The two occupants of Skoda shivered in their seats, hoping for the best. Could Rajesh, be the winner of this Indianapolis race? That was the only way they could shake off the pursuing truck. They looked at each other as the car inched forward, the truck moving likewise in the parallel lane. Rajesh had no intention of shouting back at the cars behind him who were honking relentlessly urging them to hurry up.
Finally, they reached the toll station window where a lazy head inside was going through the motions of collecting payments.
“Single or return?” Rajesh heard the most irritating question ever at the toll stations. He could never understand the logic behind it. By default, it is always single.
Keeping his temper under control, he reached for the cash and handed it to the toll clerk. Through a corner of his eye he could see that the truck was going through the same process. Terrifying.
Suddenly, he saw the door of the toll station open inside and a stately senior traffic policeman entered the room. He muttered something to the clerk who in turn asked Rajesh: “Sir, our Saab would like to request you to give him a ride up to the next toll station at Dahisar. There is some emergency.”
Rajesh saw the burly Saab, silently imploring him with uncharacteristic expectant eyes. The carefully trimmed moustache gave him a stern appearance that would have otherwise scared the hell out of any motorist on the highway. In a normal situation Rajesh would have offered an excuse to deter a strange character from riding with him in his car, but this was an unusual time. A burly traffic policeman in uniform, riding in his car, would ward off any threats from the menacing truck driver. Wow! What an opportunity!
Rajesh mustered up all his humility. “Sure sir, it would be a privilege. Come right in.”
“Thank you, Sir,” the policeman replied, as he eased himself in the passenger seat next to Rajesh, temporarily filling the interior with the body odour of the new rider.
The poor truck driver watched the changed scenario and sighed. “Time to cool off, buddy; bye,” Rajesh felt like shooting a triumphant glance at the truck that was waiting to pounce on the Skoda.
“Thanks for helping me out.” The policeman smiled, as Rajesh noticed his name ‘Gulabrao Sawant’ on the polished badge.
Before Rajesh could reply, he continued: “Actually, I have been away on duty for the last three days and I suddenly remembered it is our wedding anniversary tomorrow.” Rajesh noticed, with some amusement, a hint of shyness on the cop’s weathered face.
“Oh, how thoughtful of you. Wish you a happy wedding anniversary in advance, Saab.”
“Arre, kaay, at my age…”
“So, your wife… what is her name? Aren’t you getting a gift for her?”
Stop now, don’t embarrass him, Rajesh said to himself. But the policeman, by now, appeared to be in an expansive mood.
“You know Shanta is a graduate and I am just a matriculate,” volunteered Gulabrao as he signaled authoritatively at an erring car. “Hey, move aside!”
“The gift… aren’t you getting one?” teased an emboldened Rajesh.
“Kaay karaaychaa? Never thought of it. But let me see if I find something on the way.”
The liberated Skoda thundered past the distant suburbs of Mumbai. Some of the flyovers were still under construction causing the traffic to go around the work site.
“Maala he AC chyaa draft jamat naahi. (I’m not very comfortable with the air-conditioning.) If you don’t mind, can your friend sit in front with you so I can shift to the rear seat?”
Rajesh stopped the car near a paan shop where he bought a paan for Gulabrao and himself. Not for the deshi-turned-American, health conscious Nirav, who now seemed a bit relaxed.
The exchange of seats was efficient.
Slowly, Rajesh’s mind was flooded with memories of Manisha.
Their courtship was the envy of many. Manisha ensured that Rajesh settled comfortably into the American way of life. She always teased Rajesh about his studious nature, his stingy ways, his clumsy attempts to match her effervescent life style – but she could not stop loving him for what he was – a “Moorkhaaji” to the core. She painstakingly cultivated a taste for Indian classical music and even started collecting her own albums.
Radio Pacifica, a radio programme aired by an enthusiastic young Bengali guy was their common listening adventure on Saturday nights. His traditional upbringing stopped him from wanting or asking for more liberties with her, even though Manisha would not have objected.
