By the time Rajesh’ beloved Skoda hit the outskirts of Vartej, as much as thirty valuable minutes were lost since he entered the village. The turn of events hadn’t exactly been exhilarating, and now he had this gawky character Nirav for company!
“Shi…” he almost muttered aloud.
“Any problem, bhai?” volunteered the gawky one.
“Well, no, it is a lousy time of the day to drive out on a village road. You can push your seat back and relax, brother,” suggested Rajesh, the epitome of etiquette.
Rajesh soon realized Nirav was not to be taken lightly. He would make him talk.
The road to the interstate highway passed through a lush green patch of land No one said anything.
Right at the end of the village road there was an oversized speed-breaker that escaped Rajesh’ attention and he was just able to bring the car almost to a complete halt. The low speed at which the car negotiated the bump still had enough juice in it to cause Nirav’s head to hit the ceiling.
“Oh shucks, I am sorry. Hope it didn’t hurt,” Rajesh showed his concern, except that his own back hurt.
“It’s all right er… ok bhai. Be careful on these lousy highways of our country,” Nirav responded, gently rubbing his scalp.
“Not to worry, we are about to hit the national highway and it is superb, like an air strip, better than some of your turnpikes,” Rajesh found himself defending the ungainly speed-breaker. Had there been any other local co-passenger he would have elaborated at some length on the carelessness of Indians.
Funny, Rajesh thought, “how I have two contradictory responses to the same phenomenon”. Defend India before the NRIs and abuse India when with locals.
Finally the Skoda swung right to merge with the fast moving traffic on the much-acclaimed national highway. Onward to the city of dreams.
Rajesh was right. Dusk presented its peculiar problems on the highway. The hardheaded motorists would, for some strange reasons, delay turning on their headlights and derived sadistic pleasure in saving the life of their battery. It was too hard to see clearly at that time of the day.
The smooth ride, the perfect road – that was good. His back didn’t hurt anymore. Only three more hours to the outskirts of Mumbai.
Rajesh pressed the play button on his music system and the soothing sound of the sitar wafted through.
“Oh wow, isn’t that Ustad Vilayat Khan?” Rajesh almost recoiled in shock at Nirav’s question.
The whole idea of keeping him quiet apparently was not going to work, but the flip side was that gawky and boring looking Nirav turned out to be an aficionado of classical music.
“No Nirav, it is Shahid Parvez. Have you heard of him?”
“Yes, now that he has started playing his stock phrases he surely is Shahid”
Rajesh’ heart started dancing.
“Do you know that among the younger lot there is one Ustad Irshad Khan, a nephew of Vilayat Khan based in Canada who plays the sitar marvellously?” Rajesh purposely switched to the pronunciation of nephew as “nayfew” to see how Nirav responded.
“Yes, of course, the “nayview” of Vilayat Khan,” Nirav betrayed his Britishness. “In fact, I have some CDs of Irshad Khan at home,” he added.
It would now be fun traveling with this comrade-in-music.
“Do you mind if I shift to the back seat and Skype with my Nisha – that’s my wife – for some time? I can’t seem to find my earphones but hope that’s ok.”
“Please, please, feel free. Suit yourself. The Internet speed on the highway will be all right, maybe not as good as what you have ‘there’,” Rajesh couldn’t help a bit of sarcasm.
“Thanks bhai, if you could just pull up by the side so I can jump in at the back.”
“Ok, here you go.” Rajesh obliged.
It had now become dark enough to force all the vehicles to turn on the headlights, so it was much easier to drive.
“Damn these over-sized trucks merrily driving along in the fast lane,” Rajesh checked himself, lest he should let out some choicest phrases to go with it.
The amusingly puckered up smiling face of Nirav appeared in the rear mirror. The headlight beams of vehicles rushing in from the opposite direction made his face look even sharper.
“Hi honey. Nirav spoke to the screen as the Skype call went through. “Thank the Indian techies, Nirav!” Rajesh wanted to say
“Hey, kem chhe tu? (How are you”) Nisha’s voice came through, nice and clear.
Rajesh was nearly jolted out of his seat on hearing her voice. Wasn’t that familiar?
“I am good. Just got a ride to the Mumbai airport with this nice guy,” Rajesh saw Nirav wink at him in the rear mirror.
But Rajesh was in a different world.
“Could this be Manisha? No, no, it has been long. How can it be?” “No,” he told himself, “this is Nisha; not Manisha”.
As the conversation flowed on, the anxious driver of the car had an uncontrollable urge to see the face of the woman with that sweet familiar voice. “It is a voice strikingly similar to Manisha’s, but is that her?” Rajesh’s heart was pounding by now.
“Did you get the CD I asked you to bring?” the voice teased Nirav.
“Well, I tried, but…”
“Moorkhaajee, you can’t get a simple CD from India.”
Oh my God, that is Manisha for sure. Moorkhaajee. Yes, that was the word she used to tease him with too.
The rest of the conversation faded as Rajesh’s mind slipped back to his University days at Houston.
He had just arrived from India, having freshly graduated from the prestigious M.S. University. Everything was new and alien to him, the culture, the accent, the junk food, the Friday night parties, and he felt lost in that new world.
