “Don’t worry, he is fine. Just a fever from being out in the rain.” I reassured her. “Just some rest and he will be alright.”
She ran to his side.
I needed a new pack of beedis. I was headed out of the hospital’s doors when I spotted Torch Man again. He was standing there, slouched against a nearby motorbike.
“How is he?” He asked. He seemed to know everything.
“Just a fever.” I muttered.
“He will be fine. Don’t worry.” The torch man said and walked away.
I stared after him in shock, when I felt a touch on my shoulder. It was Meeta. She was staring at the Torch Man departing too.
“Rajan said he was dropping off our torch man when the rain came down heavily.” She whispered.
I spun around in shock. “How does Rajan know Torch Man?”
She shook her head. “Not like that. I understood from his description.”
“He was just asking about Rajan.” I nodded in the direction of Torch Man.
Just then, the man turned around and smiled weakly before getting into a waiting autorickshaw. Even from the distance, I spotted the glint of a silvered tooth in his mouth.
It had been almost over three months since I had visited the park that I had called ‘home’ for so long. Today, I was there to drop off a young couple and their naughty little boy.
“Hey!” called the familiar ice-cream seller by the gate. “You don’t grace us with your visit nowadays.” He scolded me in mock anger.
I parked the car and went over to meet him. Just then, the park’s watchman came by.
“A letter came for you some days ago.” The watchman said after greeting me and asking about how I was doing. “Wait here, I’ll go get it.”
The only letters that would come to the park would be from the companies I had interviewed at earlier. But it had been almost a year now since I had last interviewed anywhere. I had been happy as a cabbie. Happy and content. I had forgotten my technology background completely.
As I stood there amused, the watchman emerged from his shack by the gate with a manila envelope. “Here.” He said, handing it to me. “Open it.”
Reluctantly, I opened it. What was I supposed to do if at last I had gotten one of those jobs? With tear-clouded vision, I scanned through the one-page letter.
I had got the job.
“Hey! Congratulations! Treat!” they all demanded.
I shook my head, got into my cab and drove off. I was confused. Somewhere deep inside of my stomach, there was a bad feeling. A pull that said I would regret it if I took the job. But there was nothing reasonable that could explain the feeling.
The salary on offer was great, more than ten-fold of what I was making as a cabbie. I could move out of the shack and get a proper apartment and live a better life. A life that I had studied hard for.
But I would have to leave all of this behind. My freedom, my friends. I had genuine people that cared about me. Rajan, Meeta. I would have to become a clock and someone’s slave. For what? Was it worth it? What was the value of the trade?
My mind and heart were in heavy turmoil. I didn’t go home that night. It was strange I had come to think of Rajan’s house and my home. There was that pang again.
Instead, I headed to Kamathipura. Secretly, Rajan had a girlfriend there. When I had found out about it, he had warned me not to utter a word to Meeta. I went straight to her apartment.
“What’s wrong with my second favourite customer?” She greeted with patent sweetness.
I told her my predicament. Chameli heard me patiently. She always did. Though, I could never be quite sure if she only pretended to listen to everything her customers had to tell her.
Chameli was a sweet girl. She had been born to another working woman who lived across the street from this building. Her mother had long since passed on. Chameli knew of no other life and had embraced the profession without doubts or regret. She didn’t have dreams of doing anything else. This was her life. She knew nothing else.
“Take the job.” She said finally.
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“Well, how long are you going to stay with Rajan and his wife?” Chameli scolded me. “Don’t you want to start a family too some day? And what about when they have children?”
“I already had a family. A wife, a child. Everything.” I said glumly.
“Well, where is it written that you have to have it only once?” She chided. “They are gone now, aren’t they? You deserve to be happy.”
I considered her advice.
“You must go. Take the job.” She commanded.
Mindlessly, I almost rose up.
“No, no! Not tonight. Tonight, we celebrate.” She laughed pulled me down on her bed.
The next morning as I dressed, I looked at my phone. There were over fifty missed calls from Meeta. She must have been worried sick when I didn’t come back. I would go straight home.
I arrived to find Meeta sitting by the door, alone and sad. She stood up when she saw me approach.
“I am sorry I didn’t answer or call…” I started to explain.
She rushed to me and hugged me and started to cry.
“It’s alright. I am here now.” I said, trying to console her and pull her away. I thought she was crying because I had been missing all night.
She just grabbed on to me harder and cried more.
“I got this letter, you know. From one of the jobs I had interviewed for a year ago. They finally offered me a job. It is great pay and all. I was confused. So, I slept in the park…” I rambled on.
I lied about sleeping in the park. For some reason, as I told that lie, I actually felt guilty about it.
But she did not appear to listen to any of it.
Finally, she pulled away and looked at me, still with tears in her eyes. Her eyes searched my eyes. For something. And did not find it.
