Homeward Bound

The weary wheels clattered on the cobbled street. The uneven paver blocks making them yo-yo in and out of gaps. The streets of Mumbai city are a veritable nightmare of potholes and uneven surfacing. But, the un-tarred by lanes are another story altogether. They are just narrow streets paved with cement paver blocks to create the semblance of a road. It was over one such street late at night that Ahmed was manoeuvring his age beaten taxi cab that he fondly called ‘Meri Jaan’.

Like his taxi Ahmed too was old, presenting an age wizened visage. He had spent all his life driving cabs and ferrying people to their destinations. Now at the age of seventy when he should ideally be retired, he was still working. When people asked him why he still drove although his arthritis occasionally plagued him, he would reply, “Driving is all I know. I started driving at the age of twenty. I started out as a driver initially and served a few Sahibs*. Gradually I saved up enough money to buy this taxi fifteen years back. Since then, I and Meri jaan have been inseparable. If I do not drive, I don’t know what I will do. It’s all I know.”

This was true. Ahmed had lost his wife and companion Mehrunisa a few years back. Since her death chatting up the occasional customer was the only interaction he had with another being. He missed her terribly. So many things in his life still brought back her memories. The smell of a freshly made Chapatti*, the scent of jasmine’s that had been her favourite flower and even at times the muezzin’s* call for azan* in the early hours of the morning. Even though she had passed, Ahmed felt her presence every day in the smallest of things. Her memories were his constant companion now.

They had raised three children together, two boys and a girl. His children were now educated and settled abroad pursuing their dreams & raising families of their own. They occasionally visited but over the years the gaps between each visit had lengthened. Not that Ahmed ever complained. After all he had fulfilled his duty as a parent. He had provided for them and educated them and set them on a path for life. Now that they were following the path he had shown, he had no regrets. His children called frequently and thanks to technology Ahmed could see his beloved grandchildren grow up. That was enough for him. He was a man of few needs.

He had visited his sons abroad once but had soon grown restless. They had wanted him to relocate and settle with them. But, he could not bear to be parted from the familiarity of the memories that Mumbai city held. Hence, he had returned back. Mumbai city had been his home all throughout his life. It was all he ever knew and all that made him happy.

Ahmed did not really need the money that he made driving his taxi. He only drove for the sake of keeping busy & engaged. He had saved some money in his life and had shrewdly invested most of it so that it generated a tidy monthly income. He could easily sit home and enjoy his retirement following pursuits that interested him. But, he still drove. When his wife had been alive and his children had been younger, they had lived in a tiny house just outside of the city, in rustic environs. But, after his wife passed away, he had shifted into a smaller one bedroom house, in a housing complex. There were too many memories in the old house and without Mehrunisa, he could not bear to stay there.

Constant loneliness at times took its toll and Ahmed tended to brood over how life had once been. Of late he had been tiring more. His age beleaguered joints ached often. They groaned and protested after a long day’s labour. Age was taking a toll on him. Now a days he avoided long trips but today the plight of a girl stranded in the rain had brought out his fatherly instinct and had led him to drop her off at a distant suburban location. Now he felt bone tired. His wearied body demanded rest. Today he missed Mehrunisa more than ever.

“Let’s go home Meri Jaan. I am tired. Take me home”, he mumbled under his breath starting the taxi after dropping the girl.

Lost in his thoughts whilst driving he did not realize when his taxi inadvertently turned on to the road that led to his old home. Or was it that Meri Jaan had sensed his mood & turned her wheels? Was it her that realized that he needed the familiarity of his old environs today? That nostalgia was threatening to engulf him and he needed solace?

Well, Meri Jaan it must have been for before Ahmed realized, he was parked in front of his old home. The familiarity of the surroundings brought about a fresh wave of nostalgia. He sat in his taxi, clutching the steering wheel in an attempt to control his emotions.

“Oh Meri Jaan what have you done? Why have you brought me here? I asked you to take me home?” he said to his taxi. “Today is Mehrunisa’s death anniversary, is that why you have brought me here?” he asked resting his forehead on the steering wheel. A tear escaped his heavy lid and slid slowly down his wrinkled cheek. In the silence of the night something in the taxi creaked, probably a loose nut or a hinge. But, it seemed as if Meri Jaan was answering, trying to answer and coax Ahmed’s mood.

“All right, all right, you wily old girl! I hear you. You won’t leave me be, I know. I’ll get out now”, he said to Meri Jaan.

Straightening up in the driver’s seat he opened the door of the taxi and got out. For a minute he just stood there looking at his old home. Memories lashed at him, they tugged at his heartstrings. He closed his eyes momentarily to ward off the sudden onset of nostalgia. It feels weird to say so but he could literally smell the past. The jasmine bush planted so long ago by his wife, still thrived by the front door. The sweet scent of Jasmine’s wafted in the night breeze to tantalize his nostrils, gently prodding at the slew of memories.

