01. Ranjan | Patoli and Biryani

August 16, 2020 Sujay Sarma

“Wake up! Wake up!” a hand was shaking me firmly and vigorously. I did not realize I had been asleep. Somehow, I roused myself and peered at my tormentor. It was a man in a uniform. He was not a policeman. Sighing in relief, I sat up on the hard park-bench I was lying on…

“Wake up! Wake up!” a hand was shaking me firmly and vigorously.

I did not realize I had been asleep. Somehow, I roused myself and peered at my tormentor. It was a man in a uniform. He was not a policeman. Sighing in relief, I sat up on the hard park-bench I was lying on and rubbed my eyes. Shivanna, his name was. Originally from some rural area of northern Karnataka, he had come to the city of dreams like everyone else. To make his fortunes. He was now the groundskeeper of this public park that had been my home for the past few months.

The morning dew had made the newspapers I had arranged below me wet. And my turning over them had torn the sheets to shreds.

“Late again today, huh?” Shivanna said and smiled. His teeth were yellowed and broken off at different sizes. He looked menacing, but he was gentle as a lamb. I had never heard him yell or say a harsh word to anyone in all these months.

Pointing to a nearby paper-wrapped object, he smirked. “The usual.”

I handed the torn sheets of newspapers to the him. With that, he tugged at the hand cart holding assorted weapons of the cleaning industry and wandered away down the path. Half asleep and yawning, I looked my well-scratched and worn wristwatch as I extended my hand to stretch.

I was late.

Almost ten!

I grabbed the wrapped sandwich off the bench and bolted down the path. Several familiar passers-by and vendors nodded as I rushed past them.

“Go get them!” Someone yelled at me as I ran.

“Thank you pops!” I yelled back at the wizened old man under the shade of a nearby tree. Pappinder, as was his original name. He had been a hulky stout guy in his prime. He had worked for years as the bouncer at a local bar. Now, no one paid attention to him. He spent his days under a tree shouting advice to anyone that came into his earshot.

Rushing out the gate, I spotted a taxicab parked nearby and ran to it.

“Available?” I asked, knocking at the door.

The cabbie woke up. “Running late, huh? Come on, then.” He said, sitting up and firing up the engine.

His name was Rajan and he had known me for a while and had accompanied me to most of my interviews. He knew I had no money to pay him. I had run out of my meagre savings a long time ago. He took me still. Purely out of friendship. Rajan was a good man. In a city that was always rushing away somewhere, there were still a few good men. Like Rajan. Like Pappinder. Like Shivanna.

“Where to today?” He asked, nulling the meter for the ride.

“Bandra Technology Park” I said. It was a popular and very busy section of the business district. “Really? The meter?” I asked him sarcastically.

“I gotta do it in case I get stopped.” He shrugged. It was officially a crime to run a taxi without its meter running. “Where in Bandra Technology Park?” He asked, looking at me with some admiration in his rear-view mirror as he pulled away from the kerb.

I told him the name of the company where I was headed for today’s interview.

He whistled through his teeth. “Best wishes man!”

I laughed and waved my hand. “You’ve said that the last hundred times as well.”

“You will get this one. I have a feeling,” he said turning on the radio and weaving through the traffic like the pro he was.

He always had a feeling I would get the job.

He dropped me with not a moment to spare at the gates of a very large building. It took me over an hour to get through the sign ins at the various desks on different floors, get scanned and finally reach the suite of rooms where the interviews were taking place. I rushed straight to a desk they had set up there in a corner by the door.

I was the filthiest person in the waiting area. Everybody looked at me for a moment and then looked away in disgust, some in horror. A few even pinched their noses. I couldn’t blame them. I had one set of clean clothes. Rajan took away the set after each interview and returned them to me the next day, washed and neatly pressed. But it had been a month or two since I had had my last bath. I had not seen a soap in a year.

While I thought most of the interview had gone off well, when they bid farewell to me, I heard them say the dreaded words as I walked out of the interview room.

