by Bipin Aurora
I wanted to go home to Sarita Vihar and I walked up to the scooter-rickshaw on the side of the road. I asked the driver to take me there.
“No,” he said.
“No?” I said.
“I am not going in that direction. I am going Jumna-paar (across the Jumna River).”
“I will give you five rupees extra,” I said.
“No,” he said.
“Ten,” I said.
He relented but he made a face as he did so. “It is a long journey,” he said. “And on the way back I come empty—there is no customer.”
“You will find a customer,” I said.
He was not convinced. But he had already stepped on the pedal of the vehicle with his foot. The engine roared; he lowered himself to his seat and we were on our way.
It was not a pleasant journey. The road was filled with bumps and the vehicle jumped up and down as it went over them. It was late twilight and the visibility was poor. The vendors on the sidewalks had lit fires and the air was filled with smoke.
“Slow down, Baba,” I said. “There is no rush.”
He ignored my words.
We came to a bridge and we were to make a major turn there. But somehow he missed the turn. I tapped him on the back and told him so. He was clearly confused but just wagged his head. “Do not worry,” the gesture seemed to say. “I will take care of it.”
We rode for some time, looking for a place to turn back and reverse our direction. But no turn was there. I asked him to pull over and ask one of the street vendors for directions.
At last he pulled over. There was a cigarette stand of some kind—a man who sold cigarettes and betel leaves. The driver leaned out of the scooter-rickshaw and addressed the man. “Brother,” he said.
“Can you tell us how to get back to the bridge?”
“The bridge is in the other direction.”
“Yes, yes, we know. But can you tell us how to get there?”
“You have missed the bridge. It is a long way. There is no turning back.”
A long way. No turning back. What kind of words were these? I told the driver to ignore the words. These people were fatalists—or just mad. They had given up on hope a long time ago. I was not a fatalist and I would never give up.
We drove forward again. We knew that at last we would find a place where we could turn back.
But it was not so easy. We drove for minutes—and then for minutes more. The driver hummed a tune and then he cursed. We came to a traffic light (it was red) and he began to cry.
“We will find it,” I reassured him. “We will find the bridge.”
But he was not encouraged. “We will be late,” he said. “I will never get home. My wife is a cruel woman—you do not know her. She will take off her slippers and she will hit me. She will chase me around the courtyard, call me names. The neighbors will hear and come running—but do you think she will care? She will take her slippers and hit me—she will hit me again and again.”
“Do not think of your wife,” I said.
“I cannot help it.”
“You are a man,” I said. “Fight back.”
“You do not know her. She will throw glass at me, she will throw pots and pans. She will make me bleed.”
He was panicking now—he was actually panicking. Was he really so afraid of his wife?
The traffic light changed and the driver released his foot from the brake. We continued in the smoke-filled evening. Traffic, traffic all around. And still no sign of the turn.
“Find the turn,” he pleaded. This time he was pleading with me. “I need to get home. I must.”
I tried to calm him down but he would not be calmed. “My wife!” he whimpered again. “My wife!”
I again tried to calm him down; he would not be calmed. I needed to get home as well—did he ever think of that? But I controlled myself. The man was in tears. This was not the time and place for my feelings.
At last, yes, we did come to a turn. An end really, a dead-end. The traffic grew less and less—and then it just ended. The road just ended.
There was no traffic there, no median in the road. There was just a dirt path. If we got out and pushed the vehicle manually, perhaps we could turn around.
And this is just what we did.
It was now completely dark. The smoke still filled the air. Here and there, people on the sidewalk were selling things: pulses, grams, balloons and knick-knacks. But, yes, we got out of the vehicle. We stood at its back and we pushed it—and then we pushed some more. We turned the vehicle around.
We made our way back in the opposite direction. But it was not the same road on which we had come. The original road had been congested, full. This road—a dirt road—was deserted and quiet.
The road narrowed and then, suddenly, it wound along the river. The Jumna River. We could hear the river to the right.
But the Jumna River is a long and wide river. Which part of the river we were near, I cannot say. The road narrowed some more and at some places it came within five to ten feet of the water. In the monsoons the river overflowed. What happened then to this strange road, what then came to pass?
We saw some women on the side of the road. Yes, even at this hour we saw them. They appeared to be in their late teens. Maybe they were schoolgirls and maybe they were villagers.
“They are pretty women,” said the driver.
I did not answer him.
“Very pretty,” he said.
I did not answer him.
“I have slept with some of them.”
