It was a bright sunny day. The queue at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport’s taxi stand was big. Not the passenger queue, but the taxis. The scorching heat was enough for others to sweat, but the drivers of the hundred-odd kali-peelis that stood through the queue were unfazed. The sun to them was like an acquaintance on a social media website, one who constantly makes his presence felt, so much so that it stops bothering anymore.
One such driver, Sartaj, was busy with his phone, hitting the keys of his Nokia, which was almost five years old now. The phone was a loyalist too, who had stayed true to its Rs 2300 price tag. Five years for a phone? Really? The calculator of the phone still worked, and this was one app which he used frequently, apart from the phone’s innate features. The keys kept beeping, as he observed there were still five cabs ahead of his, refusing to move ahead. Unlike usual days, when he would not mind waiting for long, he was desperate today.
The other drivers were not in the mood for work today, and neither were the cabs. It was like a long-awaited holiday season. Everything had come to a halt, and as a result, the queue of taxis in the vast parking lots was huge. The passengers were advised by the booths at the airport about the ongoing taxi strike, that they should rather take the private taxis or arrange their own transport. None of the kali-peelis would drive today. The reason – surge pricing by the private taxi aggregators hurting the small taxi drivers. The union had just decided to go on a strike, hoping that this would force the government to make swift decisions against the online taxi aggregators.
And, as was expected, the effects of the strike on the customers were huge. The drivers looked rather happy to sit in small groups of four or five and have discussions surrounding the strike. One such driver, dressed in neatly ironed white clothes, had taken the role of a leader and was calling his fellows to take up the issue much more vigorously in the coming days. Of course, Sartaj was not one who would get politically involved in such matters, but many others were ready to blindly follow their supremo. As such, they were prepared to stay off the streets for the weeks to come, if required.
Once he was done fiddling with the keys of his phone, he twisted and turned the steering of the old Kali Peeli with all his brawn. Finally, after a few minutes’ worth of effort, the cab was driving forward, bypassing all the other cars in the queue on its left. And he was in luck. One of the several people who walked out of the terminal came straight towards him, realizing there was no other cab that would be willing to have its meter down. The rickety sound of the taxi’s windows and the faded yellow colour on its top and sides didn’t bother him. He just needed to get to his destination.
“Borivali?” he asked.
Sartaj didn’t speak anything but swiftly opened the rear door, bending over the poorly managed velvet seat in the front. The passenger didn’t have much luggage, which helped Sartaj shift up the gear as soon as he was sitting in the rear seat. Unlike usual times, Sartaj almost jerked his leg off the clutch, thus thrusting the car forward with a higher force. The passenger in the rear seat couldn’t understand, but Sartaj certainly looked in hurry to get somewhere.
“What’s the matter? Kya hua bhai?” The passenger asked at once. Sartaj didn’t respond, choosing to just nod his head sideways. The car was soon put in the fourth gear, as it cruised past the beautiful driveway of the swanky Terminal-2 of the airport. There was practically no traffic on the streets. Without a taxi or a rickshaw, streets in Mumbai were much like a honeycomb without any honey. The honey had all been taken out, and there was no reason for the queen bee to be here anymore.
The passenger couldn’t stay silent, what with the sudden turns and the constant bumping of the car’s suspension. “Thoda dheere chalaenge?” he was quick in asking, as he felt his heartbeat rise through the palpitations felt in his chest. “O bhai, sun rahe ho?” he called out to Sartaj once again. The driver had ignored him for long, but it was time to slow down.
The speed dropped to a paltry 50 kmph, as the car reached the Western Express Highway. “Sahab, aaj wo strike hai na. Toh main raste pe aapko leke jaa nahi sakta.” He was quick in explaining.
“Jo bhi hai, thoda dheere chalo. Taxi kharaab ho jaaegi!” He uttered without waiting at all. “Waise, aap kyun chala rahe ho aaj? Aapko kyun hero banna hai?”
Sartaj, although scared of the union members, had chosen to drive the taxi. The calculator on his phone, using which he had been calculating his balance sheet every day, indicated that he just needed five thousand rupees more for his dream to come true. His own taxi. Not a decrepit Fiat, but a brand new Hyundai Santro, which would run swiftly on any kind of road. The taxi would be much more comfortable, allowing for newer seats and the suspensions would make for much smoother rides. A dream he had since he started driving a cab in the city five years ago.
“Khudki gaadi khareedni hai sahab. Paise jod rahe hain.” Sartaj was reminded of the constant taunts by his bank officials, who kept declining his loan requests stating the lack of guarantee against a loan.
