By Ankita Chatterjee
“Piya, slide the trolley down from here”, instructed Abhi, my husband.
“Did you get through?”
“Yes. Just did. Look for 8214.”
“Thank God. It seems everyone decides to come here this late, since the centre is open 24*7”, I complained.
“Come, quick. The cab’s here already. I load on our stuff and you deposit back the trolley. Come.”
I was zapped seeing a toddler racing onto the street while his parents fought over some issue. Abhi called out again.
“Hey, bring the trolley, Piya!”
I zoomed down the pathway. While my hands lent parcels onto Abhi, I frowned in disparagement at the gawky looking man, who happened to be the driver of cab SH 8214H. I let Abhi do the formalities while I monitored the actions of the driver. Mr.X, as I would call him now, was a stout and clumsy man, much older than we had actually thought him to be, and which, along with some other details, we would come to know in the next twenty minutes. He wore a Casio watch and kept looking at it more than normal number of times. Mr. X blabbered like an empty case; his words resounding hard within the cool comfort of his air-conditioned cab. The moment we had stepped in, I knew it was a bad choice.
Abhi shook his head. I wagged my tongue out; my eyeballs sprang to my brows. In a whisper I conveyed my lament in Hindi, a language to our advantage here, “Gonna be a dead duck now”.
Mr. X seemed to have lost it somewhere and he badmouthed someone continuously who had apparently called the cab booking extension and then had refused to acknowledge, leaving this poor man to wander.
“Insane idiots! They think I need money and so I can wait till the dead hours of the night! Oh I don’t need a single penny from them. I don’t trust them; these techno-savvy, ill mannered junks of the present age. I am driving tonight since I don’t want to go home. I have to be there at 4a.m. I don’t want her to die in pain. My mother was unlucky.”
His English was much clearer and advanced than the common localites of Singapore. I snubbed Abhi the moment I sensed his discomfort. My husband happened to be a generous and a no-nonsense figure, who could initiate conversation with the most nondescript passersby, and hence left me in fritters. Nevertheless, Abhi could not stop himself this time too.
“Are you angry about something, sir?” he began much to my dismay.
“You know…la (in the local term)…they don’t worry. They call and they cancel later. I don’t need their money. I have enough la… I have sons and daughters to look after me. Just see how they want to die…”, he gestured out at a group of bikers, driving fast and rash.
“Singapore…they have fines and rules. Still they bike fast and die. I am driving more years than their age.”
“What’s your age, sir?” Abhi asked.
“Oh! I am sixty eight years old”, Mr. X replied in a tone that reflected his superiority in age and experience. I assumed he was an arrogant man.
“So how long have you been driving cabs…I mean how many years? I guess someone is unwell at your home…”, Abhi asked with a pause.
“You will be surprised. This is the thirty fifth year”. Suddenly he sounded melancholic and yet there was an overtone. I saw him holding the steering wheel like it was a possession. He withdrew answering Abhi’s second query. I could see his eyes in the back view mirror. They were small and inexpressive, sloppy and wrinkled.
“Oh, it took me years to master the skill of driving. I can blind drive into any lane of Singapore now. You can just rely on my road sense. In fact I see you are not very comfortable that I am talking.” He suddenly turned around with a jerk and in a loud spit of laughter, he turned front again. “Don’t worry…la…I was awarded the best driver title in 2008.”
Abhi and I were taken aback. Was he jocular or was a sarcastic humbug? Or else, was he a crack-pot? I chewed my lips and checked his moves. He seemed to be a steady and safe driver. Though he certainly was a bragger, there was something ominously striking about his presence. His expression didn’t match his sentiments, an example of which he had demonstrated five minutes back.
“My father was a Chinese merchant. He bought and sold fishes, a variety of them. He also had a farm. He would supply buffaloes to cart pullers. I had, for long, admired him who was somehow making our lives happy. His profits were not high and his expenses were much. My mother was a craftswoman…an artist. My siblings and I went to a local school. I used to hate our friends who would call my father names. I thought he was a nice man. But he was a bugger. He ditched my mother…” He sounded coarse and malicious now. “…He was once seen with a woman in one of his private chambers. People later found that he was a merchandiser of the flesh trade. He was a bloody pimp!”
I held to my seat, rolling around my fingers the accessory that flew out of my handbag. I was gradually getting curious as Abhi continued chatting.
“You wouldn’t know la…how sad I was the day my father married his third wife. My mother, his first one, was a tortured ass by then and only guarded her five children.”
I was aghast.
