Meter Down

Meter Down

Present-day.
Suresh.

The package calls out to me. It sings to mine, its aura, warm and inviting. I can hardly keep my eyes off it while I drive the taxi. I gaze at the photograph of my wife above the rear view mirror and smile at it. I sneak a quick look at the package, pleased by its presence. I turn my eyes back to the road.

“Have we reached? My friend said it is very close to the station, not more than 10 minutes. We have been already driving for 15 minutes. I have got an interview, and I do not want to be late for it,” complained the passenger in my cab.

Passengers come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. Some ignore you, some want to confess their deep, dark secrets – as if he cared – and some, they’re suspicious of you. They watch you, hawk-eyed, and observe every minute detail. These were the kind of passengers that irk him the most. 

Backstreet drivers are the worst. Their constant criticisms are annoying. How far is it? You have cheated us. You have rigged the taxi meter. The fare cannot be so high. Ugh, I have heard it all. Seen it all. But these outsiders, they are the worst, and they carry a chip on their shoulder! One cannot live with them, cannot live without them. Still… 

“No, ma’am. We’ve been stuck in a traffic jam for the last 10 minutes. It will take us about five more minutes to reach the building. I wish you good luck with the interview.”

We reach the destination by the allotted time, and the lady rushes off nary a backward glance. I’m not fazed by it, and I turn the meter up as I slide out of the spot. 

I drive around in the city, taking in the sights, preoccupied. The siren-call of the package beckons me, demands my attention. It is not yet time, the ticking clock whispers to me. I park the cab on the curb side and pick the box up, ignoring the clock’s advice. I shake the box. I cannot hear a peep.

What could it be? Clothes? Oh, I cannot wait! What should I choose – promise or curiosity? Drat, curiosity wins. I need to see the contents now. 

As I am about to tear the wrapping paper off, a knock on the window startles me, and I drop the package.

Bhaiya, Dadar chaloge?”

I am cross, “Nahi. Nahin jaana hai.

“But you’re just parked here. I’m a hurry, please bhaiya, chalo na”.

“No. I’m waiting for a passenger.” The familiar lie comes to the rescue again.

My conscience goes into a full penance mode. I sigh and place the package back in the glove compartment – for the time being, ignored, yet coveted. The clock sighs with relief, and its ticking relaxes. 

7.00 pm is not very far. I am an adult. I am sure I can wait for another five hours.

The rest of the day passes – alternating between being busy and easy. I spend time watching the dwindling flora and fauna of the city. Time crawls, its face chortling, tilli-lilli-lilli

Finally, the ghadi-devi smiles upon me, and it is 7.00 pm. Excited, I tear open the wrapping paper to unveil another small box. Box within a box. Inquisitiveness gives way to disappointment when I discover the inner container possesses a letter. I read it. Vaishali has dispatched me on a treasure hunt! I have forgotten my earlier disappointment, and now, I am buzzed. 

I rev my taxi and drive off towards the next destination, Vile Parle. 

Yesterday.
Suresh.

“Suresh, I’ve got a gift for your birthday. To start with, make a promise to me!” said Vaishali, my wife.

“Ooh! Anything for you, my love.”

“No. Make a promise.”

“Okay, baba. I promise. I hope it won’t backfire like Kaikeyi’s promise.”

“Not funny. You can’t open my gift box till 7.00 pm, and you must do as it says.”

 “Why? Will it turn into a pumpkin? Or will I?”

 “Neither. Stop with the jokes. Promise na?”

“Okay, I promise, I won’t open it before time and will follow it. Now, may I go?”

“Yes. Happy Birthday, Suresh. Remember, not everything is as it appears.”

“My birthday is tomorrow, Vaishu.”

“Yes, I know. I wanted to wish you today, too.”

Aai used to say, wishing in advance is a sure-shot way to tempt mischief.”

Ho ho, and your aai is always right. Now, go!”

Our marriage took place a few months back, and we were still in our honeymoon phase. I have a feeling with my wife, I have punched above my weight, but I am not complaining about it. Remember, not everything is as it appears. Vaishali, my college-educated-wife, often sprouts such lines. My tenth-pass brain tunes her out during those times. Remember, not everything is as it appears. Bah. What does that even mean?

Present-day.
Suresh.

I race towards Vile Parle, breaking several signals. A challan for speeding is a surety. But I couldn’t care less. Challans are a way of life for a taxi driver. The second clue awaits me, to be handed in person by Vaishali.

The traffic is mind-boggling. It is normal for this hour of the evening. I fidget in my seat as I wait, wiping my forehead.

These twenty-odd kilometers feel like twenty-four hours. Sloths dawdle at faster speeds. Heck, penguins are quicker than this. 

I hit the steering wheel in frustration, attracting curious looks from fellow bumper-to-bumper-ites. A man nods in acknowledgment. Wariness infuses my smile. 

Ah, the traffic is moving again. Well, Happy Birthday, Suresh. The cars on the road are singing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song by honking for you. What an imagination! 

