By Murali Kamma
Looking down at the sea of blurry lights as the plane descended, Deepak felt a surge of pleasurable anticipation that was tinged with apprehension. Not for the first time, he hoped his father was fine and had remembered they were arriving in India that night. It was raining, Deepak could tell, and even before the wheels touched the runway, fleeting memories of the monsoon season flooded his senses. What he missed was the earthy damp smell, but Deepak knew that familiar scent would be waiting for him just outside the arrivals terminal, greeting him like a long-lost relative. He glanced at his wife, Rita, who had her arm around their daughter.
“She’s sleeping like a baby,” Rita smiled.
“Yes, that’s good. It won’t take long now. We can hire a taxi, you know, if my dad’s driver doesn’t show up.”
Rita nodded and turned to look out as the plane slowed down. It was still dark when they finally emerged from the terminal. The rain had stopped by now, and as they walked past the crowd waiting outside, a warm yet gentle breeze revived him. Though it was a relief to breathe the fresh air after being cooped up in the plane, what struck him forcefully—more than any memory-jogging smell—was the mass of people milling about at this late hour. Sarala, now awake and alert, seemed fascinated as she sat on her mother’s hip and looked around. Pushing the baggage cart, Deepak looked around for the driver. But when no one came forth as the driver, Hhis thoughts went back to a few days when his father had sounded fine on the phone. a few days ago, bBut when Deepak had phoned again on the day of their departure, there was no response. That was unusual. His father hardly went out these days, especially late in the evening. Maybe he had gone to sleep early and didn’t want to pick up the phone.
Deepak was about to turn around and walk the other way, when somebody tapped him on the shoulder. Like an apparition, a gaunt man clad in a dirty-white kurta and sporting a skullcap had emerged from the shadows.
“I’m the man you’re looking for,” he said, startling them.
“What do you mean? Who are you?” Deepak looked at him suspiciously, just as it began to rain again. Even in the pale wavering light of the lamp, the man looked vaguely—and strangely—familiar. His scraggly beard was generously flecked with gray.
Rita waited expectantly, saying nothing, but Sarala started crying.
“Come this way,” the man said, ignoring Deepak’s questions. “The taxi is waiting for you.”
His manner was peremptory, not to mention a little odd, but Deepak resisted the temptation to walk away, knowing that this was no time for delays. They were all miserable, particularly his daughter. He wanted to get them away from the rain and leave for his father’s house as soon as possible. The taxiwala led them to a dented car parked close by. They made it in time because, just as the Ambassador was pulling away, the rain came down harder, splattering the car noisily. As they inched forward in the caravan of vehicles leaving the airport, Deepak realized they hadn’t mentioned the destination or discussed the fare. Glancing at the driver, he suddenly wondered if they were in a legitimate taxi.
“Don’t worry, saab, I’ll take you home safely,” the man said, as if he’d read Deepak’s mind. “My taxi is as good as any another at the airport.”
Pulling out a towel, he opened the window and started cleaning the windshield with his right hand. There was only one wiper and it wasn’t oscillating fast enough. A furious spray of water hit Deepak on his face. The rain eased once they got on the highway, and the traffic began to flow more smoothly.
The day broke as they got off the highway and entered a commercial section of the city. In the still shadowy light of dawn, the street was eerily silent and the shutters of what looked like hardware stores were down.
They were turning at an intersection, when there was a collision. Though not severe, it was so sudden that Deepak almost slipped off the seat.
“What happened?” Rita said, alarmed, just as Sarala woke up and started crying. Deepak could see that they’d hit a cow, which was now lying still on the side of the street. With a loud curse, the taxiwala opened the door and got out.
“Don’t worry, saab,” he said, turning to Deepak. “It was a minor accident. I didn’t see the sleeping cow.”
Already worn out, this incident came as a fresh jolt to Deepak. But before he could say anything, they heard a loud voice echoing Rita’s question: “Kya ho gaya?” Deepak turned around to see two men walking towards them. He’d assumed there was nobody else around, but these men had apparently been sleeping in a delivery van parked on the other side of the street. The heavier one, shuffling along, looked as if he hadn’t yet recovered from a bout of heavy drinking. He was completely bald and, Deepak couldn’t help thinking, looked like a steroetypical villain from a Bollywood film.