When he opened his eyes again a kaleidoscope of old and happy memories played before his eyes. He could see his wife opening the front door for him when he would come back from work. He could visualize his son’s running out of the house carrying a ball to go play catch in the park around the corner. He turned to gaze upon the old Neem tree that still stood in the yard. Oh! How his daughter had clamoured for a swing till he had hung one of Meri Jaan’s old tyres by a sturdy rope to one of the tree’s boughs. His daughter had been ecstatic. Her beauteous smile had lit up his days then. The memory brought a smile to his face.

Ahmed sighed. “Oh! Those were the days. Where did that time go? We were so happy in this house” he remembered mournfully.

Gingerly he walked the short distance to the fence that surrounded the tiny house. It and the house both stood in dilapidated neglect now. After his wife’s death Ahmed had not had the heart to part with it. He knew he could not continue to live in it too so he had left the place locked. 

Today, Meri Jaan had brought him to the one and only place that he had ever called home. Sure his new house was comfortable but it did not have the history that he shared with this one. 

Ahmed walked forward and unlatched the wooden gate, set into the wooden picket fence. His sons had helped him build both the gate and the fence when the fancy to raise chickens had struck Mehrunisa. He chuckled at the memory of his sons running after the hens, unsuccessfully trying to catch them. They would clamber all over the yard, twisting and turning their supple bodies trying to catch the hens. The hens had been clever, not once did they get caught. But, his sons never gave up trying. He remembered the first few days after they had bought the hens. Every morning, soon as the Rooster would crow, off his sons would rush to the hen coop to discover the freshly laid eggs. How delighted they had been with the discovery.

‘Oh! How heavenly the eggs had tasted, cooked by Mehrunisa’s”, he thought now gazing towards the spot where the hen coop had stood. After Mehrunisa’s death Ahmed had given away the birds to a relative in the village. They were too much work for him alone.

Ahmed turned his head to a spot just beyond the Neem tree. Yes, the wooden post was still there although the makeshift thatched shack next to it had long since fallen to the vagaries of nature. They had had a nanny (a female goat) that they used to tether to the post. The shack had been for her, built by his sons. The children had loved the goat and had fondly named her Billo. His wife would milk the goat every morning. Most of the times his daughter accompanied his wife but she shared a love-hate relationship with Billo. Billo was very possessive about Mehrunisa and refused to accept any female progeny of hers. Probably owing to her jealousy Billo had on a few occasions given his daughter a sound kick as she had attempted to hold together its hind legs during milking. The first time that happened, his daughter had sat on the ground in stupefied disbelief with a comical expression on her face. She was more astounded than hurt and her facial expression had been priceless. Ahmed had laughed uproariously much to the chagrin of his child. The memory of the incident brought a grin to his face now.

Billo had died soon after Mehrunisa passed away. The poor thing had probably been heartbroken, just like him.

Ahmed looked about his small property. Every where he looked, every corner, spoke only of happy memories and happy times spent there. The small veranda* that abutted the entrance door spoke of the many evenings he had spent savouring the taste of the hookah*. The house itself, the yard, the flower bush, the wooden pole, the thatched shack, the Neem tree; all evoked memories that he had forgotten to enjoy. They beckoned now with open arms, invited him to sink into their bosom and relive life anew.

Somehow, unbeknownst to him, from somewhere in his heart laughter bubbled. The house evoked memories of the antics of his children. They reminded him of how carefree and precious their childhood had been. Remembering all the precious mirthful incidents Ahmed now laughed out loud, a deep throaty rumble that before long had him clutching his stomach to keep from falling. The happy memoires kept assailing him. He laughed and laughed, finally collapsing on the ground in a heap of happiness.  

The sole tear of despair that had trickled down his cheek just a while back turned into tears of mirth & happiness. They now cascaded freely down his cheeks even as he attempted to keep them at bay. The assault of happy memories was perhaps just what he needed at this point in his lonely life.

Meri Jaan had uncannily sensed his need and truly brought him home.

***

Glossary

Sahiba polite title or form of address for a man (often a boss)
Chapatti(in Indian cooking) a thin pancake of unleavened wholemeal bread cooked on a griddle.
Muezzina man who calls Muslims to prayer from the minaret of a mosque.
Azanthe Muslim call to ritual prayer made by a muezzin from the minaret of a mosque
Verandaa roofed platform along the outside of a house, level with the ground floor
Hookahan oriental tobacco pipe with a long, flexible tube which draws the smoke through water contained in a bowl.

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Sonal Singh

Sonal Singh, an MBA in finance, is the Founder & director of a manpower search firm Rian Placements. She is passionate about travel and writing. She believes that life is an opportunity that knocks only once so we should make the most of it.

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