The two men hailed and got into Ravi Singh’s taxi near Sangam Chowk. They were burly well built men, fair skinned, clean shaven and short haired. In gruff, authoritative voices, in crisp accented English they ordered him to drive to Daraganj railway station.
Ravi initially didn’t think much of them. So many characters got into his taxi every day, some weird, some normal, some arrogant. He merely stuck to his job and drove wherever they wanted to go and collected the fare that was due to him.
He just drove, only looked in the rear view mirror to monitor the trailing traffic, and played an old Hindi film tune in his head while he negotiated the winding lanes and busy crossroads.
That was until the phone call came. Until the cell phone of one of the men rang and he answered. Not in Hindi or any other language spoken in these parts. But in a foreign tongue. A tongue that Ravi only understood because he had worked overseas for so long.
That was fine as well. Foreign tourists were not an anomaly in these parts. What was not fine, however, was the content of the conversation. Content that immediately stopped the old Hindi film tune in Ravi’s head. Content that sent a chill down his spine. Words that caused him to feel genuine fear.
He translated the words, once, twice and thrice in his head just to make sure he was not mistaken. But there was no mistake in the translation. He had understood correctly.
At 11:18 AM, the newly inaugurated Kanpur Superfast Express would be crossing Daraganj railway station. These two men were here on a mission to end the train. To not just destroy it, but also eliminate the thousands of passengers on board, and create political chaos and law and order problems in the city. The man on the phone used the words RDX and timer frequently in the conversation.
Ravi was amazed that the man was talking so loudly. He was probably under the mistaken belief that nobody in these areas could know his language. He probably would have been right as well, had he not gotten into Ravi’s car. The man kept the phone down and nodded to his companion, who nodded back. Probably a sign that everything was going according to plan.
Ravi felt a confusion that sometimes comes with possessing knowledge. Knowledge that you fear no one else has. Knowledge that you are not really sure what to do with. He knew he had to go to the police. But there was no police station for some distance, and besides he could not just expect the two men to sit quietly while he walked up to a constable and told him the story.
They were coming up to a fork on the road. The road turning right led to Daraganj railway station. The one going left went to the old areas of the city. Let me take the one going left, thought Ravi to himself, and away from the railway station. He slowly began maneuvering the car to the left lane so that he could make the turn.
“Hey, where are you going? Daraganj is to the right” shouted the second man in English.
Ravi was taken aback. How could he possibly know which way it was? Then Ravi saw a small yellow board in a corner of the fork indicating directions.
“Sorry, sir” Ravi apologized and took the car back to the right lane, before turning right for Daraganj.
The two men looked at each other with a quizzical look on their faces. Their nerves were clearly on the edge, Ravi noted, and of course they would be considering what they were about to do. Ravi himself drove the car nervously, all the time thinking furiously what to do next. He didn’t even realize how slowly he was driving till the second man shouted.
“Hey, drive faster. We do not want to be late”
“Sorry, sir” Ravi apologized and unwillingly put his foot on the accelerator. He had to do something. Come up with an idea. Then he saw a petrol pump on the side of the road. He knew an old friend who worked there. That’s right. On the pretext of filling air in the tyres he could pass on a message.
“Sir” he stammered out the lie “I have to fill air in the tyres. I think they are a bit flat. There is a petrol pump just up ahead. It won’t take too long”
The two men looked at him suspiciously. Then after what seemed like eternity, they nodded.
“Ok, but be quick about it” they snorted in unison.
Ravi quickly made the turn into the petrol pump and took his place behind a queue of cars, also waiting for pumping their tyres. He got out and made his way to where some attendants were standing.
“Why don’t you get out and check the tyres and see if they really are short of air” said the first man to the second.
“Because of you, you idiot. I have warned you so many times not to talk so loudly on the phone. I think he understood what we were saying. That is why he is stalling so much. Probably waiting to hand us over to the cops.”
“How can he possibly understand us? We were speaking in our own language”
“Fool. People in this country travel overseas for work all the time. And they also pick up languages quickly. After all, they speak so many of them over here. I think we should observe him more closely. Now first get out and check the tyres. Then find him and get him back.”
“Ok” the second man moaned “You know, it would have been a lot easier to drive the car ourselves”
“I would have, but they drive on the wrong side over here. That is why we need a driver”
Ravi found his friend. But he found him surrounded by other attendants arguing with the supervisor over something. They were about four of them shouting at each other in heated voices. Ravi tried to get his friends attention, but when that didn’t work he jostled his way through the crowd.
“Gopal, Gopal. I have to tell you something. Gopal, Gopal, listen to me”
“Not now, Ravi” his friend responded irritably and continued arguing with his supervisor.
Ravi backed out of the crowd disappointed. His friend was so immersed in the argument that he had barely noticed him. Ravi suddenly felt a tap on his shoulder and as he turned around he realized with a shock that it was one of the men from the taxi.
