Wednesday, April 11, 2007


He was on his way back from work, having left the snazzy, new-age, all-glass office in the heart of the city's financial centre. Sitting next to the driver in the battered, used, overused, abused taxi, the young consultant let his gaze wander to the horizon, trying to overlook the rows and rows of cars clogging the well-maintained road that sped through the Middle-Eastern city, lined with pink and white creeper flowers all along the way. A distance of 3 kilometres and it could take him another half an hour or even an hour to cover it.

Curious eyes watched him from the back seat. At least 4 pairs. He hadn't looked back long enough to check. There were women in burkhas, an old man, and a little child, who lisped and asked for water every few minutes. There was none in the car, and the consultant, used to solving people's problems, wondered what could be done about it in the middle of a traffic jam. The father of the child, sitting at the wheel, growled in Malayalam to the boy to sit quiet, or the police would take him away. At least, catching the word 'police' in the torrent of Malayalam that left the driver's lips, that's what the consultant figured. The child shrank back till thirst conquered fear for another attempt.

For no fault of anyone's, the overfull car with old upholstery and insufficient airconditioning smelt to high heaven. The driver had turned the AC on as a kind gesture. If only he hadn't...rolling down the windows would be infinitely better, thought the consultant, as he held his phone to his nostrils in a futile attempt to subtly block the fragrances of all the passengers in that long, sweaty, desert day who had ridden that car.

The taxi driver who picked him up each evening at a fixed time for a fixed rate had brought his whole family that day. Were they planning a picnic after dropping him off? Or had they come along for a ride, for lack of anything better to do? They seemed absorbed in watching him. The young passenger wondered what he would do if his boss pulled up next to this tiny Nissan in his silver Jag right at that moment. Slink down in his seat? Or roll down the window with bravado and cheerfully introduce his adoptive family to the Brit?

This was still better than the morning, when the young 'Paakstani' driving him to work had started showing off his new handmade shoes from his 'vatan' just as they pulled up at the porch. The consultant had jumped hastily out of the car, paying exact change to avoid waiting, before others coming in to work saw him being threatened with a pair of rough leather handmade shoes brandished in his face.

Of course, any of this was better than the agency telling you, in this city of too-much-traffic-too-few-taxis-too-many-people, that inshallah the cab would be there on time, if at all. Or the cab driver calling to say he was 'here boss', at 4.30 am instead of 7, as he sat bolt upright in a too-springy hotel bed, hair on end, wondering why it was dark out at 7.

As he sat and thought about all this, he was disturbed by a crackling sound of static as the driver, bored in the car, started fidgeting with the radio controls. No please please please, he thought, cringing mentally at the thought of Malayalam music flooding this overcrowded tin box.

Suddenly, 'jhalak dikhlaa ja...ek bar aja aja aja aja aaaaja' pounced out of the radio and attacked the smelly space. The back seat yielded first, focusing on the music rather than this fellow Indian who'd sat uncomfortably in the front seat as his collar bristled under the scrutiny. The driver tapped the steering wheel in time to the music. And the young consultant found his feet tapping too. All of them could close their eyes and imagine they were transported to a street in Bombay, in Kolkata, in Cochin, in Kozhikode....The whole car grew happier, and the traffic started creeping forward as a distant light turned green.

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