“We will let you know in a few days.”

That usually meant that you didn’t make the cut. Oh, why couldn’t they just come out and say that!

Rajan was waiting for me outside the gates.

“How did it go?” He asked with a smile. “Treat time?”

I shook my head and told him the story while he drove back to the park. He listened quietly, making noises of concern and shock at the appropriate times.

“You know, I have a friend that could help you.” He offered when we were stopped at a traffic light.

“A friend? In my line of work? You? How?” I stammered.

He shook his head vigorously. “No. Not in tech. Doing this.” He said, banging down on his steering wheel. “Become a cabbie.” He grinned.

I stared contemplatively at him. His face, pock-marked from a childhood case of chickenpox, was genial and likeable. When he smiled, it didn’t scare people away. Especially not the many children he usually ferried – he had been engaged by several families to ferry their children to and from school. On his head was a Maharashtrian boat-shaped white cap, that was called a ‘topi’.

“Look at it this way,” He grinned and continued. “You love to drive. You will be doing that all day. You love meeting all manner of people and are friendly and approachable and all that shit. All the stuff that this job requires.”

“Hmm.” I was confused.

When the light turned green, instead of heading straight off, he turned into a smaller lane and stopped at a little tea shop.

“Bhai, two teas please.” He called to the elderly man wearing a well-worn topi, and vigorously mixing through boiling milk. All tea vendors did that. Why? I wondered.

We sat on the rickety bench off to one side of the street. There was actually no place to sit grandly and drink your tea. This was Mumbai. One found a way to do that still.

“So, what do you think?” He asked when we were seated.

I swatted at some flies that buzzed around us. “It sounds good. But…”

He started pulling out his phone. I put my hand on his arm.

“What about getting a car? The licenses and permits…” I shook my head sadly. “And, face it, though I’ve been here a while, I practically know none of the roads here.”

Bhai-mere!” He said with a laugh. “Those are all silly things to solve.”

The tea arrived. We took a glass each.

“I think you already have a drivers’ license. Correct?”

I nodded.

Phir teek hai na! You drive my cab for a while.” Before I could object, he continued. “I will show you the ropes and the roads. Then when you are ready to do it on your own, we can arrange a car for you.”

“But how would I get a car?” I mused putting down my tea glass much to the joy of a hundred flies that descended on its rim immediately. I picked up the glass and swatted them away.

“There are people.” He nodded. “I will help you. You get these things for rent. Later we can go to a bank for a loan and get you a car.”

He seemed to have a solution for every new problem I managed to dig up. Finally, I agreed.

“There is, however, a small matter of payment.” He said as we walked back to the car.

“I don’t have any money.” I was aghast. I literally had nothing.

He laughed again. “No, I was talking about dividing the fares we would collect while you were my trainee… driving my car.”

“Oh.” I said sheepishly. He had found a boulder on his own. And removed it as well.

“At the end of the day, we deduct the expenses. You know, fuel, bribes and the like and you can keep the rest. After all, you’re the one driving around.”

I looked at him with raised eyebrows. “What would you do for money if you gave me everything?”

“I am not poor.” He said patting my back and starting the engine.

My heart sank. The truth of what he said hit me like a ton of bricks. I sank back into the seat and tried to look outside and for the first time, understand the roads we were taking.

It was evening when he finally dropped me back at the gates of the public park.

“Are you sure it is still a ‘no’?” He asked.

I nodded. “No.” I said, entering the gates.

He had been inviting me to leave the park and come and stay at his house. But he was newly married. I did not want to impose on them.

About the author:

Sujay Sarma is an IT industry veteran, about 43 years of age. He has spent 25 years in the IT industry and has done it all, and seen it all. Now, his passion is writing [blogs, stories, novels] and music. He has his own YouTube channel called "Sujay Sarma's Musical Adventures" where he posts his covers and originals, and a Podcast named "Interesting People Interesting Stories".