An Unforgettable Encounter

Kolkata, 1999 Gurcharan Singh tapped his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel while his sharp eyes kept darting between the road and the faded watch on his wrist. It was already noon and still there was no sign of any passenger. “Waheguru!” he sighed in frustation. “What’ll happen to my Guddan? Only two weeks left for her wedding and here I am still struggling to procure the last lot of the dowry. Oh, help me Babaji, please!” As if in answer to his prayers, a raspy female voice called. “Sardarji?! Gurcharan jumped. He turned to find a woman peeking at him through the window of the passenger door.  “Yes didi?” He asked expectantly, barring his gutkha coated teeth.  “Tollyguange please,” said she pushing open the door. Gurcharan couldn’t have been happier. A long distance fare was just what he needed. Turning the key in the ignition, he asked, “Where in Tollyguange didi?” “Oh to the Bharatlaxmi Studios. You know where it is, right? I’ve to reach by one,” she said anxiously. “No worries didi.” He revved up the engine deftly maneuvering his way through the busy traffic signals. And true to his word, pulled up in front of the studios well before time. While he fumbled for the sheet of meter rates, he saw his passenger alight. The next moment, she was standing by his door. “Could you please wait for me Sardarji? I’ll be back soon.” Gurcharan hesitated.  “Look, I’ve come here for an audition. I know all the procedure. It shouldn’t take more than half an hour. I’ll pay you by the meter. Please!” she pleaded. Standing in broad daylight now, Gurcharan got a full look at his passenger. Clad in a peach chiffon saree with her long tresses cascading down her back, she seemed to be somewhere in her early thirties. And though her face was devoid of any make up, her full rosy lips coupled with large almond eyes could send any man’s heart racing let alone fetching a role.  Gurcharan gulped. “Ok didi. But please make it quick.” “Yes, yes.” Waving her hands, she soon disappeared behind the large iron gates.  Gurcharan leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. It was not a bad day after all, he reflected. By Waheguru’s grace, he would be making quite a dough today it seemed. Maybe he could now purchase that green lehenga he’d been eyeing for so long in the neighborhood shop. Oh how beautiful his little Guddan would look ! Gurcharan smiled dreamily.  He was not smiling an hour later. In fact, Gurcharan was scowling hard. Where had the wretched woman disappeared? By God, if she didn’t return within five minutes, he would go inside. How could a gentle looking woman just leave without paying her due? Gurcharan was just about to go looking for her when he saw her hurrying towards him. He stepped out immediately and lashed at her. “Didi what is this? You said…” “I know, I know. But what could I do?” She countered agitatedly. “They said there’s no audition going on here. Just kept leading me into circles.” Gurcharan gaped at her in confusion. “Are you sure about this audition?” “Of course I am! I’d seen the advertisement in newspaper. Or else why would I come?”  The way she looked at him, Gurcharan felt like a dimwit. Anyway, that was not his business. He said as politely as he could, “Didi please pay my fare. I have to go.” Instantly, her eyes widened with dismay. “Oh, please! They said there’s another studio nearby. If you take me there, I could try my luck.” Her glistening eyes tugged at his heart. “Alright,” he sighed. “Get in.” Ignoring the way her face brightened instantly, he glanced at her in the rare view mirror and asked grumpily, “Do you know the address?” She fidgeted with her pallu as she turned to look outside. “Well we can.. ..umm....ask someone on the way.” Gurcharan swore under his breath. He should have known. He indeed was a dimwit! Though a few enquiries here and there led them to two more studios in the vicinity, unfortunately each ended with the same fate. Moreover, negotiating unruly vehicles whizzing around in every plausible trajectory along with the increasing crowd had started taking a toll on Gurcharan. Exasperated he finally said, “Look, it’s no use moving around in such maddening circles. Please give my payment and get down here. I really need to rush now.” “But how can I return without giving my audition?” she exclaimed from the back seat. “Here look at this.” She pointed at the large duffel bag tugged under her arm. Gurcharan noticed it for the first time now. “Do you know what I’ve got here? Jewels!” Her eyes gleamed like diamond. “Yes and I’ll pay you however much you wish.” A shiver of cold ran down his spine. Dumbfounded, Gurcharan gaped at her. What was she? A thief or a mad woman? Or was she setting him into some trap? Gurcharan wiped his face, he was profusely sweating now. He looked at her and said in a firm voice, “Please get down. Now! I don’t need your money or jewels.” Fear crept across her face and she turned to look outside the window. Dusk had already descended and except for a few dimly lit shops, there were not much people milling