Conversations with a cab driver
“Stop!” came a voice from nowhere even as the cab screeched to a halt. In the moonless night on a road shorn off its streetlights, the light of the torch thrown full-on to the car was highly disconcerting.
I am not the one for great reflexes but survival is another thing altogether. In those seconds that the driver used to open the car windows, I had taken out my wallet and shoved it down the pouch at the back of the driver’s seat. The thought that I was not carrying my laptop offered additional solace to a heart that had lost its sense of rhythm and poise.
“It’s the police”, the driver said aloud, uncertain about whom he was trying to reassure.
Till the beam hit his face, I had not taken in the driver’s face very well. He was young, in his twenties, lean, and his eyes indifferent to the face staring at him from the other side.
“What’s your name” came the growl.
The indifference was now in his throat.
“Come closer and answer, I cannot hear you!”. The officer was definitely not in a mood to let go.
“Muniswamy” the cabbie answered, slightly louder, leaning towards the face. A few inches closer, and it could have gotten pretty scandalous.
Before I could get used to the anti-climax, we were back to the comfort of our darkness once again.
“Strange”, I said, “that he just wanted to know your name.” “What for?”
“checking my breath…for alcohol” muniswamy replied, not bothering to hide the amusement in his voice.
“What a weird way to check someone”, I muttered. “In America, they use machines for that. Police don’t have to smell our bad breath”
Much as I wanted to imagine hatred or jealousy in that tone, there was none.
“No, writer”. That was as explicit as I was willing to be.
“Which newspaper? Times of India?”
“I don’t write for a newspaper. I write books, technical books.”
“Engineering books aa?”
“My son studies in an English school. I want him to be a software engineer”
“Would you have a problem if he wanted to be a driver like his father?”
“You saw the police now, right?”
“You think I missed?”
“Same story, every day. Some days, like today, I get lucky. Otherwise, it is hell”
“Don’t you have your papers?”
“You think that is enough for them? They will ask for papers even the RTO inspector doesn’t know of”
“How much money do they take?”
“Depends. On lucky days, I have gotten away with 25”
“And if you don’t have money?”
“There are other favors”
“That is not for decent people like you to know”
There was a certain finality to the tone.
“Let’s not talk about it,” “That is between me and my God”
“Sure…” “let’s not talk about it”
For once, I did not want to know either.
Whether it was the silence that got to him or his own helplessness, I will never know.
“They are the devil’s children! The goddess will come and kill them all! It is only a matter of time now!” he suddenly yelled out. The tears that did not get to his eyes were choking his throat. And as sudden as the outburst was, the calm that befell it immediately after was equally confounding.
There are few situations when I don’t have anything to say, and this was a close call.
“I am sure” I finally replied with the confidence of one who has been-there- prayed-that, “your goddess will protect you.”