Taxi Rides

By Avijit Roy

Sujata Sen lived alone in an apartment with only books to keep her company. She was a senior government official in her late fifties and was due to retire in a few years time. A frail woman with a disability, she walked with the help of crutches. As a child, she had contracted polio  which left her with feeble legs. She was mild-mannered and genial, always eager to help others and well liked by her neighbours.

Up until she was almost fifty years old, Sujata Sen lived in her ancestral home with an extended family comprising of two brothers, their wives and children. Her father died when she was young and her mother soon after. Being the eldest, she had to take care of her brothers who were minors when they were thus orphaned. She was academically inclined and after university, she had secured a well-paid government job. Her brothers however were lazy and apathetic and never got too far in the pursuit of academics. Even at the stage when they were married and had children of their own, they did not seek out regular employment or have substantial incomes.

Sujata never married and ungrudgingly shouldered the burden of running the family for many years. She paid for the education of her brothers’ children and took care of other expenses. As the saying goes, fruits don’t fall far from the tree, Sujata’s nephews and nieces turned out indolent and ill-mannered brats who demonstrated a total lack of respect towards her. Life with her extended family was proving to be stressful and demeaning. With advancing age, she found herself unable to cope with the situation. She decided to move out and live by herself. That was when she purchased a small apartment in a quiet neighbourhood and moved there with all her belongings which comprised of a small amount of furniture and many books.

The apartment where Sujata lived was an hour’s drive from her office. Her disability made it difficult for her to avail of public transport such as buses or subway trains. She never owned a car and never learnt to drive. She had an arrangement with a taxi driver who lived in the vicinity. He picked her up from home every morning and dropped her at her office. He would also pick her up from her office and drop her home every evening. In exchange, he charged a little extra over the regular fare but she did not mind. The arrangement worked well for both of them. 

The taxi driver was called Satish Prasad and he drove a yellow Ambassador cab, a make ubiquitous to the streets of Kolkata. He was from a neighbouring state and had come to the city at an early age as a migrant worker and never left. A lanky fellow with sunken eyes, a life of struggle was etched on his face as prominently as the ravines of the Chambal valley. He was in his mid-forties and had little education. He chewed gutka* all day and murmured under his breath while driving his car. He lived in a decrepit one-room house with his widowed mother, wife and three children.

The neighbourhood where he lived was a sketchy one but the rent was low and that was all he could afford. He didn’t make enough money from his taxi to live a comfortable life, just enough to put food on the table. A large part of his earnings went to the bank every month as repayment towards the loan he had taken to purchase his taxi. To make matters worse, a new phenomenon had taken over the city, app-based taxi services. One could book a cab from an app on their smart phones. A few clicks and a taxi would be waiting at the doorstep. Convenient! The rise in popularity of such cabs increased competition for conventional yellow taxis and his income dwindled further. Satish had only hatred for app-based cabs and often felt the urge of crashing into one with his old Ambassador in a fit of rage.

Misfortune often strikes when one’s already deep in the gutter and misfortune struck Satish like a bolt of lightning, sudden and fierce. His eldest child, a ten-year-old boy, had been diagnosed with a tumour and surgical intervention was an immediate necessity to save his life but that was not all, the cost of the procedure was far beyond anything he could afford. He had no one to borrow the money from or no other means to acquire it. All he could do was spend sleepless nights, tossing around on the bed like a ship at sea in stormy weather.

Sujata was perceptive and noticed something amiss with Satish during her regular morning ride to the office. He seemed distracted and his murmuring under his breath had intensified. On hearing of the situation with the child, she was concerned and offered to loan him the amount. Satish was thankful to hear that and felt a momentary sense of relief but the respite was short-lived and by evening, his worries were back to haunt him. A loan is a loan, something he would have to repay. He was hardly able to keep up with the monthly instalments on his car loan. The prospect of sinking deeper into debt made him cold.

Desperation soon turned to darkness and he started having twisted thoughts. Diabolical schemes inundated his mind. The focus of his thoughts now turned to Sujata Sen and her offer of the loan. If she was so concerned, the lady could have just given him the money and not a loan, after all, she was senior government official with a fat salary and no one to care for in the whole world. Why was life so unjust — people who need it have little money, and people who don’t, have more than they require.