“Hmm, kab khareed rahe ho?” The passenger was quick in asking. To the passenger, the five years of having such a dream and coming so close to achieve it was completely abstracted. Sartaj wanted to speak about all the things that he had faced while waiting for his dream to come true. He wanted to speak about why saving money was never enough. Family had been a good thing for life, but not for his dream. Time and again, when he had saved even five thousand rupees, the money went into buying a new saree for his wife or a new frock for his daughter. Thankfully, her school fees, her uniform and her mid-day meal were all paid by the government. It was a lovely family he had, but the duties of the family had made this dream wait for a long, long time.
But today, things had turned for him. It was almost time to buy the long-awaited possession. He would no more have to go to the car owner’s residence and tell him about the daily collections. No need to worry about delivering the car late by a few minutes. No need to listen to any of the owner’s numerous complaints.
He was already on the runway, and his bird was gaining velocity with every one of his new customers to leap into flight.
“Bas, ab kuch dinon mein khareed loonga,” he replied after a prolonged silence. Thoughts and emotions kept coming at him from all angles. The passenger indicated tacitly that he was happy for the taxi driver. Without speaking, he even thanked the brown-bearded taxi driver for driving him to his destination on a day when no one would help him.
He had a different chain of thoughts going on in his mind. A job interview waited for him at his destination. Coming from a small town, he had always been awed by the sound of Mumbai. Having visited the city only once in his lifetime, and that too for a small duration, he didn’t have an idea of how the buses or the trains in the city worked. Frankly, he was intimidated by the speed of the local trains and the numbers of the buses. A taxi or a rickshaw was a logical choice, and he didn’t mind spending extra money, as long as he reached in time for the interview.
The interview had been long awaited. He had finished his engineering almost seven months ago, but due to the lack of good grades, his job application was rejected even before it reached human eyes. This was the first one he had had, and for the last month, he had skimmed through all that he had read in the four years of engineering.
The taxi driver sped up after a few slowdowns, and looked good to reach Borivali within fifteen more minutes. “Touching distance,” he uttered to himself, running through his minds the series of calculations for ‘How much more do I have to earn to go get my own taxi?’ He would need around Rs 5000 more for having enough in his savings bank account. A cab without a loan on his head! Now that was a dream. There was no need to deal with cumbersome bank processes, cyclical bribing involvements or getting embroiled in the web of new bank schemes.
The car reached Goregaon, when the driver decided to ask the precise location, hoping it would be somewhere near the highway or at least easily accessible from the highway. Sartaj decided it was time to switch gears and turned the car to the fast lane. However, constant honking from an SUV behind his tail forced him back into the middle lane. He took on another flyover, which took the taxi across Goregaon within a minute.
“Where in Borivali?” he asked the passenger, who was swift in rolling over his phone which had the address. “Here.”
Thankfully, the address was right by the highway, saving the kaali-peeli from burning more fuel. Having not bothered to replace the engine oil, deciding to save the money for the new car, Sartaj had taken the cab to its limits.
He sped up the engine once again, hoping to reach the destination within ten more minutes. For a moment he looked up towards the sky and turned back to the road. But right at this moment, a stone pierced the left rear window, shattering the glass. Shocked, Sartaj turned his head around, to look at his passenger. Another stone hit the window soon, and it was this one that pierced the glass, whose splinters didn’t leave the passenger time to duck down. One of the hundreds of splinters managed to touch his eye, thus forcing him to touch his eyelids together, in an involuntary attempt to prevent himself from damage.
But, that was not to effect. Sartaj pressed hard enough on the brakes to bring the cab to a halt, but this turned out to be a mistake, as he discovered. A mob had already started walking towards his car, and didn’t hesitate in showing off the ghastly hockey sticks in their hands. His fellow companions at other times, the taxi drivers were here to avenge Sartaj’s betrayal of the trust they put in him.
As he tried to step his leg back on the accelerator pedal, the windscreen was shattered, which was followed by several other blows on the car. The headlamps and the windshield were broken, the tires punctured, tens of dents made all around the car, the exhaust pipe bent in its place and the side windows were left all shattered. All this within a span of a minute.
Although the mob had no intention of physically hurting the two men, they had effectively managed to leave a mark on their lives. Sartaj’s numbness went away only when the passenger screamed through the roof, as the splinter in his eye managed to tear apart the eyeball and a multi-colored fluid seeped from the corner of his eye. A few good people in the mob realized what had happened, and were quick in carrying the passenger away in their arms towards a nearby hospital.
The mob cleared as two cops swung in towards the cab. Sartaj still sat in the car with no senses active. His brain was dead; dead after coming so close to reaching a mountain that he had been climbing for several years and falling from here right into the valley. The passenger, on the other hand, had acute pain in his eye even as he tried to shed tears. He was not even allowed to weep.
The wheels that they were riding on had circled back to touch the bottom once again.