The time is a little after 10 pm on a weekday. I am standing behind Lilvathi Hospital near Bandra Reclamation. The sky is hidden behind a cover of thick, dark clouds. Blackest black. No stars shine through. Not one little pinprick of interstellar cheer. I look to my right and see the red lights of the car fade, thin and then dissappear as the car turns around the corner and zips past the Barista outlet. My friend was going back home after an exhausting day at work and he had graciously agreed to drop me behind the hospital. I stepped out of the car near the HDFC ATM. We bid farewell and he pulled away his shoulders slumped and eyes drooping. He works too much, I thought. But then he has an Accent.
I withdrew some money and grimly waited for the machine to spit out the piece of waxy paper with my account balance printed on it. I read, frowned, crumpled, binned and stepped out. Next move: Catch an auto to Santa Cruz. My grandparents were expecting me for dinner. I looked at my watch. It was getting very late and I would definitely end up waking them up from bed. The society locked their gate up at night instead of hiring a watchman and my grandfather would have to stumble his way down to unlock the wrought iron gates. Sigh.
There was an auto parked outside the ATM. The driver slumped in his seat, his head resting on the back rest. A thin little man with a permanent sneer on his face rolled up in crumpled khakhi. The uniform was several sizes too large for him, the shirt bunched up in large folds around him. His feet stuck out of the auto pointing up at the sombre sky.
"Hmm..." The noise came from somewhere deep within him. From his belly perhaps. It rolled and rumbled up his throat. He tilted his head a mere one-thousandth of a degree to the left. He looked at me through the corner of one single eye. I perked up.
"Hmm...?" Same deep rumble. But his left eyebrow moved up a picometer. He sought clarification.
"Kalina. C.S.T Road..." He had to be interested, I pondered. It was a healthy thirty or forty buck trip. Down the road, around Lilavathi and back up the flyover to the highway. Surely not too close.
"C.S.T. Road? Hmm... Kahaan?"
I readjusted the strap of my laptop on my shoulder uncomfortably.
I see. One of those intellectual auto drivers. The type who seemed to be stuck driving autos while they really wanted to be poets or artists and the like. The ones who were choosy about their trips. I had met the type before. Outside my old office building in BKC. Nothing short of a Mira Road or Bhayander would make them even budge from their slump.
(Henceforth the conversation will be transcribed in English. In public interest only.)
"C.S.T. Road jee. Near the signal when you come down the road from Hyatt."
"Hyatt? The one near the airport?"
"No. The one near Kalina. The big one. Off the highway."
"There are two Hyatts?"
"Yes. I want to go to the one near Kalina."
"Any landmark near there?"
I thought. Of course. I have been an idiot.
"Elder brother my destination is bang opposite the gate to the University."
He sat up a fraction of an inch.
"University? That is in South..."
"No brother. The one in Kalina. Near Hyatt. On C.S.T. Road. I know the way."
He looked into the distance.
"I have been there many times. Never seen this University gate. This hotel is big?"
By now I was sure I would have to guide him every twist and turn of the way to my grandparents' place.
The minutes ticked away. They would be most displeased! I looked up and down the road. Not a person in site. Not one auto. There was a taxi. But not with that bank account. Unaffordable.
"Brother. I know the way from here. Perfectly."
"Oh. Ok. How do you go normally?"
"From here back to the highway over the flyover. Then turn off at Hyatt and down to the signal. It is just near the signal."
"You can go through BKC also no?"
"Yes that is also equally far away. Not much difference."
"So let us go then?"
(Back to Hindi)
"Nahi saab. Passenger hai. Main waiting kar raha hoon..." He pointed at the meter. It was down.
I seethed. I could have head-butted him in the chest just then. But then being the resilient mumbaikar that I am, the one with the indomitable spirit and the limitless ability to bounce back from adversity I stepped back, smiled to myself and walked away.
I got another auto after twenty minutes. I was still smiling when I reached Kalina.