“Nothing?nothing happened,” the taxiwala said, losing his composure. “It was a minor accident, that’s all. I couldn’t see in the darkness?”
“What darkness?” the inebriated man shouted. “Arre, it’s daytime. Are you blind? Hope you’re not going around killing cows.” He giggled, unexpectedly, but there was menace in his bloodshot eyes.
His companion, shorter and slightly built, put a restraining hand on him. “Come, let’s go,” he mumbled. “It’s none of our business.”
Watching them in a helpless daze, induced in part by the lack of sleep, Deepak felt nauseous. The taxiwala didn’t speak or move. What happened next was so swift that Deepak didn’t have the time to react. Walking unsteadily, Bald Head inadvertently stepped on the cow’s leg, and stumbled. The cow—motionless until now—stirred to life and, jerking her head, went butt?butt?butt in one rapid movement. And then she was gone within seconds, ambling down the street, while Bald Head lay flat on the ground, his face contorted in astonishment and rage.
The taxiwala, still agitated, tugged Deepak’s arm. “Come, let’s go. The cow is okay.”
As the Ambassador began moving, Deepak saw that Bald Head had stood up with the help of his companion. Now they were walking back to the van.
Rita looked bewildered and exhausted.
“It won’t be much longer,” he said apologetically. “How is Sarala doing?”
“She’s calm now.” Rita smiled wanly. “Wasn’t the cow hurt?”
“No, I guess not. She was just stunned, I think. It was so strange to see her rise suddenly and butt the man. And then walk away.”
“A good thing for both the cow and us,” the taxiwala said, chuckling and shaking his head. “That fellow is a bad character.”
An indistinct memory that had been hovering at the edges came rushing back to Deepak. Now he knew why the taxiwala looked familiar. Years ago in India, a man resembling him had made a strong impression on Deepak. December 6th of 1992 was a date Deepak hadn’t forgetten. That day, a Sunday, he was returning to his college hostel, about a three-hour bus journey from where his parents lived. He’d come home just for the weekend. The bus station, usually crowded and busy, appeared subdued when he arrived there in an autorickshaw. His parents didn’t have a car back then. Just as Deepak was approaching the ticket office, there was a hubbub and people in the bus station began scrambling for the few taxis and autorickshaws parked nearby. A man informed him that some buses, including the one Deepak was hoping to board, had been canceled. The local transportation officials didn’t want to take chances because of a riot not far from the bus station. There had been a clash, reportedly, between some local Hindus and Muslims over a temple-mosque dispute in distant Ayodhya. Passions were running high.
Deepak and the remaining passengers were able to climb into the waiting vehicles, although they now had to squeeze in with others and also pay higher fares. The conniving drivers were making the most of this unforeseen opportunity. As the taxi Deepak was in began to move, a bearded man wearing a skullcap approached them. He seemed like a cleric and was the only one still standing there.
“No space, no space,” the driver said, waving dismissively.
But the passengers sitting inside, already upset at the high fares, loudly berated the driver and asked him to make room for the man. Relenting, the driver opened the door and let him sit on the cramped front seat. Deepak recalled how the man had turned his head to thank the other passengers.
They’d gone but a mile on the highway, when the traffic slowed down considerably. And then ground to a halt.
“Road block,” the driver tersely announced. “Accident ho gaya.”
It was hard to know what was going on from such a distance, but then Deepak spotted a jeep filled with baton-wielding policemen. Did this have anything to do with the clash he’d heard about?
“Go this way, quickly,” the cleric man said. “There is an opening here. We can take the side road. I know the way.”
Without questioning him, the driver swerved and, after much honking and hollering, managed to get on the unpaved side road, which seemed to be going nowhere.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked. “I don’t want to get lost.”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure. It’s a little roundabout, but we’ll be able to get back on the highway.”
Going past a shantytown on the bumpy road, they entered a rocky and more sparsely populated area. Then, abruptly, the taxi stopped. Three young men, holding long bamboo staves, were standing in the way. There was a tense silence as they slowly walked towards the taxi. Deepak’s stomach clenched with fear.
“Why are you going this way?” a grim-looking man asked. “Why are there so many people in the vehicle?”
