By Richard Rose
Darkness had descended on Kalapurum and Anil was tired. It had been a long day and his labours had brought him little reward. Whilst for most of the time he enjoyed life as an auto-rickshaw driver, meeting people and showing off his skills in negotiating the teeming roads, the income to be gained was unpredictable and this had not been a good day. Such days left him feeling low and now that the early evening rush had passed, there were fewer potential passengers looking for a ride. Resigning himself to another thankless day, Anil decided to return home and hope that tomorrow’s fortunes would prove better. If he hurried he might just get there before his children Bibin and Manju went to bed. He had left behind him a silent house that morning just as dawn shook the sleep from its eyes and he knew that it would feel good to be with his family tonight.
The decision having been made, with one sharp pull Anil started the engine of his auto and braced himself to join the heavy stream of vehicles vying for space and making slow progress towards the centre of Kalapurum. If the traffic continued to move at this pace with luck he might be home in less than half an hour. With this thought in mind he hoped to make good time along the potholed lanes and through the seething mass of machines which crammed the roads belching their noxious fumes.
Revving the throttle of his auto, Anil had travelled less than fifty yards when without warning he was confronted by a figure stepping into the road immediately in his path. His initial reaction was to make an attempt to weave around this unforeseen obstacle, but with no space in which to manoeuvre he realised the impossibility of this situation and brought his machine to an abrupt halt. Having been forced into this action, which simply added to the stresses of a day that had given him more than enough vexation, Anil released an anguished curse.
“Bloody fool, I could have killed you!”
Staring in disbelief at the source of his angst, Anil’s annoyance was intensified as this subject of his wrath now scuttled to the side of his auto and leant manically into his cabin shouting in an incomprehensible language and frantically waving a small card in his face.
Enraged by the crazed behaviour of this assailant, Anil’s immediate inclination was to ignore the unwelcome infiltrator, turn the auto away from his path and make for the middle of the road. But the stranger, imposing himself in a frenzy of gesticulation and shouting, made it clear that he was not to be deterred and clung to the side of the vehicle with no apparent regard for the obvious dangers to himself, to Anil or for others who were by now weaving their way around this troublesome scene. Anil waved furiously in the man’s face, shook his head and tried to make clear that he was not available to transport this unwelcome assailant or for that matter, any other passenger.
“Ille, ille!” he shouted in Tamil, then in hope of ensuring greater understanding in English yelled directly at the man, “No, no, I am not taking. Go away.”
But all of this to no avail as the source of his irritation persisted to cling fast to the vehicle, causing the auto to shake and roll on the road. And as the foreigner shouted still louder in a language that was meaningless to the driver, Anil’s exasperation and confusion intensified.
Who is this madman Anil wondered? Why has he singled me out for this attention? He had dealt with difficult passengers many times before. He knew from experience that sometimes angry words can quickly escalate to violence and recognised that there might be times when he needed all his skills of reasoning to calm such situations. This man was clearly not intent on backing down or going away and Anil would need to use his many years of experience, in order to decide his next move in managing this demanding scene. Hoping that this stranger might recognise his change of demeanour he smiled at him and shook his head. And indeed at this point the man did appear to lessen his wild gesticulations and seemed prepared to listen to reason. This lessening of tensions initially seemed to have some positive effect, as the would be passenger spoke again, but this time in much softer tones, though still in a language unrecognisable to his listener.
Looking intently at the man Anil tried to understand who this crazy might be and why he was so persistent in his demands. Most pedestrians when rejected by an auto driver shrug their shoulders and are quickly reconciled to the fact that they will need to look elsewhere for a ride. They might curse under their breath and it was not unusual for a rejected pedestrian to release an oath in the direction of the driver, but this was something different. Clearly this man wasn’t of the common sort, or he would have walked away much earlier in this encounter.