“You don’t know, do you?” she asked, finally.
“Don’t know what?” I asked, reducing the grin on my face. It was not her happiness to see me that had made her cry. There was something else. Something was wrong.
“Rajan…” She began, tearfully.
“What happened to Rajan?” I asked, taking a step toward her.
“Torch man… he… Rajan…” the girl stammered and broke down crying again.
It took a few minutes, but I finally pieced together that Rajan and Torch Man had got into an argument, a fight over something. And Torch Man had killed Rajan. But she did not seem to know anything more than that. She had heard the story from somewhere else.
“Where’s Rajan now?” I asked, looking around.
“With the police. They will give him back after the post-mortem they said.” She sobbed.
I stood up. “I’ll be back.”, I said, heading out.
“Where are you going? No! Stop!” She begged.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
She sank to the floor by the door, crying.
On my way home, I had spotted Torch Man gambling with some friends at a nearby shack. I went straight to find him. Somehow, he had guessed that I would come. Even as I approached the shack, he stood up and stubbed out the half-burnt cigarette and looked straight up at me.
“I knew you would come.” He said. He was glum. “I am sorry.”
“What happened? I have no idea what happened. Tell me!” I begged, grabbing his shirt.
Around us, it started to rain again.
He did not resist. He told me. He told me everything.
He was a hitman for a local don. He was coming back from a ‘job’ when he spotted Rajan headed the opposite direction. Rajan had seen him too. But going a little further, Rajan had discovered the Torch Man’s latest doing and Rajan had returned quickly and confronted him and an argument had broken out. Somehow, it had escalated into a physical fight on the pavement. As Torch Man tried to push Rajan away from himself, Rajan had fallen onto the road and been run over by a passing truck.
Torch Man had not exactly killed Rajan. In fact, he had bundled Rajan into his cab and driven him to a hospital. But Rajan had already died on the way.
At least that was his side of the story.
“Look, I can go surrender to the police and all.” He offered. “But either my boss will have me out in no time, or he will have me killed in custody for fear of what I know about him. That will accomplish nothing for his wife or you.”
I considered that for a while.
“You are not my prisoner. I will need to talk to her.” I told him.
I walked away and returned to Meeta.
She had stopped crying and was busy in the kitchen. I went in and sat on the floor and told her what transpired between the Torch Man and me.
“Puliswala kuch ni karna.” She waved the stick she was using to roll out the dinner rotis. “I have nothing to gain by pursuing him in court. Rajan’s gone. I have to move on.”
The next morning, as she served me breakfast, she suddenly said. “You have to accept that job. Call them right now. It has been too many days since they wrote to you already.”
“What?” I stammered.
“I don’t want to live here anymore. Too many memories.” She shook her head, pouring another ladle of curry for my rotis. “Take that job. Let us move away.”
“What do you mean, ‘us’?” I asked her.
She blushed but didn’t say anything.
It had now been almost two years since the tragedy. On Meeta’s advice, I had accepted the job and we had moved across Mumbai to a well-to-do apartment, on rent. Meeta had wanted to get married sooner, but I had kept putting it off, feeling guilty. Rajan had been a close friend. Six months later, it seemed silly not to get married. She was now pregnant with our first child. We had a down-payment on an apartment that was being constructed.
I was returning from office one night when I stopped at a local restaurant to pack some biriyani. Meeta loved the biryani from this particular eatery. And now that she was pregnant, she ate a lot more. As I stood waiting for the order, I felt a touch on my shoulder. I turned around to see Chameli standing there. She was looking at my transformation and beamed.
“Nayi shirt, Nayi pant, Nayi boot…” she laughed, quoting a popular TV advertisement. “So, you took the job! Good for you.”
“Yes.” I smiled back. “How are you? How have you been?”
It turned out that Chameli had got married as well. A long-time customer of her’s had proposed to her and fought with the thugs of the area and taken her away. She nodded into the restaurant at a man.
“That’s him. Poora filmy ishtyle!” She whispered and blushed.
“Only one sad news, though.” I said, dropping my voice. “Rajan is no more.”
“Hai Ram!” She cried, her hand instantly to her lips. “What happened?”
I told her about how he had been killed.
“What happened to his wife?” She asked. “Meeta, right, her name was?”
“Oh, Meeta and I married. We are together now.” I said. “Expecting our first child too!” I added beaming with pride.
“Shaabash! You dog! Good for you!” She teased me.
I looked at her confused. I had expected some form of an admonishment. She seemed to have accepted it too quickly and easily.
Suddenly, Chameli turned serious. “You know, that last day when you came to see me?”
“After our love-making, when you passed out, you were mumbling ‘Meeta… Meeta’…”
“Really?” I asked, shocked. She nodded in earnest. “I meant to ask you earlier. When you said she had called you a hundred times during the night and rushed off, I put the question by for the next time.”