02. Meeta | Patoli and Biryani

August 16, 2020 Sujay Sarma

I watched the sun set behind the buildings and reminisced about how I had got here. I had not been always this way. I had done well in school, breezed through college. I wouldn’t say I was a straight A’s student, but I was good. I had wooed and married a girl from my college.…

I watched the sun set behind the buildings and reminisced about how I had got here. I had not been always this way. I had done well in school, breezed through college. I wouldn’t say I was a straight A’s student, but I was good. I had wooed and married a girl from my college. And we had had a happy life. For a while. Then bad things happened that turned everything into sticky shit. First, it was the recession. Someone somewhere on the other side of the world took out a very big bad loan on a bank. The bank crashed and brought down the world’s economy. So much for globalization, eh! I had had a stable well-paying job at a top technology company. Swiftly rising through the ranks. When the recession hit, the company did its cutbacks. One of which was my job. For a long time, I struggled. No one came to our aid. Within a year, our savings were gone. We had bought a house on loan and the bank came calling and took almost everything. Unable to find a job, my wife asked for a divorce. After a hard and bitter battle in the face of deep adversity, I threw in the towel and let her go.

Now, I was here, sleeping on a hard park bench. I watched the life I had pass me by and insult me every day. But like Rajan reminded me, I had not stooped to crime.

The elderly police constable who came on the nightly rounds at the park, shared his dinner with me as usual. A repast of dried phulka rotis with lentil curry and some smashed up onions. He spoke in a pure Marathi dialect and I understood nothing of what he usually spoke. But we talked to each other anyway. I told him about the day’s interview and then rambled about Rajan’s suggestion of driving my own cab. That got his attention suddenly.

“Cab? Taxicab?” He asked suddenly.

I nodded and indicated turning a steering wheel of a car. “Cab. Yes.”

He smiled and gave me a thumbs up. “Karo! Taxi karo!” he insisted and patted my back violently and laughed. “Good work. Good money.” He laughed, giving me a lot of thumbs ups.

I slept fitfully that night. The weather was also turning chilly.

When morning came, I found myself with a decision already made. I thanked Shivanna for the sandwich he gave me as usual and left to find Rajan. He was not parked at the usual spot.

“Passenger.” Remarked an autorickshaw driver who recognized me, nodding knowingly.

I nodded.

“Interview?” He asked and patted to the passenger seat of his vehicle. “Come.”

I shook my head. “No interview.” I signalled with my hand. “Talking.”

Bored, the man looked away. I waited under the shade of a tree. The nearby sherbet vendor offered me a drink on the house. I took it gladly. For a while, I watched the passers-by. I listened into other taxi drivers talking and haggling with their passengers. Free tuitions.

Finally, Rajan arrived.

“I’ve made a decision.” I told him when he sat down next to me and we were both sipping another tall glass of sherbet. “I want to become a cabbie.”

“Good boy.” Rajan said, patting my thigh.

“Come with me.” He said when I had finished and led me to his car.

We rode in silence, we wound through the roads and side streets until we came into a slum.

“Know this place well.” He said. “It’s called Dharavi.”

I had heard about it.

“Isn’t it…?” I started.

“Dangerous? All places have everything. Some things get highlighted more.” He said.

He parked in a spot. It looked like he came often. A lot of people wished him, and he wished them back. We walked through smaller and smaller lanes for a while. We came into a larger courtyard. Somehow, there was a car parked there. We had walked through roads tough enough to wriggle a motorbike through, where did the car come from? I wondered. And it was not an old car either.

He ducked under a worn, dirty and torn blanket that hid an open doorway and headed in. I hesitated and waited outside.

After a minute, he popped his face out and called to me. “Come!”

I followed him in.

“Meeta, meet Arjun.” He said genially.

When my eyes adjusted, I saw a young lady about our age, draped in a faded light blue sari that she was quickly draping over her head approach us.

Bhaiya, welcome.” She said, offering a glass of water to each of us.

“This is Meeta. My wife.” Rajan said.

“Please don’t call me that.” I said blushing. “I don’t think I am that much older than you.”