And then he found Manisha at the University cafeteria.
One morning, feeling tired and hungry, seated in that cafeteria he had been debating if he should try his hand at the vending machine to get a cinnamon roll. What if someone found out how clumsy he was?
Suddenly he saw this deshi girl at the vending machine.
No more debates. He rushed beside her and tried his best to appear confident but the smart girl quickly sized him up and got him the cinnamon roll without much ado.
She had this uncanny ability of making friends and Rajesh was only too glad to have her company.
Manisha had arrived at the University two years ago for her bachelor’s degree. Her rich parents had ensured that she had an easy time sailing through the two years without having to worry about financial assistance. This had been her final year. Confident to the extent of being cocky, she had a winning smile that, as they say could have ‘launched thousand ships”.
The ship called Rajesh got anchored to Manisha and soon it was Manisha, Manisha and Manisha all the way.
Rajesh’s love for classical music initially amused Manisha. She couldn’t understand a thing. How could one enjoy the endless repetitions of the notes for hours together? However, she was a fan of Rabindra Sangeet and it didn’t take too long for her to get into the nuances of pure classical music with helpful hints from Rajesh.
“Nisha says hi to you…” Nirav’s voice suddenly woke Rajesh from his dream. The cooing and murmuring on Skype had come to a halt.
“ Thanks, Nirav. Hope she is well.”
“She is, thank you for asking.”
“What kind of CD she was asking for?”
But before Nirav could reply the Skoda came precariously close to a slow moving empty truck in the fast lane and Rajesh had to brake with all his might.
“These rascals! When will they learn?” Rajesh slowed down and waited to for the truck in front to get into the middle lane to let him go.
“This is why Nisha hates coming to India” The name ‘Nisha’ sounded so alien now to Rajesh.
Rajesh managed to get past the blessed truck and he was driving past it, when Nirav, opened the window and barked at the driver of the truck: “Hey you! Learn to drive properly. Tere baap kaa raastaa hai kyaa? Har…..khor!”
Rajesh could not believe Nirav had said that.
The occupants of the truck including the driver heard it too loud and clear. The truck swerved menacingly and began following the Skoda closely, threatening to pass it.
Rajesh, a veteran of the highway, realized that once the truck drivers got provoked, they could go to any extent to hit back. The truck had no cargo. allowing it the luxury of speeding almost as much as a car.
“You shouldn’t have abused the truck driver, Nirav,” he admonished his co-passenger.
“Now let us try to go as fast as we can. If the truck manages to get ahead of us and blocks our way at some point, we’ve had it. No one will come to our rescue.”
There began a heart-stopping race. The Skoda at full speed and the empty truck hell-bent on pursuing them. Rajesh pressed the accelerator to the floor and hoped there would be no traffic jam ahead.
No such luck. There was a traffic post at the border of Gujarat state. There were barriers on the road that forced all the vehicles to slow down and zigzag through them to the other side.
Rajesh’s heart missed a beat. By experience he knew that stopping at the traffic post and looking for help would not work, as the traffic policemen were always loath to sort out disputes un-related to traffic. Besides this, the stock response of the police would be the ‘jurisdiction’ issue. They would not help. Period.
Luckily for him, the menacing truck that was following him got stuck between two other vehicles and he managed to get to the other side of the post and roared on. The danger was not over yet. These Indian roads and the maddening traffic – anything could happen to bring all the vehicles to standstill on the highway and the truck could corner him once again.
They sped on, safely clearing the toll station at Charoti. There was no time to stop for dinner or snack. The truck could suddenly appear from nowhere, like the dinosaur in the movie Jurassic Park, he thought. Why take a chance. Instead drive at breakneck speed for as long as possible and get into the city when you can mingle with hundreds of cars. The truck wouldn’t be able to find them.
The road from Charoti was almost deserted but the truck could easily mark the Skoda out with its luminous fancy lights on the rear bumper. The real problem was that no soul would come to their rescue if cornered by rogue drivers.
Nirav was squirming in his seat, not knowing what to do, feeling sorry about having taken on the rogue truck driver.
The music did not offer any solace to the occupants of Skoda. But it went on, raga after raga.
By the time they were approaching the last toll station, about 70 kilometres from Mumbai it was 8:30 pm.
“What time is your flight, Nirav?”
“I need to check in latest by 10:30 pm”
Rajesh saw a big traffic jam just as they neared the last toll station. The toll station collectors most likely had problems run out of small change. Rajesh cursed his luck. Worse, as he slowed down he saw the truck not far behind, with its funny design of lights in the front. That was the truck! It kept honking loudly and continuously, weaving around the vehicles behind them to close in.
The vehicles in front of them were all gingerly moving on and Rajesh had no way of shaking off the truck.
His consternation grew when he saw this truck in the lane parallel to his lane, both waiting to clear the toll station.
Now what? As soon as both cleared the toll station they would be sure to catch up and bash them up.
From his window he could see the face of the cleaner of the truck eyeing them.
Mumbai, barely 70 kilometres from the toll station, seemed far away. No one would stop by to help them. Who would want trouble at this time?
Could he race for his life and wriggle out of this situation?
To be continued…