“What is this?” I said.
“I am a man, Bauji. I have needs.”
His spirits seemed to have returned. His confidence seemed to have returned as well. “Jumna-paar,” he had said to me initially when I had met him. “Across the Jumna River.” This is where he lived, this is where he was planning to go. Did his new behavior, his new confidence, all have to do with the Jumna River? With being close to it?
But I was not impressed with his words. “Watch your tongue,” I said. “These are respectable women. Is this any way to speak?”
But he did not seem to hear me—or if he did hear me, he was indifferent to my words. “They are virgins, sir, some of them. But not the others. I have slept with them (did I tell you?). Or at least I have dreamed of it.”
I was still troubled by his words. “The road,” I said. “Keep your mind on the road.”
But his mind was on other things now. It was far, far away.
The minutes passed. We were still on the dark road. We were looking for the bridge—the place where we had missed our turn.
It was so terribly dark. Even more fires had been lit on the sidewalks and the smoke burned in the air. It entered your throat and it burned your eyes.
More minutes passed. We drove, we drove. The driver of the scooter-rickshaw was wearing pajamas and an old striped shirt. He also wore a towel wrapped around his head. It had begun to grow cold and he took the towel from his head and threw it instead around his neck. Perhaps it was more important to protect the neck than the head.
We saw some lights in the distance. As we came closer, we saw a sign suspended from a tall metal pole. “Bharat Petroleum,” the sign said.
“Petrol,” the driver said to me over his shoulder. “I need petrol.”
“What is this?”
“The petrol is running low. I need petrol.”
I did not argue with him.
The driver pulled into the petrol station. He got out of the vehicle and lifted the cover of the front seat—the seat where he had been sitting. Then he took the hose from the nearby pump and put it into some opening under the seat.
A man from the station—an attendant of some kind—walked up to the driver. “Sixty rupees,” he said.
The driver took out a thick roll of bills from his shirt pocket. He counted the money and handed it to the attendant.
The work was done—or at least the immediate work—and it was time for us to go on.
“The bridge,” I said. “We must find the bridge.”
“Yes,” he said.
“I need to get home,” I said.
“And me?” said the driver. “I have a wife, a terrible wife waiting for me. Do I not need to get home as well?”
We drove for some time. We desperately wanted to find the bridge. But life is not always easy. It had all begun as a simple journey—a journey from Connaught Place to my home. And now this. But these things happen. There are missed chances, detours. Bad things happen.
We had driven for some fifteen minutes and the driver was now whistling a tune. We seemed to be approaching a small colony of some kind. Mostly huts, made of mud and straw, and here and there a shack made of wood or plaster.
“Where are we?” I said to the driver.
“Just a minute more,” he said. “Then you will see.”
A minute more and we stood in front of a small shack made of wood. The driver stopped—he actually stopped—and he turned off the engine.
“What is this?” I said.
“My home,” he said.
“Your home? But I want to go to my home. Sarita Vihar.”
“Please, Bauji, do not speak so loudly. We are so late as it is. My wife will be cross.”
So late. My wife will be cross. He was indeed afraid of his wife. We got out of the scooter-rickshaw (I did not feel that I had a choice). I heard the sounds of screaming children. His or those of his neighbors, I do not know. I heard the sounds of pots and pans.
“Ram Pyaree,” the driver called out. It must have been the name of his wife.
We came to an old door—dark and falling off the hinges. We lowered our heads and walked under the lintel.
“Who is it? Who is it?” I heard a woman’s voice from inside.
A boy and a girl, their noses running, came rushing to the front door. “Papa! Papa!” they said. And then: “Toffees, Papa. Did you bring us any toffees? Balloons, Papa, did you bring us any balloons?”
The scooter-rickshaw driver looked to me for support. A man works all day, he works, he works. He drives, he drives. He gets lost in the night and he looks for a bridge. And this is what waits for him at home.
The driver apologized to the children. “It was late, children, it was getting very late. I did not have time to stop and buy. But tomorrow, I promise—tomorrow I will definitely bring.”
The children were not appeased.
I stood there, watching the children. They seemed to see me—to notice me—for the first time. Who is this tall man, they must have said—this strange and respectable man? Clearly I was a respectable man. Clearly they noticed that—the dress, the demeanor. The difference in class.
As I stood there, a woman emerged from the back in a cheap green sari. She saw me and suddenly stopped, covering her head with the sari—a sign of respect. She had emerged from the back chattering loudly and the chattering suddenly stopped. After all, a man was there, a respectable man. Who was this respectable man?