She blushed shyly and stood there in a corner.

Meeta was almost my height and beautiful in a simple kind of way. She was fairer than me, I could see that in the dim light in the shack. Her eyes twinkled and she had a warm welcoming smile. On her forehead was a faded dab of sandalwood paste. She must have gone to a temple in the morning, I mused. On the top of her forehead, at the start of her hair’s parting was a thin spot of vermillion that would have been a line when it had been drawn in the morning.

He spoke with her in Marathi for a while. From time to time, she looked to me and smiled and nodded. It seemed he was narrating my story to her.

“Go with her now.” Turning to me, he said at last. “Go and have a bath and change. She will give you fresh clothes to wear – don’t worry, they are mine.”

After my bath, the first one in several months, Meeta served a hearty meal. All the while, she was looking at me, judging me for every movement and bite. She did not comment, they were the judgements of observation.

Over the course of the next two weeks, I stayed with Rajan at his house. We left early in the morning and returned late in the night. He would drive during the first part of the day, showing me the roads, making me memorize landmarks and important things like one-way streets and shortcuts. Mumbai as a large metropolitan city had horrendous traffic jams during peak times. We were once stuck on a bridge for over two hours, hardly moving an inch.

Back home, Meeta insisted I learn Marathi. It was the only way I could survive independently in the city. I let her tutor me on alternate days. I would practice what I learnt on long-time regulars of Rajan’s cab. They laughed a lot at my errors but helped me too by correcting my enunciation and grammar.

One day, we were heading back to the park, his usual parking spot, after dropping off a fare. An elderly lady flagged us down. She stared sternly at me as she got into the passengers’ seat at the back.

“Ready ho?” She asked me curtly and angrily.

“Ready for what?” I asked her politely.

Iskeliye!” She exclaimed, passing over a sheet of paper over the seat.

Since I was driving, Rajan held it up against the windscreen for me to see. It was my taxi permit. I could now head out on my own. Tears of exhaustion and thankfulness flowed freely from both eyes.

“Park.” Rajan tapped my shoulder gently.

I pulled over and switched seats with him.

“Thank you.” I said to the lady at the back.

She was a clerk at the permit office. Rajan had arranged for the permit without telling me it seemed. A surprise. I would beat him up later, I decided. For now, I stared at the car’s dashboard. On it were arranged a set of gods and goddesses. From the rear-view mirror hung a doubled-up chain of rudraksh. He was a devout man. Faithful to his religion, faithful to his family and faithful to his friends. My eyes teared up for now and I couldn’t watch the road as he drove back.

Rajan talked all the way, of course. But I didn’t hear a word he said. I was lost in my own reverie.

And he had told Meeta. She had made ‘Patoli’ to celebrate. It was a sweet made of grated coconut, rice and jaggery.

For a few days, Rajan refused to take me with him. He insisted I stay home and finish learning Marathi. Meeta taught me well. I learned to ask for directions, bargain with passengers, fight with traffic policemen who might stop me and demand a bribe. She took me with her when she went shopping and made me bargain with the shopkeepers for the things she bought. That way, I also ended up learning what different things were called in Marathi.

Through this exercise, Meeta and I drew close to each other. When she judged I had learnt enough of her language, she told me her life story. She hailed from a small village on the southern border of the state. Her family spoke both Marathi and Kannada in a strange intermix that very few could understand. Most of the menfolk from her village had migrated to Mumbai and Pune a long time ago in search of work. Her family had run into quite a bit of trouble to find her a groom. Rajan came from a different village, closer to the sea. His family had been sea-going fishermen. But Rajan’s father had worked hard and sent his son to school. Meeta herself had studied only up to the eighth standard. She was intelligent, though not formally ‘educated’. Though they had met during a fair, and subsequently fallen in love, they had gotten their families involved and had an officially arranged marriage.

When Meeta had finished telling me about her past, she asked me meanings of various words and phrases she had used. After that, in broken Marathi, she made me tell her my story. Then she proceeded to correct my language heavily. Sometimes when I got things horribly wrong, she stifled a laugh and tried to maintain a serious face.

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".