“We are seventeen siblings in all. I remember my father selling off my two elder sisters; one at a port and the other to a goldsmith. Sometimes I want to find them. I think I will not recognize them even if I meet them somewhere. They were my closest. My mother is dead now. I could not do much for her. As a tribute to her art, my children, my wife and I organised an exhibition of her works. We gave the money to an old-age home.”
I kept staring at the back view mirror. His eyes were no different from what I had seen a while back. It struck me that the story might have been repeated often, for there never seemed to be a hint of any displeasure, wrath or remorse in his expressions.
Abhi was silent now. He didn’t intend to dig out painful chapters of a man’s very personal life. He looked out of the window in depletion. And Mr. X continued.
“…But I didn’t let my life sink la…I went to Australia, did my Masters in Communication and freed my mother from the bugger. She was in tatters then and I had to take her away in the darkness” “You know, in all these years of taxi driving, I didn’t let any lady sit in front…next to me. This is for my wife, Ann. I love her so much. Do you see this? It is for her”. He caressed his pendant that read the alphabet, ‘A’. “She is in the hospital now. She is fighting cancer and has an operation in another three hours from now. I have promised I would be with her. My hands don’t move now. I am afraid of the outcome.”
He smiled a sad smile, which Abhi told me later was not to be and that I had just imagined it.
I still tried to read his eyes. He held an unruffled gaze fixated on the route he had to take to reach us home. We were entering the Xilin Tampines Exit now en route to our home in Changi. I assumed he was stone-like or else a strange man to have not shown a trigger of emotion while shuffling back his pages of life.
Abhi took my hands in his. He was feeling the burn more than I was.
“Ann brought up my children; two sons and a daughter. She stood by me when I lost my job. She has sacrificed a lot. She is not very educated and she used to cry when she had failed to get a job. My eldest son is a doctor in New York and my other son is a journalist in Australia. They are married and have children. My grandsons love me. My daughter is a student of psychiatry, also in Australia. They make me feel special. They pulled me out of my bad finances. My father came searching for me, I don’t know why. My step brothers set my taxi on fire. My daughter bought me this one.”
Mr. X grasped his mobile phone from the dashboard and clicked open an image. “This is my daughter. Click left la…and those are my grandsons.” His chest doubled with pride.
He shared a grin. I saw his eyes squeeze more into closure. “I have lots of money. I had a job here. I own a house too. I go to New Zealand with Ann for vacations. She is a delicious cook. Once I had told her that I would love to remain fit all my life. So I have always been driving taxi as a pass time. Even now that I am a retired man. I don’t do it in the nights though. I am a successful man. But today I am sad…I cannot fight it out for her.”
He wavered and dangled between agony and ecstasy…between arrogance and pride…between past and present. His spattered and disjointed sentences threw me into disarray. I stared blankly into the back view mirror and imagined the whirl of events he had just narrated. I was hit by a strange conflict.
The cab stopped at our apartment. Abhi, as he paid the fare off, shook hands with Mr. X.
“Sir, congratulation! You have lived through strongly. I am sure your wife shall be fine. God is kind to the brave”, assured Abhi. I could see my sentimental husband leaning in appreciation and respect. Abhi had always been the more vocal between the two of us.
“Would you like to advise us? We are the family way.”
“Oh, congratulation!” Mr. X said with sheer humility and sobriety, “ Be honest always. Don’t be like my father.” He flashed the indicator of his LimoCab and sped along the lobby path. In a snap of a finger I saw SH 8214H fading into anonymity again. My disparate reading of his eyes failed me to understand what they meant to pass over. He was a stranger to us…and so shall he remain always.
For days to come, thereafter, the conflict banged in my insides. The incompletion of Mr. X’s dialogues with Abhi drew patchy pictures in my mind. I put together the threads that were not joined. I was destructively occupied with stories that had no reason for analysis and held to precursors and aftermaths. I thrived to know what Mr. X was and what his stories meant to instigate in us, what God’s plan was. Being a bad orator, I didn’t approve of reflecting my ideas or being vocative of my thoughts. While Abhi flapped its emotional aspect, mine was psychological. Had he really braved the atrocities of his life? Were the episodes real at all? I danced in dilapidation. One, he could be a marvel; a man of character who dismantled the woes his father bred. Or else, he would be the escapist, who has built his own mirage and broken his castle of guilt…a failure in view of relationships and morality, much like his father.
I chose to be with my first score…an optimistic deconstruction of the man who drove SH 8214H, a number plate now ingrained in my heart and mind.
Mr. X, to me, is the representative of a mass of workers we barely like to be audience to. We, the people, in all our sophistication, tag them coarse and brash. Mr. X is the realisation that there certainly are things to learn from them…that in all their eccentricities they too have a genuinity.