The halcyon days – those blissful moments – he had hoped they would never end.
Soon enough Rajesh graduated and began thinking about returning to India. Manisha knew of his plans but hoped that her love would persuade him to rethink.
“So you are not in any mood to settle down and build your career here?” Manisha’s exasperation was obvious.
“I wish I could, Manisha.”
“Why? What bothers you? What about me?”
“You too could come along, It’s our country, our people. Let us be a part of the country that is soon to go places.”
“I can’t, Rajesh. Let us be together and set up our home right here.”
And the tussle went on and on, finally reaching a breaking point that neither really wanted.
He did not even stay back to gain some work experience and flew right back home, leaving Manisha and their dreams in tatters.
Years went by and none of them felt the need to rekindle their love. He got married – following an ‘arranged’ meeting and courtship – to Chaitalee.
Now, out of nowhere, this Nirav comes along and reminds him of his first love that was still tucked away in a corner of his heart.
“So Nirav, Nisha never visited India after her graduation?” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Nope. She doesn’t like to.”
“But she still wants you to visit your parents and bring stuff from here for her.”
“Well, that is Nisha for you.” The ‘you’ rattled him.
Gulabrao was not interested in their discussion. He was probably thinking about his wedding anniversary plans. The Skoda eased into a lower gear as it approached the Dahisar toll station.
Rajesh spotted a flower shop – maybe a bouquet for Gulabrao’s wife!
He parked the car next to the florist’s, close to the toll station.
“Mi ikdech utrun jaoo, thank you saab” Gulabrao saw this as a signal for him to get down.
Rajesh smiled, got out and patted Gulabrao on the back, handing over a magnificent bouquet. “Here, this is for your wife, Gulabrao ji for your wedding anniversary.”
“O ho ho ho, that is so kind of you to give me a ride and this lovely guldasta” Gulabrao blushed and made his way towards the toll station, ordering the clerk not to accept the toll charge from Rajesh.
“Nirav, now let us rush. It is already 10 o’clock.”
It would be the final leg of their ride together. Rajesh fished out the closest CD his hand could find and carefully inserted it in the music system.
The sweet metallic sound of a sarod wafted through the stillness of the night.
“My…. how did you find this, Rajesh?” Nirav’s eyes were wide with fascination.
“ Oh well, I did not buy it, I’ve had it for some time now. This is a special collection of short raagas that Amjad Ali Khan has rendered so majestically.”
“Guldasta….” Nirav could not contain his excitement. “I have heard this, an album called Guldasta, an old cassette many years ago. But now the worn out cassette won’t play.”
“Yeah, it’s Guldasta. I had recorded it from a carefully preserved cassette. I got an audio CD made from it. It’s a treasure.”
“My goodness. This is the one that Nisha is crazy about. What a shame I didn’t think of recording it like you did. What a shame!”
“Is this the one Manisha… err, Nisha was asking you to bring?”
“That’s the one,” Nirav replied instantly.
The car took the final turn towards the international airport. Rajesh’s mind was in turmoil.
Gulabrao – Guldasta – Nirav. Manisha! Would she remember?
The car halted at Departures. Nirav got out and busied himself with getting his bags out of the trunk. As he walked off to get a trolley Rajesh, ejected the Guldasta CD from the system and held it out.
“Here, Nirav. Take this Guldasta for Nisha – a gift from me.”
“But this is the only copy you have Rajesh! Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Hey, isn’t Nisha also one of a kind?” Rajesh saw an astonished smile on Nirav’s face, just like Gulabrao’s.
“Next time, do get Nisha here; tell her things are not that bad in India!
“I sure will. Thanks so much!”
They shook hands, and he watched Nirav walk away towards the gate, precious CD in hand. The sarod strings continued to hum softly in his head as he got back into the car and drove towards the bright lights of the city.