Anil’s assailant was tall, sallow skinned but with dark hair creeping untidily from beneath a broad brimmed straw hat. His crumpled cream coloured suit, mud stained canvas shoes and his sweat soaked shirt, worn with the top three buttons undone indicated a possible European identity, a man uncomfortable in the local climate. Yes, European thought Anil, though not British as he would most certainly have recognised at least a few words of English during their exchange. This man is, thought Anil, most likely a tourist from one of the nearby coastal resorts. If so then he will have come to Kalapurum for the same reason as all tourists to this town, to visit the Moolanathar temple with its high gopuram and great Nandi bull near to the fruit market. If this was the case then he must have been wandering around for some time as he was now two miles from this ancient site. Possibly, thought Anil, this man is now lost and this might account for his panic.
The sweat on the man’s face and that staining his far from pristine clothing, coupled with the pained expression in his eyes indicated to Anil a man who could well be in some kind of trouble, and trouble was something he didn’t need at this point in the day. Anil quickly turned matters over in his mind. If the man was in trouble, then perhaps this was reason enough to make an effort to find out what the problem was and to try to offer help. After all, he wouldn’t want it said that he failed to assist a stranger who was in need. But what if by providing assistance he himself ended up in difficulties, then what might be the consequences? He knew nothing of this foreigner save that his behaviour could easily be interpreted as that of a madman. Anil wasn’t sure which way he should turn. Tamsi had often accused him of being indecisive, and here was surely an example of what she meant. No, not this time, he told himself, I must make my decision and stick to it. This time I will be firm.
Having pondered this situation enough, Anil’s mind was made up. Once more shaking his head and indicating quite clearly that he was about to leave by pointing to the road ahead, he determined that he would recommence his irritatingly delayed journey home. Surely he thought, this will be an end to the matter. He was sorry if the man was in some kind of trouble, but it wasn’t his responsibility to sort out the problems of every passing foreigner that crossed his path.
For what he believed would be the final time this evening Anil revved his engine and turned towards the stream of traffic. Yet if he thought to put an end to this confusing scenario he was swiftly disabused. Having appeared to have calmed greatly since his earlier outburst, the stranger now resumed his manic behaviour and became more disturbed than ever. As Anil commenced to drive away from this scene, this persistent and troubled man flung himself against the front of the auto, his face full against the glass windscreen, before sliding to the floor and assuming a pose akin to a supplicant praying at an altar.
This was becoming an embarrassment. Anil’s resolve was wavering. The plans he had made for decisive action were swiftly coming unravelled. He knew exactly what his wife would be saying to him now, he was confirming Tamsi’s assertions that too often he dithered. He stared hard at the foreigner and tried to push these thoughts far back in his mind. Having initially greeted this intruder with a display of petulance, he now recognised a strategy that had been from the outset doomed to fail. Anil sighed deeply and began to mellow a little. Maybe this man really is in trouble. Perhaps this was to be his fate. Perhaps after all it was his responsibility to help a stranger in need.
The desperate man was once again clinging to his auto, pleading in words that Anil could not understand and displaying the card in his hand. Anil knew it was useless to try and understand what the foreigner was saying. Since the man had resumed his position beside the auto he had listened in an effort to discern any clue about he was trying so desperately to communicate, but it was no use. The words were strange and the accent strong and in his obvious anxiety to make his needs known he spoke so quickly that even if Anil had been in possession of a little of the language he would have struggled to pick up more than the occasional word.
Why me, Anil asked himself? There are other auto drivers around this area, so why am I the chosen one? Why else would he have stopped Anil in his auto other than to seek a ride? Could there be another motive? But then when he could see his reluctance to accept his fare he should surely have looked to another driver. So much was obvious, but the panic that was evident in this man’s eyes made him wary of giving in to his pleading. Perhaps, thought Anil, beginning to feel some sympathy, he may want to travel in the direction of my home. This being the case I could take him as the last fare of the day. Yes, this would be a fair compromise. But before he would let him aboard his auto he needed confirmation of the destination required by this ardent would be passenger who continued to assail him with his incomprehensible speech.
Remembering the card which had been waved in his face Anil gestured towards the man, who quickly understood that Anil was prepared to consider the urgency of his demands. Taking one hand from the frame of the auto and pushing this into the pocket of his jacket he produced the card and handed it to the driver who scanned it before looking back to the stranger and shaking his head. Coconut Grove Beach Resort, the address clearly displayed on the card in English on one side and Tamil on the other, was two miles in the opposite direction to Anil’s home. Now he knew that he should have been much firmer when he had the chance. If he took this passenger to his required destination it would be at least an hour before he would be home. By that time he would be too late to see his children before they went to bed and all for the sake of a fifty rupee fare.
