Short Story with Moral Lesson – Handbrakes
It was raining cats and dogs – in December! As if the chill in Delhi wasn’t enough, the rain gods had decided to make it soggy as well. I couldn’t see very well, my glasses covered in furious drops of rain. It was times like this when I felt my wife Anu was right….
My shoes made a squelching, protesting sound every time I took a step forward; I would have walked much faster if not for the slippery road. The cab had stopped a little ahead, with blinkers on.
I knew all the customary steps in hiring a cab – first look nonchalant, confident and well versed with the locality, then haughtily declare the name of the place you wanted to go to, and finally ask how much the cab driver would charge. I had also learnt from my travails, the key to successful bargaining was to appear ready to walk away from the cab if the amount was not what you had in mind. Delhi cabs were not meter-friendly, and despite the legislation, this suited both the cabbies and the passengers.
But that night I did not look the cool, unruffled daily commuter. Being wet, cold and late took care of that. I reached the cab, pulled the door open and sat into the seat – dripping wet. After removing my hazed glasses, I realized that the cab driver was eating his paratha. “Oh… sorry, I thought you stopped for me.”
The cab driver just smiled – his mouth was full, and it took a little while for him to answer. “It’s ok Saab, I am free now. Where do you want to go?” I sighed and shivered at the same time. This guy seemed better than most I meet on my daily commute between office and home. But that didn’t mean I was going to give in to the exorbitant fare he would definitely charge, for a ride to the suburbs on a cold, rainy day. In my head, I had already played back and forth the dialogue that would precede an agreeable charge.
“How much will you charge?” I was sure my ‘office voice’ would let him know I was a no-nonsense commuter. And sure enough, the cab driver was curt in his answer. “I charge by the meter, Saab. You can check the ‘zero’.”
This was unexpected and I didn’t know whether to be relieved or be suspicious. It was a known fact that meters were rigged, but it was also true that I really didn’t have much of a choice today. “Ok then, let’s go. And take the ring road – that’s faster.” I was sure that doubts if any, about my knowledge of Delhi roads would be put aside after that comment.
The roads were overflowing with traffic. Traffic lights chose to shut down instead of braving the sudden outburst from the skies, resulting in the clutch-brake routine, characteristic of rush hour traffic. Usually, I use the drive to catch up on my telephone calls for the day. But that day I was exhausted and distracted; exhausted because I had too much on my plate, and distracted because I was bored. Maybe Anu was right about this too.
Anu had this uncanny ability to get to the root of any problem – not a very comfortable situation when you are not ready to face that problem head on. Don’t get me wrong – I was not running away from problems, I was just waiting for the right moment to tackle them. But Anu, my wife of over a decade, thought differently; she wanted to get right down to the micro analysis of ‘how to solve the issue’. I sighed again – that day would have us going through the micro analysis again.
The cab was warm and clean, and smelled of incense. The guy obviously loved his cab – you could see it the way he drove. I couldn’t even feel gears being changed, and in a city road, that’s a sign of a good driver. “So, Saab, you work here? I think I have seen you here before.”
There were colorful little bangles tied up together hanging from the rear-view mirror. Blue, red, green and yellow – the streetlight reflected off the bangles and threw bright spots of light onto the roof of the car, like a kaleidoscope. I didn’t realize I was smiling till I saw my face in the rear-view mirror. “Yes. I work here. Those are your daughter’s bangles?”
The cab driver laughed, his eyes crinkling at their corners as his laugh spread to his eyes. “No, no, Saab. My granddaughter’s….. I am not very young. I have a son your age!” Now it was my turn to laugh and I sank a little further into the seat, the faint smell of incense almost comforting in its familiarity. I must have dozed off in between, because we reached the gate of my apartment home much faster than I expected.
The cab driver switched on the light so that I could scrutinize the numbers in the meter. “Saab, I stay near here, and I drive down to the city every day for my taxi service. If you travel every day, maybe I can drop you and pick you up. It will take me only fifteen minutes to reach here from home. You can call me on my mobile when you have to be picked up….” I had to admit, it was a surprisingly simple solution to my daily commute; and this guy seemed honest. He was holding out a scrap of paper in which he had written down his number. “Ok. I leave at around nine in the morning.”
The rain had stopped, and so had the squelching in my shoes. I had reached the front door, and before ringing the bell, I could hear my son Shiv squealing the way he does when he plays with Anu. He would turn three years in a few weeks, and his baby talk was vanishing – I would miss that! I rang the bell, and the squeals grew louder. I was glad to be home.
