Poet, Author, Editor, Creative Writing Consultant

Friday, February 13, 2009

Taxi Driver 1

The flight lands at 8 pm. Something about the time, but the queue is long, oh so long, so I finally get my prepaid taxi cab number at 9.30 pm. It s 6, and I have to run with my baggage to a demarcated area on the road with 6 on it! I stand there, and all around me people are running into taxis and doors are slamming and the taxis are moving on and no one is heeding me waving the ticket with 6 in the air and shouting it out now, running, I am number 6, I am number 6, but the 9s and 12s or whatever are getting their rides. I decide to turn from harried customer to belligerent taxpayer. I stride up to the guy who is in charge of all this and wave my ticket in his face, and he says, madam, I will arrange the taxi for you immediately, and a Maruti van cruises up, he opens its door deftly, lifts up my baggage in a split second into it and I lift myself up behind it, the door slamming shut and I am on my way. Then and only then do I see what is all around me, my mind has been so concentrated on getting that taxi for getting home.

Well, the taxi guy is a young man, with a black cap on, [is there something about my being that all my vahan (chariot) drivers wear a black cap, whether they be young or old?]. He asks me my name and address as a matter of protocol, to shout it out to the guy at the checking point, and then I ask him his number to tell my people at home, so that they know I am travelling in a particular vehicle. He shouts out the taxi no., and then his name too, he says—tell them my name too…P…K…M…! Just to be truly safe, he says. I am a bit taken aback by this and mouth his name into my cell phone.

I don’t know how the conversation begins. But it does. And its about safety and cities. P (initial of name of taxi driver, and henceforth denoting him) tells me he used to be working in Karnataka, and there were forests and it was safe, despite that. I tell him about Mumbai, the city I am returning from, and tell him about how its so wonderful that a woman can be out at night and the lights are on in the streets and other women are out and about as well for meetings and outings. Mumbai spells a kind of security for me that I have never experienced in Delhi. He says, yes, Delhi is pretty unsafe, and not too friendly a city as well. He says even cab drivers in Delhi get hauled up by aggressive customers, and he recounts experiences that he has had. He is also unhappy over the fact that customers don’t offer a welcome drink like tea to cab drivers that wait outside their homes in the cold for long periods of time. Such lack of hospitality only to be found among the well-heeled in Delhi, P says. Uh-huh. The other side of the coin.

He then says that taxis can be unsafe too. Even DL1T ones, like his taxi is. A small shiver runs up my spine, but I put it down to the cold night air. He asks me if I remember the gruesome murder of a young NRI a few months ago. I say no. He does not let it go. He says there were three very young taxi drivers of a low caste (he emphasized that, as if that made a difference!) who were driving this NRI around and about Delhi.

“Why three taxi drivers?” I ask, but he shrugs that off with a “You know how it is.” Do I? I am trying to comprehend this, but his voice rises now. “They killed him and threw his body in the forest near Gurgaon, took his cell phone, put in a new SIM, and went off to Kullu Manali.” He says, I may not know something, but he is enlightening me about this. “In the new expensive cell phones, putting a new SIM card will spell doom for the guy who puts it in, since that is how the police traced them.”

I don’t know about this, but that is what P says with absolute certainty. He also knows that with the dead man’s ATM card, those people took out a lot of money, and he says, “You know, you can withdraw only upto Rs. 24,000/- at a time from an ATM, so they had to do this repeatedly to get more money out.”

Very aware, this taxi driver of mine.

He then shouts, “These people should be hanged,” (very vehemently), “I will be happy if they are hanged. You know, one of these guys, poor guy, was a good guy (seems to have known him personally?), but he got into the bad company of the other two, and this was his death sentence.” How apt. He says, “The parents of the convicted drives are moving heaven and earth to save them. Don’t know what bad mahurat (time) it was that these boys were conceived, that the parents have to suffer like this!”

So I have a commentary into justice and karma and sin and murder and caste and city culture.
And I have dread that is seeping into my bones, as to “Why is he telling me all this?” I have become very alert, watching my surroundings and his driving. Things seem to be all right. But you never know. Another shiver runs up my spine, but I have no choice but to stay put. I try to change the topic, but he comes back to it, like a dog chasing a runaway tail.

At a red light, a motorcycle driver, young and hooded against the cold, signals to P for a light with his hands, and P deftly throws him one. The lights change and we move on.

Desperate to change the topic, I ask P how the motorcycle guy knew he had a light. “Of course, he knows,” say P. “All taxi drivers carry a matchbox for their customers who come out of airports dying for a smoke— they have been in the non-smoking zone for so long,” he gives a low laugh. “And then, most taxi drivers smoke a bidi.” End of explanation, but now I am watching the road, for I can see the motor cycle man driving close to the taxi and I am wondering, “Are they together? Are they upto something?” but he comes close to the taxi and throws the match box right back, salutes, and whizzes off, much to my relief. P promptly puts the matchbox back and looks back at me to see how I am faring. I pretend to jab a message into my cell, ignoring his stare.

I tell myself, “Nothing will happen to me, God is with me,” and begin chanting “Om, Om,” under my breath, stopping only when we turn into my apartment gates and the familiar smile of the guard greets me. Whew. Home in one piece. Thank you, God. Yes, everything helps, and the chanting did calm my frayed nerves and flying thoughts.

The driver gets off, I get off, he hauls my luggage down, I give him his slip, and then look at him. He is very tall and thin. I wonder if something sinister lurked there behind his talk, so I look at his eyes.

They look a bit crazed, but it may only be my heightened imagination playing tricks. His tale had spooked me.

I am thankful that the ride is over. Maybe he spoke thus to exorcise his own ghosts, or to tell me that I was safe with him for he wished that such people were hanged to pay for their sins and also teach a lesson to other taxi drivers, but I don’t think that message came across that clearly! All I know is that I called up my family and friends while I travelled in this taxi to keep them posted that I was alive. And now I survive to tell the tale.