Shaking his head Anil made placatory noises and pointed in the direction of his home, hoping the man would finally understand and let him leave. Once again he resolved to turn his auto-rickshaw into the traffic, he had wasted enough time with this strange man and now just wanted to make his way back to his family. But just as before, the deranged fellow stepped out ahead of him with seemingly no regard for his safety causing Anil to hit his brakes and arrest his progress. Anil let out a scream, cursing this lunatic and deciding that far more drastic action was now needed. He would get out of his auto and push this infuriating man to the side of the road. He would use minimal force but would assert his right to be left alone. With increased determination he began to leave his cab now committed to the action that he would take and which would bring an end to this nonsense. Poised for action, with one foot on the road and about to make his first contact with the foreigner, his movement was suddenly arrested when he noticed another piece of paper being waved in his direction by the intended target of his anger.
Could this be what it seemed? The man brought his hand closer to Anil’s face continuing to wield what could now be clearly recognised as a five hundred rupee note. Anil hesitated; was this some kind of trick? What could this mean? Who would pay 500 rupees for a two mile ride in an auto-rickshaw? Did this simply confirm the madness of this stranger? Now he was unsure what he should do. His earlier resolve was fast dissolving. If this strange man was seriously offering him ten times the standard fare, then how could he refuse? Five hundred rupees was a lot of money, almost as much as he had managed to make during a whole day of working. Was this man serious about paying so much?
As Anil’s mind raced through his options the man drew nearer and before he realised what was happening the 500 rupee note had been pushed into the top pocket of his khaki jacket and the stranger had leapt into the vehicle and positioned himself on the seat behind him. Now he is actually inside the auto, thought Anil, it will be almost impossible to move him. It appeared that a decision had been made for him, though Anil was unsure how. The stranger had taken control and there was little that Anil could do. But the 500 rupee note now safely in his pocket had changed the situation and sealed the fate of both himself and his passenger; for passenger was what the foreigner had surely now become. This action of the foreigner brought a significant change to the course of the evening. Anil shook his head, but acknowleding an opportunity to bring this evening’s charade to a conclusion as quickly as possible, turned in the opposite direction to his home and nosed his auto across the busy lanes of traffic.
With any luck Anil knew, they could reach the coast road within the next fifteen minutes and generally from there the journey to Coconut Grove would be straightforward. With this in mind and having decided to make the best of this bizarre situation Anil threaded his way between cars, trucks, two wheelers and the occasional cyclist in the hope that this would be the busiest part of the route. At first the progress made was good and Anil believed that his hopes might be realised, but then for reasons unknown, as is often the case on the roads of Kalapurum, for no one as yet has managed to understand the traffic in India; all vehicles came to a standstill. As is the custom in such situations in Kalapurum, as elsewhere across the country, drivers used their horns unsparingly in a forlorn belief that this might somehow cause the traffic to once more flow. But Anil had experienced this congestion a thousand times before and resigned himself to switching off his engine to conserve fuel and wait until movement recommenced.
Leaning forward from his seat Anil’s passenger tapped him sharply on the shoulder and pointing at the watch on his wrist spoke again with words, that whilst quite alien to Anil’s ear could be easily interpreted as conveying a heightened level of anxiety. Anil shrugged and pointed at the vehicles lined across the road in front of him at which point the foreigner let out a loud cry and settled back heavily into his seat. By now Anil, having committed himself to this journey felt more than a little sympathy for his charge. His passenger was clearly desperate and having accepted his money he felt obliged to do the best he could reach his destination as quickly as might safely be managed. Furthermore, the 500 rupee note in his pocket helped to ease the pain of knowing that yet again he would miss seeing Bibin and Manju when he eventually reached home.