“We’re just taking a detour, bhai,” the cleric man said even before the driver could respond. “There was an accident on the highway. I told him to come this way. I’d lived in this area a long time ago.”
Apparently taken aback, the man looked at him closely. “We’re being cautious, that’s all,” he finally mumbled.
There was palpable relief in the taxi. Resuming their circuitous journey on the rough road, they passed boulders that had been shaped by nature over time into interesting sculptures. They seemed to be taking the scenic route, one person observed, eliciting laughter. There was camaraderie now amongst the passengers and they even exchanged personal information. It didn’t take too long to get back on the highway they’d been traveling earlier. The cleric was the first to get off. Deepak remembered it clearly because, in a striking gesture, the driver had refused his payment.
“You were an extra passenger, bhai, so don’t worry about it,” he said, waving the money away.
“But everybody is paying?I should pay,” the startled man said, his hand still outstretched.
The taxi, though, was already moving away from the curb.
Waking with a start, Deepak became momentarily disoriented. Then he realized it was 2008, not 1992. Instead of being at the intersection where that taxi had stopped all those years ago, they were right in front of his father’s house. He must have dozed off while remembering an eventful time in his life.
Only Deepak got out of the taxi.
Opening the gate, he walked across the overgrown compound to the silent house, which seemed even more shabby and neglected than he recalled. The weather-beaten walls needed not just paint but also some patching up. His father’s decade-old Maruti was not parked there, and when Deepak saw a padlock on the front door, his heart sank. So something did happen, just as he’d feared. He should have phoned Col. Balraj, the neighbor, and asked him about his father. Deepak had spoken to him many times.
As if on cue, the colonel called out his name from the other side of the wall.
“Your father is in the hospital,” he said, coming closer. “He had a seizure and his driver took him to the emergency room. Deepak, I’m so sorry?”
Col. Balraj had gone to the hospital to assist the driver, who was still there, probably sleeping in the car. He had locked the front door of the house and given the key and a mobile phone to the driver. Further details were not available yet, since Deepak’s father was still in the intensive care unit. In a typically generous gesture, the colonel asked them to stay with him for the time being.
After taking his wife and daughter to the guest bedroom, Deepak went back downstairs and tried to call the hospital. The line was busy. In the last few years, Deepak’s father had become increasingly withdrawn, relying only on his driver and part-time housekeeper for his needs. Any offers of help were politely refused even as his health began to deteriorate.
Gautam’s mother had died years ago, just a few months after he’d arrived in the States. Gautam was in graduate school back then, preparing for his end-of-semester finals, when his father called to give him the news. Her death from an abdominal aneurysm had been so unexpected that Gautam was in a daze throughout his trip to India. Grieving, for him, began only after he returned to his studio apartment near the snow-covered campus, where students¯bundled up in heavy winter clothes¯hurried about with a preoccupied air, eager to be done with their exams and head home to their families for the holidays.
And now, on this trip to India, Guatam wondered if it was time for a reprise.
His father had come to the U.S. only once, in the ‘90s, when he was still in good physical shape. The visit turned out to be shorter than planned, and Gautam realized his father preferred to live in India on his own terms. In the last few years, he’d become increasingly withdrawn, relying only on his driver and part-time housekeeper for his needs. Any offers of help were politely refused even as his health began to deteriorate. Gautam had to get used to perfunctory conversations that were often punctuated by long and, for him, awkward pauses.
Deepak’s call to the hospital finally went through, and after a nerve-racking pause, he was connected to the right person. The news was favorable. His father’s condition was improving and the signs for a recovery were good, although he would most likely need full-time care in the short term. Before informing Rita, Deepak wanted to call his father’s driver, when he saw the taxiwala standing near the gate. He’d already been paid, so Deepak wondered why he was still there. Putting the phone down, he went out.
“I can take you to the hospital,” the taxiwala said, on seeing him. “I know how to get there. That’s why I’m waiting.”
“Wonderful!” Deepak said. “I’ll be right back. Just give me five minutes.”
Murali Kamma’s fiction has appeared in AIM: America’s Intercultural Magazine, South Asian Review, and Asian Pacific American Journal, among other publications.
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