The last ride

The traffic signal at the busy junction went green as several vehicles thrust themselves forward. The car behind Ramesh honked loudly as he stood still, but his ears were accustomed to such cacophonic ear-tearing volumes now. His feet slammed the accelerator as soon as he came back to his senses within a second, but a car that just appeared ahead of him forced him to slam his brakes and horn buttons simultaneously. As a result, several cars behind him had to wait impatiently. After a wait of just a half minute, the traffic signal, as merciless as it could be, went back to red. Ramesh’s taxi had just crossed the traffic signal line by this time. He would have normally ignored the signal and sped fast to avoid attention, but the traffic policeman standing at the intersection today made sure that he had to wait for his turn once again.

Ramesh Shukla had been driving a cab for the past twenty years in this city where he had grown. ‘The city of dreams’ others might have called it, but for him, it was simply home. He had never experienced living in any other city, so the ‘dream city’ feeling that was attached to Mumbai had never occurred to him. For that matter, he even hated the city at times, for its traffic had just grown to a pathetic state where no one had any control anymore.

Today, his worries were amplified by the skinny passenger who rode behind him, constantly nagging him to go faster. The passenger had his own worries, but his worries definitely could not match the years of frustration on the road, the constant eye-hurting smog and the frequent knee sprains that Ramesh had experienced. The travel time to go to from place to place in the city was just increasing. At times he felt that in the near future, everyone in the city would just spend their days traveling on these jammed roads. Driving a taxi, which had started as a job that rewarded with good money and a steady career path was no longer that appealing to him.

Somewhere, he had reached his boiling point. He had stopped shaving every day, letting the white strands spread on his cheek. From the bulge under his eyes, one could tell that he was at that age when work had no importance in his life now. Despite the financial constraints, the constant pressure from bosses or from family, the pressure to gather finances for the education of children, a person at this stage decided to make a selfish decision and quit. Ramesh was just at this age. In this case, the financial burden had now almost nullified as he had cleared the loan for the taxi that he drove. His only daughter was now in the final year of college and would soon start earning. It was only about himself now, as his wife had decided to part ways many years ago.

Bhaiya,” the young passenger again asked, “can we go faster?”

Though none of it showed on his face, Ramesh felt like just parking the taxi right in the middle of traffic, open the door and just walk away. Into the garden that still had some fresh air to breath, or near the beach where the breeze would bring in some fresh air. But one promise that he had made to his ex-boss- that he would always finish the journeys that he had begun and never leave any passengers hanging, came right in front of him. He pushed hard on the accelerator pedal as he realized that all these thoughts would die soon.

The passenger behind him had no choice but to hurry. The clogged traffic was visible to him as well. There was not even space for humans to walk on the road as the cars had jam-packed the road. Whatever space was left was taken up by motorbikes as they tried to pave their way out of the traffic. But if he missed his flight tonight, he would be missing the biggest opportunity of his life. An interview for a big promotion was waiting for him in Singapore, so reaching the airport was of utmost importance right now.

Looking at the passenger’s worried face through the driving mirror, Ramesh decided to do him a favour by trying something radically different today. Over the years, he had learned that a customer’s happy face was one of the few cheerful things amidst all the frustrations that he and his fellow taxi drivers experienced.

Reaching the airport would take around 45 minutes if they took the jam-packed Western Express Highway, but if they went through smaller routes and single-lane gullies, they could have a better chance of not finding much traffic. Usually, he avoided driving on smaller roads as they didn’t allow faster driving because of the constant movement of people and kids, but today he was willing to take the risk.

The route in his mind was well-planned out as he sharply turned to appear just ahead of another car on his right. The other car’s shrill horn almost tore apart the eardrums of the passenger, but Ramesh was as placid as the traffic signals on the road. Turning sharply right on the first opportunity, he floored the accelerator pedal as the taxi pulled into a smaller lane. The taxi’s silencer threw a larger amount of carbon dioxide as the car’s speed kept rising.

The airport was another forty minutes away if he drove slowly. But if he managed to speed up and flex his driving muscles, he could make it within thirty minutes at the most. Even if that meant driving carelessly, so be it. The frustration that had accrued over his shoulders was adding fuel to the rage in his heart as his right hand constantly pressed the horn and his right leg refused to leave the accelerator pedal.