It was like so many other nights when I reached home. Anu started her psychoanalysis again… this time it was the rain – just like I expected. I wanted to play with my son, but Anu seemed to be in the mood to use her high octave voice again that night. She was right of course, but I didn’t think there was need to over react just because of the rains.
“I really don’t understand why you will not use the car.” She was trying hard to hold Shiv back while I dried my hair. “Why do you have to get drenched in the rain, or travel by a cab every day? Why did you buy the car in the first place? And why the hell do I have to drive us everywhere even when I have a screaming baby in the back of the car?”
“Anu, can we not discuss this today? I really need to spend some time with Shiv. Ok?” And that triggered Anu to grumble her way into the kitchen and reheat dinner. She was sulking, and this had become a regular discussion topic for many days now. She had her reasons, and I knew them too. We’d had our share of bad experiences with drivers; we had gone to parties where she was exhausted because she drove us to the party and back; heck – she’s even had to drive to the hospital in high fever – with me sitting next to her in the passenger seat.
I can drive; and I have a drivers’ license. I used to be quite comfortable driving in notorious Delhi traffic till a couple of years ago, but the accident changed all that.
Anu was in her last trimester and we were expecting the baby soon. One moment we were laughing, and the next moment she was screaming. I jammed the brakes as hard as I could, but I could not stop the car from ramming into the stationery truck on the road. I turned to look at Anu, and she nodded. No one got hurt, except my confidence; that was the last time I held the steering wheel in my hands.
That was over three years ago, the car got repaired, all the dents got smoothed out. But the dents in my mind remained. We experimented with various drivers, with car pools, but somehow, nothing seemed to work. That’s when I started taking cabs….
The cab reached promptly at ten the next day. His name was Manoj. He didn’t know his exact age, but his drivers’ license said he was 62. He had two sons and three grandkids, and all of them stayed together. His wife packed his parathas for him every day, and he would never eat from the roadside dhabas. I always found the cab freshly cleaned, and smelling of incense. Manoj would offer me his paratha every day in the morning and I would politely refuse every time.
On my son’s birthday, the day was a little brighter than usual. I had called up Manoj earlier so that I was home well in time for a little family dinner at a restaurant. I knew Anu would fret a little, but I hoped she would drive us to the restaurant – after all, Shiv had now stopped crying when he was in the back seat.
Manoj held out a little packet wrapped in newspaper for me when we reached my apartment that day. “Happy birthday to baba, Saab. It’s nothing, just a few chocolates…..” I knew my jaw dropped; and I thanked him with a stiff handshake. As I ran towards the lift, I realized I had never even offered him a cup of tea.
Within a few weeks, Manoj and I had exchanged views on everything from politics and movies, to children and retirement. One day, he was a little upset about his sons not helping him pay off the loan taken for the taxi. I was aggressive in my disdain for his sons; I was already thinking about what I would do if Manoj’s taxi was confiscated by the bank. I had started sitting in the front seat with him, and our daily discussions were something I looked forward to every day.
“You know so much about cars, Saab. You have a car?” Somehow, that didn’t come out like a question, but a statement. “No.” I must have sounded curt, because we didn’t speak for some time.
“Yes. I have a car, but I don’t drive it; my wife drives it. She needs it much more than I do. She has to take Shiv to the doctor, she does all the shopping. So I don’t use it.” I don’t know what made me defend my owning a car I didn’t drive. I expected him to ask more questions, but he caught me off-guard with his next question.
“Let me guess, Saab. You have a grey color car, no?” He was smiling his crinkly-eyed smile again. I didn’t have to say anything. The answer was written all over my face. I didn’t ask him how he drew his conclusion, and he didn’t explain. But we laughed, and the air was cleared of the weight that my car had brought in – we were friends again.
The next time Manoj brought up the topic of driving was when we were having tea and samosas. His wife had not been keeping well, and so he had stopped carrying parathas. The tea was my idea, as I suspected he had not eaten anything for lunch. “You know, the first time I held the steering wheel of my taxi, I was in love. I cannot imagine doing any other job – driving is like listening to an old Rafi song….. The mind thinks a million thoughts, but one does not worry…”
I laughed at his comparison. “You really love driving, don’t you? I knew it from my first ride in your taxi.” Manoj did not pick up the bill when it came, but gave me slight nod in appreciation when I picked it up. We walked out quietly, like two friends who did not need words to connect with each other. Once we reached the gleaming black taxi, Manoj held the key out to me. “Saab, if you are not ashamed of driving my taxi today, could you drive till we reach your locality? I will take the wheel after the highway.”