“Have you filled the air, yet” he asked in a threatening tone.
“Well… well… there seems to be some kind of argument going on here. I…I… will fill her up after I drop you..you… off at the station” stammered Ravi as he thought fast to come up with a good excuse.
“Come then. Let’s go” the man said with a look that meant “You better, or else”
Ravi hurried back to the taxi where he found the other man with an equally threatening look on his face. The threatening looks on the faces of the two men did not disappear even after Ravi had pulled the taxi out of the petrol station and continued driving along the main road.
Another turn came up and to Ravi’s joy there was a traffic police car standing on the side of the road. His mind began drawing up a plan again. What could he do now? How could he contact them, warn them?
Suddenly, his thoughts were rudely interrupted. Almost without warning he felt the cold hard muzzle of a revolver stuck in his back. Ravi got the shock of his life. He had only seen guns in movies before. He had only seen villains in movies before. But now. Guns and villains. In his car. Was this really happening to him?
“I know what you are thinking” spoke the first man in a dreadful tone, and now in horribly accented Hindi “Don’t even think about it. Just keep driving”
The color drained from Ravi’s face. His hands went numb. His feet would not move. His breathing nearly came to a standstill. He was lifeless as his taxi went past the police car. He was lifeless as his taxi went past the crossroads. He was lifeless as his vehicle entered the final lonely stretch of road that would eventually lead to Daraganj railway station.
“You understood what we were saying, didn’t you” the dreadful voice continued speaking “I should have figured. Taxi drivers are invariably the first ones to look for employment overseas. They are also the quickest ones to pick up a new language. You see my friend, just like you have learnt my language, I have learnt yours. That’s right, I learnt it, from all the movies you people make. Now, no more funny business from you”
“But why?” Ravi croaked, struggling to get the words out of his mouth. Words that were lost somewhere between oceans of fear and mountains of despair.” Why do you want to destroy the train. Kill innocent people”
The first man laughed. “ My friend, I could go into the geo-politics of why we are doing this, but I doubt you would understand. I don’t think you have the same head for politics as you do for languages. Otherwise, you would not be driving a taxi. And I neither have the time nor the inclination to explain it to you”
“I understand politics just fine. I don’t understand how killing innocent people helps though” from where Ravi got the courage to respond he himself didn’t know. But somehow the words came out.
The retort stunned the first man and he dug the revolver deeper into Ravi’s back out of anger.
“Just shut up and keep driving” he snorted
“Do you realize that there are small children on that train. On a joy ride on that inaugural train,” even as Ravi was speaking these words, he realized to his horror that he knew some of those kids on that train. His friend’s daughter, his neighbor’s son and… and.. oh no… his nephew… his very own nephew. His voice trailed off as this realization hit him. Oh my God… no.. dear sweet Lord, no.
“We don’t care” the second man shouted “Our cause is more important to us. Now stop talking”
Ravi closed his eyes in pain. Oh no..why…why. Please help me…Oh Lord, why are you doing this. Why is this happening…those children.. oh those poor children.. those poor parents… those passengers…. among them fathers and brothers… mothers and daughters.. I know so many of them… I would have driven them around, so many of them… why, why.
He opened his eyes again. But he could not see the road. All he could see were screaming children, crying parents, wailing brothers, distraught sisters. All he could see was his nephew’s face, streaming tears of fear and pain, his voice shouting out “Uncle help me, please uncle help me”
Ravi kept hearing the voices, he kept seeing the images, till he could see no more and hear no more. The revolver was still stuck in his back, the two men were still in the car, their purpose still very much alive, the train very much on its way. There was no policeman on this road to turn to, no friend at a petrol pump to cry for help. Just Ravi and Ravi alone.
Ravi closed his eyes and breathed hard. Just one last thing left to do. And he had to do it. He opened his eyes and looked at the road one last time. One last turn to take. There in the distance was the railway station. But before that was the bridge over the Gomti river. The raging waters of the Gomti, the never ending depths of the Gomti. She would be his friend. She would help him.
As the taxi went over the bridge, Ravi turned the steering wheel viciously. One last turn. One hard turn to smash the rails on the bridge. One last turn to send the car toppling over the side. One last turn for the laughter of children and the joy of loved ones.
A turn that sent the car plunging to the depths of the river below. A turn that saw the two men screaming and shouting in fear and then pain. Ravi did not know what happened next because the revolver went off and he saw no more and heard no more. But he would have heard the two men desperately banging the side of the taxi door to get out, desperately try to open the latch and fail, keep banging in fear and desperation till they could bang no more as the unforgiving waters of the raging river took the taxi along in its vicious flow.
At the railway station beyond the bridge the tracks clattered hard as an express train passed by. An express train with laughter and happiness, an express train with the songs of children and the joy of loved ones.