Exactly at the first left he took, a yellow school mini-bus almost rammed into his side as it came at him from the left. It was only the agility shown by the bus driver in slamming the brakes that the taxi was still rolling on its wheels. Ramesh sighed at being safe, but the rage in his mind had just been fuelled even more. All the frustration was channelizing itself through the solid concentration that he was driving with at this point, ignoring all the noise around him. He made another right turn. This time the car’s rear tires drifted away from the car, throwing the passenger in the opposite direction.

“Actually, you can go slower,” the customer said promptly, now fearing an accident and praying to god for the taxi driver to go slower. Ramesh took it the wrong way, making sure that the blood flowing through his veins was boiling. How could someone question his driving ability? He glanced behind and floored the accelerator pedal once again.

Bhaiyya,” he called him again, but to no response. The sweaty passenger realized that he would make it to the airplane if he was alive in the first place. Ramesh refused to slow down, shifting his car into a higher gear, scaring even the stray cows who were the most aloof creatures when it came to heeding to the traffic. Every residential building that he passed through heard the loud honking of this car. The few people who managed to see the car knew that the taxi driver was in for a big accident soon.

The passenger even turned to his phone and dialed 100 for the police, but the slight possibility of a successful risky adventure turned his fingers away from the phone. If the taxi driver was as deft as he appeared to be, he would take him to the airport in time despite the rash driving. Thus he tightened his grip on the left door handle and used his other hand to stabilize his laptop bag lying on his right. He had not put on the seatbelt as he was in the back seat, so he tried to force his buttocks into the seat with all the force he had, making sure he would not fly out of the taxi in case it hit something.

Just like several taxi drivers in the city, Ramesh had loosened his seatbelt such that it would hang around his shoulder just for the sake of showing to the traffic policemen and avoid fines. This hanging seatbelt was of no use when an accident would happen, but Ramesh was confident that the seatbelt would never be put to use.

As the frustration vented out through his arms and legs, he was reminded of the good time when his father used to carry him on the rack of his bicycle constantly ringing the ‘ting-ting’ to his joy. He remembered how happy his father was when he saw a new car on the road. The fifteen-minute bicycle ride to school was always filled with dreaming about buying a car and drive it around the city. His father made sure that his son was taught to dream, even though they had no money to afford a car. ‘Dreams are free,’ his father had narrated to him always.

“I want to drive one of these big ones. God, please make me grow up as fast as you can so that I can finally own my car!” Ramesh had prayed to god time and again.

And God had fulfilled his wish. His schooling had been free, but he could never go to college because of the exorbitant fees in colleges. Therefore, he had started doing what he had intended to do always- drive. He had started after a month’s search in one of his father’s friend’s taxi. The kaali-peeli taxi that he had started with was more than joyful to drive. From there, his career took off and he never looked at doing something else for a living. It was only in the past five years that the frustration that came with increasing traffic and decreasing passengers had started showing up.

He came out of the distraction when he realized that a truck was too close to his right as he was crossing a junction. His eyes went wide as he heard the truck’s horn which haunted him this time. Even though his right leg automatically slammed the brake, the truck rammed into the right side of the taxi as Ramesh was jolted out of his seat as he felt several of his bones being crushed. The shards of window glass pierced his face but couldn’t make it to his eyes. His neck twisted and hung loosely on his shoulders as he realized it was all over. His car, the beloved machine that he had been driving for the past three years was totaled.

Destined to oblivion, he realized that he was finally free of all the frustration and the mess- everything that he wanted driving not to be. He felt his shoulders were cleared of all the burdens and he was riding on a plane to a city where he would no longer have to drive. Somewhere, he also wished that he had not wished to drive for the rest of his life but asked God for something else. An office job where the air conditioner would make sure the air was always pure and the chaotic sounds of the traffic were suppressed behind the white noise of running air conditioners.

“I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop,” he muttered as his thoughts went back to the beatific bicycle rides with his father.

An ambulance came to him soon and took him to the nearby hospital. After five days, when he woke up, he came to know that the passenger had been safe and had brought him to the hospital. Several questions came to his mind again, when he realized that his taxi was beyond repair and the truck driver had already imposed a case against him for damaging the truck’s front. The truck driver had also claimed huge losses because of the accident.

As a tear dropped from his eye, Ramesh realized that he would have to start driving again to make sure he could pay the damages to the truck driver. He wished he could rewind and start again. But time didn’t wait for anyone- certainly not for a taxi driver who had once wished for time to fly faster.

 

 

 

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