It is a long story, why drag it out? My presence clearly seemed to have confused the wife. A man was standing in her house, a respectable man. When was the last time—was there ever a time—that such a scene had taken place?
The couple went to the back room and I heard some whispers. Loud whispers. “Not here.” “Not now.” “How can you do such a thing?”
The two came out again. They offered me food; I declined. I was polite, of course, but how could I eat their food? I did not want to get sick. They offered me tea. I declined again but they insisted. At last I accepted. After all, the water would be boiled and perhaps I would be safe.
We sat in the outside room. The best that I could tell, there were only two rooms in the house: this room and the kitchen in the back. There were two string cots in the room and the children sat at the edge of one of them. The scooter-rickshaw driver stood at the edge of the other.
When I accepted the invitation for tea, the man was clearly excited. There was one chair in the room—at the far corner—and he hurried to get it for me. The chair was old, the white cane sagging badly, but what did that matter? It was an actual chair.
The children still sat at the edge of the bed, looking at me with curiosity.
“Uncle,” they said at last.
“Yes?” I said.
“Our Papa did not bring any toffees or balloons. Do you have any toffees or balloons?”
It was a strange question and I did not know what to say.
“Not today,” I said. I was surprised at the deference in my voice.
“Come again tomorrow, Uncle. Be sure to bring toffees and balloons.”
I was intrigued by their words. Amused as well. How forward they were, how assuming. But then again, children are children. One should not take their words too much to heart.
The children looked at me—they looked, they looked. And then: “Are you married, Uncle?”
“What is this?” I said.
“Do you have a wife, Uncle? Do you have children? How many children do you have?”
They were personal questions. I was not married, no, but what business was it of theirs?
By this time the wife had made the tea and brought it in a tray—two cups on top—to the room.
“Sugar, Bauji, how much sugar?” she said.
“One teaspoonful is fine,” I said.
“One teaspoonful!” she said, almost in alarm. Poor people like a lot of sugar in their tea. Two teaspoonfuls, even two-and-a-half, even three. Sugar is expensive but this is one thing in which they indulge. Perhaps it is a sign of prestige.
“One teaspoonful,” I said again. “Yes, yes, that would be fine.”
The driver looked at me in amazement. His wife, standing—or was it towering?—above us, her head still covered with the end of her sari, looked on in amazement as well.
The husband and I began to sip slowly. The tea was hot and he made slurping sounds as he drank. Then, albeit delicately, he raised the same question that the children had raised.
“You are not married, sir?”
“No, I am not married,” I said.
“Not married,” he said quietly, and he clucked his tongue softly. His wife, standing just a few feet away, looked on in sadness (or was it alarm?).
They both looked at me with pity. The children looked at me with pity. I was clearly their superior in class, and yet this.
There was silence in the room. I felt my face grow red. I felt myself turn angry. Here I was—an important man, a superior man—and yet this.
But this is life. It has a way of teaching you, of humbling you. Who knows when that teaching and humbling may come?
The minutes passed, the night grew deeper. I needed to get home. And here I was stuck in a poor man’s home. A low-class place.
The husband sat on the cement floor eating his dinner. I sat a few feet away in my cane chair and watched him eat in silence. His meal was so simple—a chapatti, lentils, some onions and a mango pickle—and yet how eagerly he ate his meal.
The children sat on the floor and ate their meal as well. With what relish they ate it. The wife hurried in and out, bringing hot chapattis from the kitchen.
More than once I looked at my watch. It was 8:30 at night. Then 9:00, then 9:15. My home was far away, I needed to get there. When would that be?
“A few more minutes, Bauji,” the scooter-rickshaw driver reassured me. He seemed to be pleading with me. “I will go to the back room and rinse my mouth. And then we can leave.”
The meal was over and the driver was indeed true to his promise. He went to the back and then returned, wiping his wet hands with a thin, dirty towel.
He went to the two children and ran his hand through their hair. “I will be back soon,” he said.
“We are sleepy, Papa,” they said. “We are sleepy.”
“I will be back soon.”
“Will you bring us toffees? Will you bring us balloons?”
It was late at night, all the shops were closed. Even the vendors on the footpath would have long ago packed their goods and gone home. But the father knew that the children must be appeased.
“Of course, of course,” he said. “Tinu and Tipu are my favorite children. Do the children not need to be satisfied?”