I stood for a few seconds without reacting. Manoj still kept holding the key out to me. Images of Anu screaming still loomed in front of me. But the images seemed blurred now, and I took the key from Manoj. He promptly sank into the passenger seat, and put on his seat belt. I followed his lead, sat in front of the steering wheel, snapped the seat belt on, and waited a while. The little bangles were shimmering in the orange light of the setting April sun. I imagined her little arms and her little squeals of laughter – just like Shiv’s when he played with me.
I realized I was holding the key tightly, because my palm started hurting with the metal digging into it. Manoj was quiet, and did not ask me to hurry. I looked at him, and he was pale. “Are you scared I am going to bang your car?” I smirked, almost glad to have sensed a crack in his trust, glad to know he had flaws too.
He smiled back, a pained smile, but not entirely free of mirth. “Saab, better you than the bank, no? You know more about cars than anyone I know, and you could drive it with your eyes shut. And see? My hands are on the handbrake, so don’t worry. Let’s go now”. The steering wheel was cold and solid. I put my foot on the clutch, the brake and the accelerator, to measure the distance. Manoj had his right hand firmly on the handbrake, ready to use it, just in case. The rear-view mirror looked back at me with a face that showed no fear – my face.
Driving Manoj’s taxi was indeed like listening to music. The sounds of the engine reverberated to match my pulse, and I remembered how much I missed driving. I looked at Manoj only after I covered a few kilometers – maybe I was anxious he would decide to take back the wheel, or maybe I didn’t want to know what was going through his mind right then – sympathy, pity, curiosity or happiness.
Manoj finally spoke in a low voice. “See Saab, you don’t need my services any more. You should buy another car if your wife needs the grey one.” I turned to look at him, and I realized that the eyes that crinkled up in laughter did not look young any longer. In spite of his smile, he still looked pale. I also noticed that he was not holding on to the handbrakes now.
I was nearing home now, and I was reluctant to give up the wheel, but Manoj was insistent. We reached home, and Manoj got off the taxi with me. I walked to him, wondering whether a hug would be adequate to express my feelings. He took my hand with both his wrinkled hands. “Saab, this is for you. It has been lucky for me, and I am sure it will help you too. And give my blessings to Shiv baba. He must be a handsome boy.”
I opened my palm to see the little colored bangles that he treasured. “Manoj…… thank you. And yes…… driving is just like Rafi’s songs…” I finally hugged him, not venturing any more words, as my voice threatened to give away my emotions.
“And don’t forget to pick me up tomorrow morning,” I called out as I walked towards my apartment. “We have to try out that other tea shop – this one was had really bad samosas.” His chuckle was infectious, and I was smiling even as Anu opened the door to let me in.
The call on my mobile came when I was in the shower the next morning. I was singing in the shower, and Anu was baffled because she couldn’t imagine why. She had taken the call, and she banged on the bathroom door. “Someone called Manoj….. says he wants to talk right now. You want to take it?”
“Hello, Saab? I am Manoj’s son. Amma told me he picks you up every morning, so I just thought I’d let you know… He died last night. We took him to the hospital, but he didn’t make it….. They said it was his heart.”
After the call, I know I was in the shower for a long time because Anu got worried. “Is it your job? Well, its ok….. You were working too hard anyway. We will sort it out…. Is it your health?” Anu was holding my face with both her palms, and trying to read my eyes; no micro analysis this time. I smiled, and took her hands in mine.
“Anu, can you get ready in ten minutes? We need to go someplace. Let’s leave Shiv with your mother….. It’s not a place we can take kids.” Anu was looking even more bewildered than before. But something in my eyes must have told her the answers would come soon. She turned to go to the bedroom to get ready. “Anu, it’s a funeral of someone close.”
As I saw Anu’s eyes widen, I shook my head. “No, you don’t know him…. I’ll tell you later. I am going to the car with Shiv. You change and come down.”
She was already out of the room when I remembered something. I opened the drawer, and took the little colored bangles and lifted it to the sunlight. The little bangles looked just like Manoj’s twinkling eyes. I also picked up a piece of twine to hang up the bangles on the rear-view mirror of my grey car.
Before heading out the front door, I remembered something else. “By the way, Anu, you don’t need to wear flats. I am driving today.”