Sinister thoughts kept circling in his mind like vultures in the sky over a dying animal. What if he took the money and didnot pay it back? She lived all alone. He could sneak into her apartment at night with ease. He could pick the lock on the entry door. She knew about his difficulties and would be suspicious of him if he stole the money so he would take care of her too. He could do that; she was a frail woman, a cripple. He could strangle her, suffocate her… at this point he did not want to think this through any further, he would do what needed to be done to save his child.

It was the night of the new moon and people at a nearby temple could be heard worshipping the goddess Kali. Satish picked the lock and crept into Sujata Sen’s apartment as he had planned. She wasn’t home, possibly at some neighbour’s place. He hid in a corner and lay in wait. She arrived soon after, had dinner and went to bed with a book and fell asleep in some time. The reading lights were still on.

Satish approached her bed with caution and stood there, her face visible in the reading light. His form like an ominous shadow gazed down at her. His heart pounded louder than the drums they were playing at the Kali temple. His grip was strong from years of clutching the steering wheel of his car and his palms were coarse as sandpaper. He had to place his hands on her slender neck, clench his teeth and squeeze. It would be over in a minute. His mind was in frenzy and his body…strangely unresponsive! His hands felt heavy as rocks and would not be lifted. He froze! He muttered a curse; he could not do it, he could not kill. He fell on his knees and sat beside the bed. He buried his face in his coarse palms as tears rolled down his face and time stood still for him. After a while, the feeling of being weighed down was gone and he could move again. He left the room, as softly as a feather drifting to the ground.

Sujata Sen was ready for office the next morning but Satish was nowhere to be found. She tried to call him on his cell phone but the calls went unanswered. She had never been late for office and today wasn’t going to be an exception. For the first time in her life, she booked an app-based cab. It was easy, just a few clicks. The cab arrived on time, the ride was comfortable, the car was of a new make, the engine barely audible and she did not mind the fare which was slightly higher than the usual rate.  Satish did not arrive the next day either or any other day since and his cell phone was always unreachable. Sujata thought about it for a few days but life moves on and app cabs served her purpose well. Just a few clicks, truly convenient! More than a year had gone by and it was now a familiar routine for her.

It had been a long day at the office and Sujata Sen was ready to leave for home.  As usual, she had booked a cab using her cell phone and was on the sidewalk waiting for the cab to arrive. It was a white sedan, a new model and the car was in excellent condition. As she was about to open the door and get into the car, the driver disembarked and came up to assist her, perhaps due to the fact that she had crutches.

To her great surprise, it was Satish, he was driving an app cab now. Once inside, Sen could not contain her curiosity, “Satish, where have you been, I tried to call you so many times? I even asked around! How’s your son?”

“He underwent the surgery. He is better now Madam,” replied Satish.

“I am truly relieved to hear that. I pray that he may have a long and healthy life.”

“With your blessings Madam…”

“And your yellow Ambassador cab, where’s that? You always hated app cabs and now you’re driving a new model yourself,” asked Sujata.

“Madam, it is fate, destiny! In my desperation, I took a loan from some bad people, loan sharks, at a high rate of interest, for my child’s treatment and had to pay them back all the money I borrowed and the interest or else they would harm me and my family.  I had no money left to pay the bank. The recovery agents from the bank arrived one morning and hauled my taxi away. Since then, I drive this app cab. It belongs to a businessman who owns a fleet of cars. I get a fixed salary every month and a bonus once a year. I have no loans to repay. It is much better this way Madam, I sleep better at night, I am happy!” replied Satish.

Sujata was surprised at the turn of events and asked, “I did tell you that you could borrow the money from me! You would not have to pay an interest and you could repay the money at your convenience, I would never chase you for repayments. Why didn’t you come to me?”

Satish nodded his head knowingly and smiled, “I was foolish Madam and life had a lesson in store for me!” 

As the taxi pushed forward along congested roads, Sujata noticed that Satish was not as absent minded as before and no longer murmured under his breath while driving. His life seemed to have taken a turn for the better.

Avijit Roy is a software developer by profession and runs a software firm but apart from what he does for a living, he is a passionate storyteller. The forms of expression he prefers for telling a story are film making, photography, music and writing although he has only recently started making attempts at getting his work published. He has participated and won a few accolades at photography contests and written, directed and shot a short film which played at several festivals. In the past, he was part of a jazz fusion band where he played the guitar. He is also a loving husband and a caring father to a daughter.