As I cross Chembur. I make a diversion to stop at Jhama sweets. I buy one kilogram of their boondi ladoos, Vaishali’s favourite. While waiting, I polish off a plate of their famous chole tikki

Jhama may be expensive, but they make the best chole tikka in this part of the town.  I will surprise Vaishali with the ladoos when we meet at Parle.

I try to call our landline once more, but there is no one answer. I assume Vaishali has already boarded the train. She had promised she would call before she left the house. It is possible she got late and forgot about it. A tiny flicker of worry germinates in my heart. I continue to drive down the chock-a-block road, driving, a euphemism. My phone stays in the co-driver seat in case my wife calls.  

The address mentioned in the letter leads me to a ramshackle, deserted shack. The makeshift structure acts as an ad-hoc garage for me. It is nothing but four bamboo sticks with a thatched roof. I park my taxi under it. I turn my meter down. I don’t want any interruptions from prospective clients harassing me for rides. I lean back and stretch my muscles. All this while I pray, the straw roof won’t collapse over me.

I start to look around me. On the opposite lane, there are slums. Some women are sitting outside, chatting. They look over at me. Prying eyes are full of questions. A few children are playing cricket under the aid of the lonely sentinel, a streetlight. I watch them with wary eyes, keeping a close eye on the ball.

This is getting weird. Vaishali’s letter said she would meet me here. It is already past 9.00 pm. Where is she? This is turning out to be one heck of a birthday.

My eyes stray to the Jhama sweet packet, hunger rendering me weak. I am tired – of driving, and now, waiting. Time may be ticking, but the wait is beginning to grate on my nerves. My phone trills. I pick it up. It is a message from an unknown number. The nascent germinated worry sprouts a radicle. 

Check under the driver seat. There is a letter waiting for you.

This message must be from Vaishali. She must have used someone else’s phone. She and her tricks, always pulling a fast one over me. But this is getting a bit too much.

I lean down to retrieve an envelope – it contains, as promised, a letter, written in a flowery hand by Vaishali. I start to read.  The words send shockwaves down my spine. I re-read to confirm my eyes haven’t deceived me.  No, it is true.

I must act fast. What should I do? How? 

I jump into action as I flung the cab door open, the sudden movement causing the letter to glide out of my hands and flutter away, the wind carrying it further. It goes unnoticed.  The ticking gets loud. And, louder. Loudest. It drowns my words as I try to warn the people around me. I have one leg out, screaming when the bomb explodes.

Vaishali, why? Aai… 

Investigation team.

The taxi lays burning with the area around, smouldering. The force of the blast has split it into two halves. The charred body of the taxi driver is found near the first section of the cab, partly hanging out. The resulting fire consumes the life of a young child, who had the misfortune to be fielding near the taxi when the bomb went off.  Several people are injured in the blast due to the shrapnel.

The bomb squad surrounds the taxi, and they determine the bomb was designed to detonate at night. It was rigged with a timer, ticking down the minutes. 

“Sir, a letter has been found near the slums. It probably flew out of the taxi before the blast. It mentions the previous attacks and warns of upcoming assaults,” said the bomb squad technician. He hands over a letter to the investigative officer.

Inspector Rahul starts to read it, with growing alarm.

Date: 26th November 2008.

My most-favourite-husband, 

The salutation of this letter may surprise you. But when you read the contents, it may make sense to you. 

Please forgive me, for I have tricked you. And lied to you. Let me start from the beginning. 

My name is not Vaishali. You are one of the several ‘husbands’ I have married in my line of work. I am part of a sleeper cell in Bombay, in place to spread terror and hatred. Our marriage of a few months was one of convenience as I needed a new cover after my last assignment. And you had the perfect one. Besides, being the wife of a taxi driver provided me with all the information about the city –  its routes, traffic hotspots. The kind of detailed knowledge that my handlers craved. Details that a taxi driver easily possesses. 

In the span of the few months that we were ‘married’, your nature blew me away. Your devotion to me was astounding. Your kindness. Your love, your everything. I have fallen in love with you. You got under my skin.

I am not the type to wax eloquence about my love for you, and I won’t. My only regret is my love for you, however strong, fell short when compared to my duty. And the same duty drove me to do what I did, to what I am doing. 

There are many attacks planned in Bombay for today. We hope they will continue for a week, if not more. Some of them have already been set into motion. The first strike would have been the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station and the surrounding areas and hotels. Many would die by gunshots wounds, and we hope the number crosses thousands.  But how does this concern you?

There is a bomb placed in the trunk of your cab, and it may explode in the next few minutes. I sent the SMS to you with the hope you will read it and move out of the taxi before the explosion.

This is my gift to you. This is my love for you. 

Happy Birthday, Suresh. It was not your fault. You were a pawn in my game of chess. And, I hope not a statistic in the death toll. 

Your loving wife,

Vaishali. 

PS: Your aai was right about the advance birthday wishes.

Inspector Rahul calls the control room about the blast and possibilities of further attacks.

The chyron on every television in the country flashes, “The iconic Taj hotel under attack from possible terrorists. Firing heard inside.” 

It had started.
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* Prompt: taxi driver; unknowingly marries a criminal; garage

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