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Thursday, December 04, 2008


He looks old to me, his eyes are rheumy, and his hands are stiff on the steering wheel, which he holds the way I was taught to hold it – with both hands planted on either side. I put the taxi’s meter flag down for him, got in in the front seat alongside him, the old geezer seemed okay, driving smoothly, without jerks. Then I am in two minds: should I; shouldn’t I? I mean, I like to talk to taxi drivers, but not this one, suppose he kept silent and asked me to mind my own business.

But being the impulsive guy I am, I spoke.

“How long have you been driving a taxi?”

“Fifty years.” He warms up instinctively to conversation.

“Fifty years!” I say incredulously.

He nods.

“And how old are you now?”


My God! Brijpal Singh Yadav, that’s his name, is a marvel of modern medical technology. I am sure he is being kept alive with tablets and such like. At his age father wasn’t very alert, he was eating a lot of medicines at this age: blood pressure, diabetes, heart blockages.

“What do you eat? You must be having a lot of pills to be so healthy.”

“I have only vegetarian food, lot of milk, don’t drink, no cigarettes, an occasional Paan is all I have. I have never been to a doctor in twelve years.”

I calculate mentally. Fifty years meant it is the golden jubilee year of his taxi business. He must have been a cabby right from 1948, a year after independence, and nine years before I was born. Seventy-six years old meant he was born in 1932. My God! This man has been around even before Indian independence.

“How was it then?”

“Petrol was Rs 5 a gallon (a gallon is 4 litres), a new taxi (Fiat, Hillman, Morris Minor) was only Rs 10,000, and for just one anna (six paise) you could have a full meal. Taxi far started at a minimum of half a rupee. For five rupees you could eat in a hotel for a month. I used to earn around Rs 15 a day, on a good day, that is.”

Old man sure has seen better days, I think. Petrol is now something like 60 rupees a litre (I don’t know the latest, but close), today a new taxi costs around two hundred thousand, and a meal costs nothing less than Rs 50, five days’ earnings of the rheumy-eyed man driving me so steadily to my office. The minimum taxi fare is Rs 13 today. He has kept his taxi well maintained, its interiors are upholstered, there aren’t the usual wires sticking out of the panels.

“What you are talking!?” I am amazed by his sharp memory. It seems this man doesn’t forget, he is a storehouse of information.

“Yes, I know you are incredulous, things have changed so much. It’s a dog’s life now in this heat. Yet I have educated my three sons, one is in Life Insurance, one is in a bank, and another is in the stock trading business.”

“What was it like in those days?” I am excited. I want to probe deeper. Here is the rare man, I felt, who is willing to talk openly about his past. Most people, especially cabbies are too cynical to talk, their minds are like closed books that will never be opened. So was my father, he never spoke about his old days.

“All these roads and buildings you see didn’t exist in those days. New Marine Lines and what you call Nariman Point weren’t born, the sea came up to the Oval Maidan and Churchgate station.”

“You mean all these roads we are passing through were empty, er, was actually the sea?”

“No, there were a few buildings here; I don’t remember all of them. There was Malabar Hill, Colaba Causeway and Worli. Bombay was a small place then, not many people around.”

He must have been through the periodic riots that are a trade mark of the city that leave many dead in its wake, been through the bombs that blasted crazily through trains, the floods that rendered cars immobile for a whole night, killing many, many people. Yet he seems so complacent and untouched by life. If only I could live a life like him, a simple uncorrupted life, I am in the wishing mode. Yet there is hope: my father too lived a simple uncorrupted life like him and died at eighty-four.

“And what is your wish for the future?” I reach my office and couldn’t stretch our conversation any further. My world beckons me.

He thinks for a moment, his hands working to put the taxi’s gear into neutral.

“I want Bhagwan to grant me this simple wish: lift me up while I am still doing my job. I ask nothing else.”

I pay him a generous tip, turn the taxi’s meter flag twice so that it was again in the upright position and he wouldn’t have to exert himself to do it himself. I, too, want to live a simple uncorrupted life. I walk away.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Seema and Preet

It rained continuously on July 27, 2005. Seema left the office at 4 p.m. as her friends warned her that trains wouldn’t be running on the harbour railway line alongside which her flat was situated. She lived in Sanpada, New Bombay. At 4 p.m. she finished her work at the telephones office where she worked and descended the stairs to MG Road, near VT station.