At last movement was detected ahead and Anil, having restarted his engine began to inch forward into the congestion. Feeling a renewed commitment to his distraught passenger he eased his way through the smallest spaces, ignoring the oaths and gestures of drivers around him and with gaining confidence made his way in the direction of the coast road. The traffic thankfully kept moving. Within another ten minutes his objective had been reached and as Anil manoeuvred his way onto the broad highway he could believe that this fraught evening would soon be at an end. As he accelerated away, his attention was gained by the man in the rear of his auto tapping him again on the shoulder. Looking around and fearing the worst, he was greeted with a smile as the man said something which he interpreted as being an affirmation of his efforts to get him to his objective as quickly as possible. This calmer demeanour from his passenger brought Anil some relief.
The final mile of the journey to the Coconut Grove Beach Resort thankfully passed without further incident. Reaching their destination and pulling across the road Anil halted at the gateway which marked the entrance to the resort, where the duty watchman checked the vehicle prior to opening a barrier and waving them through. Within a hundred yards of leaving the gate they arrived at an open area in front of the resort’s reception building and before Anil had fully come to a stop his passenger sprang from the auto and was hurtling in the direction of a taxi parked near the door. What had been the source of this man’s desperation, wondered Anil? Whatever it might be, having come this far he was determined to see the conclusion to this strange evening’s events and remained seated in his auto reviewing the scene before him.
Within twenty strides of escaping the auto Anil’s passenger had reached the taxi, just as the driver had started its engine and appeared to be ready for departure. With an action reminiscent of those witnessed earlier in the evening, the man without hesitation threw himself in front of the departing vehicle half sprawling across the taxi’s bonnet whilst simultaneously omitting a loud scream. This crazed gesture hardly surprised Anil, who in truth expected nothing less than a continuation of the madness with which he had come to associate his former passenger. This latest assault from the foreigner had what Anil could only imagine to have been the desired effect of bringing the taxi to a grinding halt. At this point the man, whom Anil had come to think of as the insane protagonist at the centre of a persistent nightmare, slid from the bonnet and raced to the side of the taxi. Here, with one swift movement he pulled open a rear door of the car. By now Anil believed that there would be nothing in this foreigner’s behaviour that would surprise him and he expected the madman to leap into the cab much as he had into his own more modest vehicle earlier in the evening. But he was taken aback when rather than entering the taxi the man leaned forward into the cab and took by the hand an elegantly dressed Indian woman who stepped from within to join him beside the vehicle. Immediately on leaving the cab this latest performer in the drama flung herself into the arms the auto driver’s former passenger. Anil could do no more than stare as for fully two minutes these two main players in this confusing scene clung to each other in a firm embrace. Who, he asked himself, can this odd couple be? She dressed so magnificently in a stunning maroon and gold sari, with fine jewels and golden sandals, and he in such a dishevelled state. It seems, he thought, that I may have delivered my passenger here just in time. She was obviously about to leave, but why and where to? What might the situation have been had I arrived ten minutes later? Anil once more shook his head, still confused by the scene he was witnessing as the taxi driver unloaded two heavy cases from the boot of his car.
Perhaps the evening had reached a satisfactory conclusion. After all, thought Anil with a wry smile, I never doubted that the right thing to do was to take my passenger to his destination, as is the duty of any good auto-rickshaw driver. For the final time this evening he started his engine ready to make his way homeward, but as he was about to head back to the road he noticed the man and the women beckoning to him to stop. Anil hesitated, by now he had endured enough excitement for one evening and his inclination was to ignore this command and make a speedy departure. Walking hand in hand towards him, she with tears running down her cheeks, and his former passenger smiling broadly they drew near and Anil decided that he would wait and see what might now transpire.
“Nandri, rombo nandri”, cried the woman, the first expression he had heard in his own language since the events of the evening had begun. The man lifted his hat, smiled and uttered one final incomprehensible sentence. Anil smiled, waved and moved off, determined not to look back as he drove away from Coconut Grove Resort towards the coast road and home.
Having checked once more that the 500 rupee note was safely located in his pocket Anil knew that he had understood very little of what had passed before him this evening. He headed home and laughed.
About the Author
Richard Rose is a writer an UK based university professor who has worked regularly in India for the past 20 years. In addition to more than 100 academic publications his fiction, essays and poetry have been published in international literary magazines including Spadina Review, Coldnoon, Spark, Indian Muse and Jaggery.