around. “How can you leave me here?” she cried out. “How will I go home?” Gurcharan counted to ten. Waheguru! Whose face had he seen early in the morning? How did he get saddled with this woman? “Ok! Then tell me your address,” he said harshly. “I’ll take you home.” “Address? Well it’s by the..the..” again she fidgeted with her pallu. Having exhausted all his patience, Gurcharan now barked at her. “See? You can’t even tell me where your home is. Now get down fast or I’ll throw you out!” She flinched as if been struck. Then clutching the bag tightly to her chest, she alighted on quivering feet. From the corner of his eyes, he saw her trudging towards the lone lamp post in the distance. “There goes a day of my hard earned money!” Gurcharan spat on the ground. “And a good riddance too!” Relieved, he sped off in the opposite direction. Without casting another glance at the desolate figure slumped under the lamp post. “Shit!” Gurcharan cursed as he brought the taxi to a screeching halt. A second more and he would have missed the red light at the traffic signal. ‘All because of that woman!’ he thumped his fist angrily on the steering wheel. ‘Why doesn’t she leave me alone?’ Maybe she’s in trouble,’ a voice whispered from inside. ‘She didn’t seem to be herself. You shouldn’t have left her there!’ The voice was getting stronger now. ‘What if something happens to her? Will you be able to forgive yourself?’ Tormented by his gnawing conscience, Gurcharan took a complete ‘U turn’ as soon the light changed to green. ‘Rab rakha!’ he chanted while driving at break neck speed. It took him a little less than thirty minutes to reach the spot where he had left her. But the sight that met his eyes only made his blood boil with anger. A group of rowdy young men had surrounded the helpless woman and they were leering at her in their inebriated state.  “Hey you! Leave her alone, you rascals!” Gurcharan roared. The men took one look at the tall robust Sikh striding in their direction and swiftly took to their heels.  Gurcharan ran towards the woman who was now sitting on the ground weeping loudly. He crouched down besides her and immediately checked for her bag. Thank God, it looked intact.  “Are you alright?” he asked with concern.  Her tearful gaze was the only answer he got. Overcome with guilt, he took her hand and gently guided her towards the comfort of his taxi.  As he sat thinking about the next course of action, suddenly an idea sprung. Waheguru! Why hadn’t he thought of it before? It was a long shot but unfortunately the only one available to him right now. Gurcharan started the engine. The night had turned balmy with a half moon hanging low in the sky. It looked as if the city of joy was about to turn in early tonight. With less traffic and congestion on the road, he reached his destination early. “Didi! You can get down here,” said he. She looked puzzled. For one full minute, she sat still scanning her surroundings. Finally, she alighted. This time she swung the bag loosely over one arm and started walking towards the small gate of the residential complex.  It was here that Gurcharan had picked her up earlier in the afternoon. No sooner did he see her lithe form disappear behind one of the buildings, Gurcharan jumped outside and started following her. He moved cautiously while maintaining a respectable distance from her. With each step that she took, Gurcharan felt his heart pound louder.   Finally, he trailed her into a narrow staircase that led them all the way upto the fourth floor. There were only two flats situated on this floor. She stopped in front of the first and pressed the doorbell. Gurcharan waited with bated breath. Soon the door opened and out came an elderly couple. “Tanu! My child,” they exclaimed in unison. “Where have you been? We’ve been searching for you the whole day. We were just about to go to the police beta…” Tanu didn’t bother answering her parents. Like a robot, she walked past them in silence. Gurcharan who had been watching the entire drama from down the stairs now chose to make his presence known.  “Umm..Meshomosai?!” He gestured towards the father. “Actually, I’m the one who brought her here.” Gurcharan stared at the old man. Ever since he had finished telling his tale, Meshomoshai seemed to have aged exponentially in front of his eyes. Horror and disbelief was writ large on his face. Gurcharan cleared his throat. “I don’t know if you believe me or not but this is exactly the way things happened. I brought her here because I guessed this is where she lives. I didn’t think about money then, only her safety mattered. But now that you are here, I think you should pay me.” “Oh yes, yes…definitely!” The man seemed to have finally found his voice. “You’ve been a Godsent. If it weren’t for you, my Tanu..” he chocked. Then recovering himself swiftly, he said, “Please come inside.” Gurcharan was dead tired when he finally reached his home. As he parked his taxi in the small courtyard, he saw Guddan through the small window. She was sitting on the small charpoy in her room, her head bent and eyes furrowed in deep concentration. On hearing the horn, she glanced up and looked straight into her father’s eyes. Even from this distance, Gurcharan saw her face clouding with tension as she hastily shuffled something before coming outside.  “Bauji!” She greeted him with a warm smile.  Gurcharan felt instantly suspicious but chose to mask it for the time being. He took her warmly in his arms and asked for a glass of water. As Guddan ran into the kitchen, he swiftly strode towards her room. In one quick movement, he yanked the bedsheet off. A pen and a bunch of papers were lying on the tattered mattress. ‘So this is what she’s been up to! Don’t know why she’s preparing for the damn entrance exam when her wedding is just a few days away.’ Gurcharan felt thoroughly irritated. On hearing his daughter’s approaching footsteps, he quickly spread the bedsheet over her hidden treasure and exited from her room.  At night, as he lay in bed staring at the ceiling, Gurcharan thought about the strange incidences that had unfolded that day. Again and again, his mind went back to Tanu’s story. “As you can see, she is our only child,” said Meshomosai, leaning back in his chair. “God had not only endowed her with beauty but some exceptional skills as well. Acting was one of them. She excelled at it and wanted to take it up as a career. We, however, were not very comfortable with the idea. You see, we hail from middle class background. Acting is not for us. We tried dissuading her but she remained adamant. Finally, we thought that marriage was the only way out. So, without further ado we started looking for suitable alliances. We chose the best but,” he sighed. “I guess somethings are just not meant to happen.” “Tanu didn’t have a happy marriage. She was dissatisfied and it led to troubles and later abuse. When I finally brought her home, I could clearly see that my daughter was gone. I didn’t recognize this girl anymore. She started behaving so differently. Going out without informing any of us, sometimes carried the bag of jewels, at other times I found her chatting with random strangers….it just got more and more weird and today…” he shuddered. “Did you take her to see a doctor?” asked Gurcharan. “A doctor? Why would I take her to a doctor? My daughter’s not mad.” He exclaimed furiously. “No of course not!” Gurcharan said gently. “But he might be able to help her. Don’t you wish your daughter to lead a happy life? I think she’s depressed. She needs help.” “He’s absolutely right,” said his wife from the other end of the room. “Finally someone resonated with my thoughts. I’ll take her tomorrow itself if you don’t!” Gurcharan had been taken aback by the ferocity and determination in the woman’s voice. ‘Only a mother can do this for her child!’ he thought. But Guddan didn’t have a mother. So what? She had him as a father and he would do what was best for her.  And Gurcharan knew exactly where his daughter’s happiness lay! New Delhi, 2019 It’s really commendable that your parents took you to the doctor right on time especially since mental health issues were a taboo twenty years back! You were indeed fortunate to have such progressive parents.” Tanima Roy, veteran theatre artist and founder of ‘Healing Minds’, smiled amusedly at her host. Clad in a sleek black suit and bob cut hair, she oozed out confidence and vigour. Each question that she threw at her was packed with matter and logic. But what could Tanu tell her? That more than her parents it was a stranger who threw light in her dark tunnel and inspired them to seek help? Hell, she didn’t even know his name or where he lived. Yet not a single day passed when she didn’t pray for her savior’s well being. Presently Tanu cleared her throat and started in her most professional tone, “Yes and it was them who encouraged me to start my own institution,” she said. “To make people aware of…..” Guddan gazed at her guest, half hearing what she was saying. Never had she come across a woman who chose to bare her personal issues on national television. It was indeed an honor to be interviewing her. This was definitely a pinnacle in her journalistic career. Guddan fervently hoped that her dear Bauji was watching this. Kolkata  Gurcharan was seated in front of the large LED TV fitted into the wooden panel of his drawing room. He glanced wearily at Tanima’s familiar form and then shifted his rheumy eyes to his daughter. He didn’t know anything about theatres or artists. All he knew at that moment was that his daughter was interviewing a famous personality. Tears of pride started flowing down his hollow cheeks. ‘Waheguru! Hadn’t I cancelled Guddan’s wedding that day and handed her all the dowry money for higher education, she wouldn’t be sitting on the stage right now nor would I be here watching her! Thank you Babaji for sending me that passenger who helped open my eyes! Please bless her too babaji. Rab rakha! Rab rakha!” Glossary :
  1. Sardarji – a form of address
  2. Meshomosai – a bengali term used to address elders
  3. Didi - sister

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