As she walked, sari hitched up, to VT station, she could see buses and cars piled up, clogging MG Road into an immovable glacier of metal. It was still raining heavily. Her mind was on Preet, her two-year old son, given to the care of Himanshu’s mother, Aai. She phoned Himanshu and told him she would be late. May be he could leave office early as he worked in New Bombay where Sanpada is situated. “Go early, so that Preet and Aai would have somebody with them. Aai can’t manage on her own” Himanshu went home early and reached around 6.30 p.m., when it was still raining.

When Seema reached VT she saw to her horror that the station was full of people, standing restlessly, worry written all over their faces. So she decided to board a bus, which was crawling outside in the evening traffic. It was still pouring. It was a 1 limited bus to Dadar. At least, it would reach her to Dadar and from there she could board a bus to New Bombay. She already started missing Preet. How couldn’t she?

Preet… my Preet… what are you doing, son? Don’t worry, mummy will come home soon.

The bus hardly moved. She could have overtaken it had she decided to walk. She decided to sit in it and read a magazine. Time flew. She didn’t know when she had crossed Crawford Market, Masjid and Byculla. Soon it was in Dadar, and the bus wouldn’t move any further. It was 8 p.m. and the roads were full of people, drenched, walking in the cascading rain.

At Dadar she boarded a 504 Limited bus to New Bombay. It came to Sion circle and lay there for around half an hour. The rain poured in buckets. She looked at the watch. 12 p.m. She and a woman she had befriended on the bus decided to get down and walk. They walked on the Eastern Express Highway bridge to Chembur. Her feet were aching, but she kept thinking of Preet, now firmly ensconced in the lap of Himanshu. How can it rain so much? Was there so much water in the clouds?

Preet, my preet, mera beta, mera raja… my king!

They crossed the Thane Creek bridge in the rain coming down in torrents. The watch showed 5 a.m. in the morning. She had been walking most of the night. Her feet were swollen, her hands holding her handbag felt tired and numb. There was a long line of people with her, all wet, cracking jokes and trying to forget their ordeal. She kept thinking of Preet. She called Himanshu on the cellphone.

Himanshu said, Preet was okay, don’t worry.

Preet, my son, my king, hope you aren’t crying and missing your mummy. How I miss cuddling you to me.

Preet was crying, Mummy, mummy, mummy…

Nothing Himanshu or Aai did would shut him up.

At Vashi Seema’s friend said goodbye and told her to take care of the potholes and manholes. She would be safe if she stuck towards the centre of the road. She carried on the highway full of people walking. A car offered a ride till Sanpada. At the station she crossed over to the East of Sanpada, under the railway bridge. From the distance she could see the tower of Sai Deep Society her apartment complex. She called Himanshu on the cellphone and told him that she will be home in fifteen minutes.

She quickened her steps, breathing heavily, her eyes misted with tears as she thought of Preet, Himanshu and Aaai.

Himanshu, thanks, re, for coming early… Aai thank you for being so nice and looking after Preet, my son.

She was closer to the building now. She was walking rapidly, almost running. Breath was issuing from her mouth like steam from a locomotive engine. She was also crying. Tears and snot streamed down her face. She closed the door of the lift and pressed the button to the fifth floor. The door of the flat was open as she opened the lift’s gate on the fifth floor. She could dimly see Himanushu, Aai and Preet at the door.

“Preet my son. Did you miss me? Come here, re, baba….”

And then her world blanked out.


(Probably apocryphal, this story is one of the several tragedies that are still being narrated as having happened during the deluge of July 27, 2005 in Bombay.)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Doesn't Accidents Happen to Others?

10.30 a.m. I lie there in the spreading blot of red, no, blood is dark red, almost black. It is slippery, as jelly. The mangled metal, twisted and sharp, in my flesh here, a big splotch near my stomach, a thousand wounds smarting at the same time, it is as if I am being poked all over. I am tired and aching. Oh God, did this happen when I am on my way to Shirdi to visit and pay respect to you, my God?

