I was in a taxi on the Expressway. It was three in the night. The driver stopped on the way and told my co passenger and I that he had been paid to take just this far.
If there’s ever a city that bullies you to the ground, it’s Bombay. Bombay is the guy in the gym who bench presses an extra 50 kilos with his teeth after which you decide it’s best to switch to cardio for the day instead of facing general humiliation. Bombay is the teacher who batters you with a hockey stick because your left sock had a wrinkle.
It was a Friday, and I had had the kind of a day where I would have roamed the streets making random animal noises if I been forced to stay in the city a moment more. I had effectively been locked out of my flat with no key the day before I was supposed to vacate. My phone switched off at this exact moment. I had hundred bucks in my pocket, having forgotten my wallet inside the house. I hadn’t had dinner and I had just returned from a meeting that had left my blood boiling.
I managed to get my house opened by a key maker who mumbled words that weren’t in any identifiable language. I gave him the obscene amount he charged me, I was far too tired to argue. I stopped at a restaurant which served me noodles that looked like worms, forced myself to shovel two-three bites. I sat in a rick, where the rickshawala used the 15 minutes he had at his disposal to let me know that his son was suffering from a rare disease, that could be cured only by me paying him an extra fifty rupees.
I reached the station, where in dramatic fashion I slipped while boarding a moving train and fell, three bags and all on the platform. A kind stranger dutifully informed me that I should have boarded the train early. Curbing the urge of strangling him slowly, I sarcastically thanked him – a gesture wasted as sarcasm falls silent on most Indian ears and reached Dadar. The time now, was 12.
Now, there are several questions I get asked at this point. Why did I stop to eat and waste time? Why didn’t I just take a bus from Andheri? Why didn’t I wait till morning? The answer to all of these is the same. I didn’t. I just didn’t. For those 6 hours, I didn’t care whether I had to rock climb my way through Lonavala, but I wanted to go home. To Pune.
No availability of buses meant I had no option, but to take a cab. Unhappy at the thought of taking a cab alone, I voiced my concerns to the owner of the taxi establishment, who tore my argument to pieces. He said that travelling alone is safer than playing with a baby panda. He said the taxi driver was closer to him than his own brother, who he assured me was an idiot for supporting the Kokata Knight Riders. A frail man who looked like he had fed on carrots for the best part of the last ten months broke our conversation and asked if a taxi was available for himself. The taxi establishment owner dude dived at him in pretty much the same way as Romeo would have liked to at Juliet. He told me travelling alone was a thing of the past. Travelling together is the new black. He tore us both receipts that had just two words – ‘Pune’ and ‘Rs.500’ scrawled on them.
The journey on the way back was less than entertaining. My co passenger sat in the front seat. My driver was a Honey Singh aficionado, and was highly enthusiastic about us participating in the chorus. I slept off. After what seemed like two and a half hours, at the point where Pune dawns close but isn’t quite there…the driver stopped the car and looked at both of us with the sort of finality that I knew something was wrong.
“I’ve been paid to take you both till here”
Well. There has to be a mistake. We paid to be taken to our homes.
“I don’t know about all that. I have to go back from here”
This is ridiculous. I had paid to be taken to my house and I was going to be taken there. I’d had more than my share of conning to realise that this was a standard taxi 101. Of course, I was doing all the talking. My co passenger was silent. He was just observing the turn of events. I thought he was mute. He barely spoke at all. I didn’t even know if he could. I was fed up. My voice started rising. The driver’s voice started rising. I anticipated a fight. I couldn’t even call anyone. My phone was dead. The driver tried calling the taxi office, who grunted to him to drop us near a bus stop and effectively fuck off.
After the driver told us what he had been asked to do, there was a moment’s silence.
My co passenger calmly pulled out a 9 inch knife. He kept it on his own lap. Without raising his tone, without any rudeness, without any sort of aggression, he looked at the driver straight in the eye and said two words – “Gadi chalaao”
There are moments in life when one has just about 2 seconds to experience a life threat, a sudden urge to urinate and to register what’s going on is a movie script in the making. For me…this was that moment.
The driver didn’t speak a word. He seemed to look at the knife, and the variety of things that could be accomplished with the blade. His thirst for saving diesel vanished. He turned a deep shade of pale and looked at the road ahead. He just drove. He raved his average speed up and drove like he had never driven.
Co passenger followed this up with a casual, “Kishore vishore Kumar ke gane hain to jara bajao…”
RD Burman, the closest substitute available started playing momentarily. The atmosphere in the taxi took pin drop silence to new levels. You could hear the songs. But I could hear the taxi driver’s heart beat like a horn. Neither he nor I particularly enjoyed the melodious chanting of ‘Mehbooba’ blaring from the speakers. Co passenger was humming along. The driver was just silently gargling to himself. I sympathised with the man in an oddly twisted way.
Co passenger looked at me behind. “Where do you stay?”
“I’ll get down near University”, I mumbled…trying my best to sound as if this sort of a thing is something that happens to me every other day.
“Why? He’ll drop you home. I’ll make sure he does”
There was no minute hint of a rebellion. I was dropped right under my doorstep by a frail looking co passenger, who was more bad-ass than any person I’ve known for just 3 hours. I don’t know who he was. I don’t know where he went. I don’t know what he was capable of doing. It just went to show me that you never expect this kind of an incident to happen to you. And you never know where you’ll be when it will.
But he was the sort of a man that stories are made of…