[All characters in this story are fictional and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.]
On a crisp afternoon in Navsari, Rajesh had a ticklish problem. An urgent business call from Mumbai required him to hit the highway and make a road trip from Navsari to Mumbai. He hated the idea of his brand new Skoda being handled by anyone else, but a nagging backache won over his customary aversion. He decided to hire a driver.
All of his preferred drivers were unavailable. Lately, all the drivers in and around Navsari had been content sitting on a gold mine of NRIs visiting once a year. The rest of the year they frittered away their time twiddling their thumbs, chewing tobacco and chitchatting.
Frustrated and subdued, Rajesh decided to call Jignesh at his native village Vartej.
Vartej, a modern village on the banks of the river Ambica, boasts of a legion of entrepreneurs who had made it good. Scores of young, intelligent boys had worked their way up and acquired enviable qualifications from reputed Institutions like M. S. University and the likes, and then they were off, inevitably, to the “States”. Rajesh Mehta was one such budding entrepreneur. Of course, the older generation who opted to remain rooted in the village had no complaints. The fertile land yielded a bountiful produce of mangoes and chikoos.
Burning with a patriotic surge, Rajesh decided not to stay back in the US and return toed India to build his career.
Jignesh, on getting a frantic call from his best buddy Rajesh, bellowed on his mobile phone, using all the locally preferred vocabulary at his command.
“Where the hell have you been, so********h?
“Listen Jigaa, you can go ballistic on me later, but right now I need some help.”
“Why would you think this blessed Jigaa is free to help you out whenever you feel the urge, you b*****d? You didn’t even care to attend my sister’s wedding last month.”
“Just listen to me Jigaa, I have a serious problem…”
“It is always a serious matter with you. Have you finished off someone? Or has Bhabhi asked for a divorce, or ….?”
“Shut up you m*********r, and listen. I have to reach Mumbai by tonight and no driver is free. There is this important meeting with an American client in the early hours tomorrow and I cannot afford to miss it.”
“Why, in the first place, don’t you get behind the steering wheel of your beloved Skoda, you buddhu?
“Look, there is no time to explain but my goddamned back is playing up and I don’t trust drivers,” pleaded Rajesh
“So, you think this good for nothing Jigaa will drive you all the way to Mumbai?”
“Jigaa please, this is important, I cannot trust any other guy to drive my new Skoda.”
“Aahaa, there you go! So you want me to be your driver? So that you can suitably impress your new client?”
“Come on, you vagabond, I will buy you a bottle of the best foreign brand on our way back.”
Jigaa mellowed. “Well, that is interesting. Anything more?”
“Whatever you say.”
“Haaro, bhervaaylo…” Jignesh muttered. (“I’ve got the rascal cornered.”)
“Done” Jignesh relented. “Drive up to Vartej and I will take over from here.
“Saalaa h********r, bevdaa, ok. I will be there by 6 pm. The matter settled, Rajesh felt it was safe to vent.
“I’ll deal with you when you get here, smartass.” Jignesh threatened as he hung up.
All conversations in this green, fertile region tended to be bawdy, especially among boys, men and sometimes even in a mixed company of men and women. ‘City-bred’ men who steered away from it were objects of subtle humiliations.
Having got his deal, Rajesh frantically packed his bag, clothes, the suit, the ties, his laptop, everything. “Must not forget those CDs to play in the car,” Rajesh reminded himself, “and don’t forget the CD with all the Bollywood ‘item’ songs for that rowdy Jigaa…”
Rajesh threw his bags into the trunk of Skoda and set on course to Vartej, about 10 kilometres from Navsari. But for the onset of a backache he would have driven to Mumbai himself. Anyway, now that he would be in Mumbai, he could check with his schoolmate Dr. Dhiraj at Nanavati Hospital to see if he could do something about this blessed nagging backache. He had not been behind the wheel for almost a week.
“My back is not so bad after all,” Rajesh comforted himself as he took the car out. Perhaps he could drive all the way to Mumbai himself, if Jigaa threw any new tantrums.
Hitting the state highway, immersed in thoughts, he almost dashed into a herd of buffaloes coming his way. As he just managed to screech to a halt, the large head of a buffalo appeared pressed against the window. “Saala, sab bhoomi Gopal ki,” he muttered but there was no one in the car to appreciate or rebuke him for his sarcastic comment. His wife would have been quick to pounce on Rajesh and admonish him for being so uncivilized.
Damn. Did the buffalo make a scratch on the body of the car?
Luckily no further incident occurred along the way to Vartej. As he swung into the village, he saw an ambulance parked outside Jigaa’s house. The old-fashioned houses in the villages were lined up so close to one another that it was hard to guess where the patient might be.
He parked his Skoda some distance away from the ambulance and apprehensively walked towards Jignesh’ house.
He didn’t have to guess any longer. Jignesh himself emerged from the house, carefully ducking his head under the low upper frame of the door.
“Oh Rajia, my old man suddenly got a stroke and he has to be shifted to Parsi Hospital in Navsari right away. Nothing much to worry, this is the third time it has happened. The ambulance is already here and we will take care.” Jignesh rattled off without a pause.
“Oh my God, I am so sorry…”
“No, no, don’t worry, we have lots of help around. He will be fine and you should not miss your business appointment in Mumbai. I have spoken to Nirav-taad. He is here on his annual pilgrimage to India and has to catch a flight to New York tonight. So you can go with him. I am sorry but I could not find a good driver for you, but at least you’ll have good company,” declared Jignesh, the savior.
Rajesh looked around, saw Jignesh’s family members and other onlookers standing around nonchalantly, as if the ambulance was a part of some daily routine. Any kind of such incident usually caused a ripple of excitement and provided a chance to the people to gather and gossip.
He mumbled something appropriate to them and apologized for having to rush to Mumbai.
“Hey, Guria, go with Rajesh kaka and lead him to Nirav-taad’s house, quick…” Jignesh with a characteristic disdain, motioned to a boy who was almost stationed there by design.
No further need for formalities. Rajesh walked over to Nirav’s house to see him all packed up for the 15-hour flight to New York. Jignesh had arranged everything for him in the hour of his own crisis!
Nirav, a 35-something lanky guy, known by his nickname Nirav-taad (Nirav-tall-as-a-palm), in Vartej, walked around the house with a slouch. His overuse of ‘all right’ rather than ‘ok’ betrayed his British background. In fact, as Rajesh discovered later, his diction seemed to be in transition from the British English to American English and that sounded awkwardly hilarious. Rajesh was surprised that he didn’t know of Nirav despite being from the same village. He easily guessed why Nirav’s pet name had the suffix ‘taad’ – it was to distinguish him from several other Niravs in the village.
“They may have coined a suffix for me too, these country guys,” he chuckled to himself.
“Betaa, chaal, next time you must bring Nisha with you. She must be feeling lonely out there,” Nirav’s parents displayed the normal traits of overtly concerned old parents who returned to their roots after making oodles of money abroad.
“Haa, haa” Nirav merely nodded his head. The idea of both he and his wife of them visiting India was absurd.
Rajesh politely declined the customary offer of tea and looked at Nirav to signal him to hurry up. The ride to Mumbai airport, that, in an ordinary situation Rajesh would have enjoyed, could turn out to be quite different with this unknown character called Nirav.
“I will just keep playing the CDs so he wouldn’t have much time to talk. I know these guys. They just think all young people who live in small towns/ villages in India are nuts and vainly try to impress them with how different it is “over there” in the US, Rajesh thought to himself, planning out the whole trip.
Little did he know what lay before them.
(To be continued)