It all happened with a deafening screech. I had only taken my eyes off the road briefly. Then my world kept turning, turning, turning, upside down. Then this eerie silence…. Accidents don’t happen to me. It happens to other people, I think. It happens in newspapers, movies, and television channels.

It’s sunny and hot outside. Cars, trailers, trucks whiz past in a mad rush. Why isn’t anybody stopping? They look, but they don’t care. Perhaps they are scared. Scared of this happening to them.

I look towards the back of the car; my mother is slumped on the rear seat. The car on her side is like a crumpled pappadam. A piece of metal has pierced right through her and the blood has drained from her body. The truck in the back was carrying steel rods; one of them has smashed through the rear window. Her skin is an unhealthy pallor and… a breath leaves her… the last breath.

Then she slumps, slowly, in slow movement, the slowness of death. Then her eyes dilate, and she looks upwards. She is dead.

The car is at an angle to the road. My wife, Suman is moaning beside me. But she is breathing regularly. I guess she will live. My son Vasu, is in her lap, and is sleeping. He hasn’t even woken up. She is at the bottom of the inclined car. So she is safe. Vasu’s breathing is regular except for a smooth snoring sound.

I look to the right of me. “Appa! Appa!” Appa is slumped in a sleeping position, against the side of the car that is not mangled. His mouth is open as if he was going to say something.

My sister, Janaki, in between Appa and Amma is bent forward. Oh, my God, I forgot about her. How could I?

“Janaki, Janaki,” I call. I crane my neck; she is slumped forward… I can’t see her. Is she dead?

No, she isn’t.

“Anna, Anna,” she says feebly, “My shoulder is splitting. Help me.”

I try to move. But my body is stiff with pain. I am at an angle, the upward angle. I guess if I move much the car will topple on its roof. I better wait for the welding torches, and metal cutter.

Why aren’t the police here?


My mind wanders… I am inside my glass cabin in my office. I can see my agents making calls… only the hum of so many voices. The office is flood lit at night. The idea is to keep people awake. I haven’t slept properly for many days. Sleep is a waste of time, I think.

Why are things so hazy? Hazy or bright? My agents go to sleep if there is a little corner with a bit of dusky shade. They have to work, make calls the whole night. I am with them twenty-four hours, seven days of the week. I need that promotion, that raise. That’s why I don’t sleep. Only then will I be able to pay back the entire loan of my flat in Seawood Estate, and the loan on the Maruti 800 car I bought. I want to pay them off, those vultures. Once when I had missed an installment they had come every day to harass Suman, till she became all upset. I will pay them at once, and then be a free man, free for life.

After that I can enjoy all the holidays in the world. Maybe, go on a world tour on a luxury liner, the advertisements of which keep appearing in the papers. Aaah… to bask in the sun on the deck of a luxury liner. Wasn’t that in that movie, Titanic? Well, that’s my dream. But that’s too far into the future, isn’t it?

I must not dream too much. Right now my agents are clamoring and are full of silly doubts. I have empowered my assistants to deal with them firmly but in a friendly way. I must gain their respect, at the same time their trust. Or they would leave. Most business process employees are fickle minded. If they don’t like something they leave. Turnover is very high, I must avoid a big turnover in my company. Yes, I call it my company, and my bosses are happy with me, my “proprietorial sense,” as they call it. I call them “guys” female, male, all of them.

“Guys, guys, work hard and achieve something in life. Your behavior is your responsibility, remember that. If you achieve your target, you have the satisfaction of a job well done. Otherwise you go back to some low-paid clerical job,” my voice is a bit bullying, but I can’t help it.

I sleep in the office. I eat in the canteen. I brush my teeth in the office toilet. I call home once a day and tell Suman it is all for them that I am doing this. After all, following my last promotion, I brought Appa, Amma and Janaki from Chennai to stay with us. The flat is a three-bedroom flat. I gave one bedroom to my parents. Another bedroom is for Janaki, and the remaining is our bedroom.

So Suman is not alone. She has Appa, Amma and Janaki to care about her. They like each other. Well, except mother’s bitching about Suman’s cooking. But that’s usual in any family. Besides, Vasu also loves his grandparents.

I have around a hundred agents working under me in three shifts. I am the operations manager and have a small glass cabin. From there I can see everyone who work under me. I give each batch of agents a pep talk as they begin work and then I am free. Then the floor supervisors take over. They are smart people and know what to do.