The children were pleased by their father’s words. “Thank you Papa,” they said. “We have a good Papa,” they said.
The driver again ran his hand through their hair. Then he gestured to me and we began our way outside. I saw the wife standing at the edge of the room, her back to the wall of the adjoining kitchen. I thanked her for the tea.
She blushed, saying that I embarrassed her. “We are poor people, sir. You are the one who does us honor. An important man—such an important man—and he comes to our house.”
An important man. Ha. I was not married, but so what? Was I still not better—much better—than all those around me?
The driver and I stepped outside. The night had turned even colder and the driver closed the two buttons to his cheap jacket. Then he threw an old scarf tightly around his neck. I zipped up my jacket—the one from abroad—and removed the leather gloves from my pocket. I covered my hands.
“Home!” I said to the driver. “Sarita Vihar.”
“Home, Bauji, I understand.”
We made our way again in the cold, dark night. The traffic was less now, much less, but how far out of the way we had come. First the missed turn on the bridge and then the detour to the poor one’s home.
We felt the stiff air all around us. Stars in the sky—thousands and thousands of stars. A crescent moon. The world was inside resting, sleeping, but we were not so lucky.
We made our way. Thirty minutes, thirty-five, almost forty. At last we approached my flat: a grey stucco building three stories high. A balcony in the front of the flat, a balcony on the side. The home of a successful man.
The driver pulled up to the building and stopped. He got out, lit a match and looked at the meter (the one directly in front of my back seat) “Rs. 38.50,” it said.
Rupees 38.50. But that was from his home to mine. What about the ten extra rupees I had promised him? What about all the time—and all the petrol—spent missing the turn and getting lost?
I reached into my pocket and took out three 20-rupee bills. I reached in, took out another bill. Eighty rupees, that should be more than enough.
I handed the four bills to the driver.
He looked at me in surprise.
“Is anything wrong?” I said.
“I wasted Bauji’s time,” he said.
“It is alright,” I said.
“I missed the bridge and I took Bauji to a poor man’s home.”
“It is alright,” I said.
The scooter-rickshaw driver looked at the dark sky and then at the ground. At the dark sky and then at the ground.
I suddenly realized that, after he left me, the driver still had a long journey ahead of him. That he would not find a customer and would indeed spend—waste—all this money on petrol. Was that fair?
I reached into my pocket, took out another 20-rupee bill. And another. And another. I handed him the bills. I reached again into my pockets and began turning them inside-out.
“What is Bauji doing?” he said, almost in alarm.
“Oh ho, it is nothing,” I said. “I have reached home. Take, please take this small token. It is nothing.”
The poor man looked at me. Again he looked. Perhaps he thought that I was unwell. Perhaps he thought that I was mad. Or perhaps he thought that I was just a rich, guilty man with all this money to spend.
“Thank you Bauji,” he said at last, accepting the bills. Then he bent down and touched my feet. “Bauji will have a long life,” he said. “Bauji is a great man.”
A long life. A great man. His words pleased me. Whether I believed them or not—that was a matter for another day.
He got into the vehicle and turned on the engine. He stepped on the pedal. And he was on his way.
I saw the steps to my building and I began my walk towards them. I walked slowly, very slowly. I was home: a good thing. I was a successful man: a good thing. I reached the steps and began to climb them. One step and then the next. One step and then the next. I arrived at my landing and paused, but only for a second. I took out my key and turned the lock to the door.
I stepped inside and turned on the light. I paused again, but only for a second. I lived alone—but so what? It was late at night, but no matter. I was a successful man.
I had just come from a poor man’s home—I would go to the bathroom and wash my hands. I would wash my face as well. I would pour myself a glass of whisky: the glass would settle me. I would heat some food: the heated food would taste good. I had some samosas in the fridge, some tandoori chicken—even some vanilla ice cream. There was no reason to pause in the cold, dark night. No no, there was no reason to pause and be afraid.
They say that people sometimes have bad thoughts when they pause. Superstition, all superstition. I was a grown man, a happy man. There was no reason to have these thoughts. No no, there was no reason to pause and be afraid.
Bipin Aurora has worked as an economist, an energy analyst, and a systems analyst. A collection of his stories, Notes of a Mediocre Man: Stories of India and America, was published by Guernica Editions (Canada). His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Michigan Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, Witness (Spring 2014), Boulevard, AGNI, The Fiddlehead, The Literary Review, New Orleans Review, Prairie Schooner, Confrontation, and numerous other publications.