But I am a bit worried about the targets. This month’s sales show a downward trend on the graphs. I tell my agents I want results.

Why don’t results come?

Why doesn’t the police come?


My flat in Seawood Estates weaves into my field of vision, as a hallucinatory dream. A dream in this heat?

My memory is a hazy… though oddly clear. The winter morning sun seeps in so gloriously. I want to take a day off. I lay on the sofa reading the paper. The project was finished. Well, the target wasn’t achieved. My boss agreed that best efforts were put in and that the results were acceptable. The general manager however is grumpy. Mean old man. He says I could have tried harder. There will always be criticism; however well one do ones job.

It was time I took a break from work. No, not for that world cruise. At least, a short vacation to a near destination. Appa suggested that we go to Shirdi as he believes in Shirdi Sai Baba.

“I have always wanted to visit Shirdi Sai Baba temple. I have always been an admirer of his.”

“Why Appa?”

“He is an icon of what India should be. Not divided but free and united.”

Well, Appa has been an idealist all his life. I don’t stand in the way of his idealism, or his happiness. He has done so much for me.

“Okay I will make arrangements, but have you asked Amma?”

He asks Amma.

“No,” Amma says, “my reading of the charts say we shouldn’t travel now.”

“Charts, charts, charts, all the time,” Appa teases her, “when will you give up your superstitions?”

And today, exactly a week later, she is in the back of the car, dead.

I had checked the tires of the car, I had it thoroughly overhauled, I filled it with petrol, I wanted to be cautious, as my entire family, my universe, was squeezed into that small vehicle. Then I studied the road maps and chose the best time to make the journey and back.

Two days later we were on the road. We took enough food for the journey. Amma and Appa both dislike hotel food. We took a lot of lemon rice, pickles, and sambhar in a bottle, which we ate in the car during a break at 9.30 a.m. Amma said she wanted to pray for a good boy for Janaki and offer some money to the temple. Appa said this was bribing God. Amma wouldn’t listen. Appa gave her the money.

Now in this eerie silence I see her lifeless form through the broken shards of glass, and disfigured metal. Appa seems to be in a comma. Does he know she is dead? Why, oh, why did this happen?

I am a good driver. We set off early in the morning for the seven-hour journey from Bombay to Shirdi through Manmad. I drive carefully. I let traffic pass. I am in no hurry. But I worry a lot about my job. Are my agents working? What is happening back in the office? Will I meet targets and deadlines?

When we reached Manmad, I felt a little sleepy. My eyes kept shutting though it was only ten in the morning. At one stage I caught myself veering away from the road. I shook my head, took a deep breath. Suman was too absorbed in Vasu to notice. But Amma noticed. She was a little nervous and fidgety.

“Suresh if you are tired we should stop and rest somewhere,” she said.

“What? When we are already there?”

“Tell him to stop, no?” She pleads with Appa.

“He is a grown up. Let him concentrate. You don’t disturb him,” is all Appa said. He always defends me. After all, I am his only son, his only hope.

I take a deep breath and squint at the road ahead. It is hot. It is unusually hot for this winter morning. Again I feel a numbness creep through me. No, it isn’t sleep. Is it an attack? I am passing through rough country. There wouldn’t be a doctor or a hospital within hours of drive in this place.

Again that feeling is creeping, crawling, this numbness in the limbs. Numbness in the hot afternoon. I shake my head. I sit forward, lean on the steering wheel.

Then I break into sweat, cold and congealing in the hot afternoon!

There’s a big hole in the road ahead. Damn! I hadn’t noticed it as I was negotiating a turn. I slammed the brakes hard.


We all screamed as the truck from behind smashed the car and sent us spinning like a top. Swirling, toppling, a series of loud thumps and thuds, and now I am in this sideways position. I wriggle, I contort, I can’t move. I am trapped in metal.

Then this eerie silence, like I am having a nightmare. I pinch myself. No, this is reality. I must hold still. But, how, why does it happen to me? Me of all the people in the world.

Some of those passing cars must have informed the police. They will come. They will come with welding torches and metal cutting equipment as I have seen in the movies. But accidents happen to others don’t it? Amma was right. Now, Amma is dead.

I can hear the police sirens.