The Bombay Writing Project

The Taxi Driver

This story was first published in Vol.4 of the Helter Skelter anthology of short stories.

It was early morning on the day after the rains had announced the arrival of the monsoons in Bombay.

The streets of Hindu colony, Dadar were lined with dirty puddles leading all the way up to the main circle, and the smell of the first rains still lingered in the early morning breeze.

Col. Rajan had set out on his customary early morning jog, wearing his favourite khaki shorts and was jogging up the street next to the post office while Mrs. Chadda was busy packing lunch for her husband. Her son scurried around the house trying to first find a lost pencil, a notebook and then his tiepin before finally announcing that his History textbook was nowhere to be found. The banana seller turned lazily around the corner, and Mr. Bhimsen Gupta waved to Col. Rajan from his balcony. He would watch the Colonel take a U-turn, to jog back down post office street – the Colonel had avoided jogging on the main road for the last 17 years after his retirement from the army.

Sitting in his black and yellow taxi, oblivious to all that was happening around him, Rajkumar strained his neck to look into the house on the second floor in the building that stood across the post office in Dadar. A canopy of leaves blocked his view, and he tilted his head further left, but that didn’t help either. Finally resigned to the fact that we wouldn’t be able to see through the iron grills, Rajkumar gave up and sat back on this seat. He took a deep breath, cracked his knuckles and decided to wait patiently.

________

Mr. Breganza had married Iva Rosemary in a quiet ceremony in a old church near a beach in North Goa 47 years ago. Soon after the wedding, they had left for Mumbai together, and bought a house on the ground floor of the building across the street where Mr. Breganza went to work. When Anita was born, the couple decided to move to a bigger house, and shifted to a house on the second floor in the same building. They hadn’t thought of moving out ever since.

Mr. Breganza had lived in Bombay long enough before getting married to Iva, to understand how lucky he was to have a house so close to where he worked. Every weekday Mr. Breganza would leave the post office building, walk across the street and climb up two flights of stairs to come home for lunch, much to the envy of his colleagues. He would often also manage to squeeze in a quick nap before heading back to work.

From the window in his office on the third floor of the post office building, Mr. Breganza could peek into his own house, and in the middle of a report or a file, he would often allow himself to get distracted by the sight of his wife watering the plants or making tea, quietly humming to herself while doing so. During long afternoons after his retirement, Mr. Breganza would often sit by the window of his house and look into his office on the third floor picturing his younger self sitting there stealing glances at own house, watching his wife quietly at work.

________

Rajkumar had come to Bombay 23 years ago at the tender age of 7 after a terrible malaria epidemic had taken away the lives of both his parents, in his village in Uttar Pradesh. He worked at his uncle’s restaurant in Kings Circle, near Dadar before his uncle helped him get a taxi drivers license on the eve of his 20th birthday. Rajkumar worked under malik for a few years, and then when he saved up enough money, he bought his own black and yellow ambassador taxi. The day Rajkumar bought his own taxi, the moist-eyed owner of the Navratna restaurant in Kings circle Dadar refused to collect any money from his customers.

________

Rajkumar first met Mrs. Breganza 7 years ago on a similar day, after the first rains had fallen in Bombay. Dressed in her flower printed church dress, she waved his taxi down and asked him to take her to the Portuguese church. He stopped even though he was headed the other way because it was drizzling, and he held the door open for the old lady so she could shut her umbrella, and she smiled warmly at him as he did so. When they reached the church it was still drizzling, and so he held the door open for her again, and this time they laughed. Every Sunday after that, Rajkumar picked Mrs. Breganza up from under the babul tree near her house, and dropped her back home after the morning mass.

In the years leading up to this day, Mrs. Breganza grew to trust Rajkumar, she would often call him when she needed help: like that time when Anita was pregnant and had to catch a late night train back to the Kolkata. Rajkumar not only dropped her to the station, he also carried her luggage to the platform and in spite of her protests, he waited with her on the platform for the train, and left only after the train left the station. Three summers later, when Varun – Anita’s son fell down the stairs while playing, Rajkumar helped rush Varun to the hospital and carried him to the emergency room, as Mrs. Breganza and Anita followed quickly behind. Rajkumar waited downstairs and left much later, and only after dropping the family safely back home.

But it was when Mr. Breganza was diagnosed with cancer during September last year, that she realized that Rajkumar was probably the son she never had. Rajkumar tirelessly drove them around the city for weeks, from one hospital to another, often waiting for hours alone in the taxi outside the hospital. In the next 6 months as Rajkumar drove them to and fro their chemotherapy sessions Mr. Breganza repeatedly threw up inside his taxi, but Rajkumar never said a word. He saw Mr. Breganza’s hair fall off and arms grow thin, he saw his health slowly deteriorate until Monday last week, when Mr. Breganza quietly passed away at home, at 11pm in the night.

________

Today Rajkumar was patiently waiting in his taxi for Anita and her husband Sunil to bring Mrs. Breganza down the stairs. They had come down to Mumbai to pay their last respects to Mr Breganza earlier this week.

Upstairs, they were helping Mrs. Breganza pack her belongings so they could take her away with them to Kolkata. Rajkumar waited downstairs to say goodbye to the lady he had dropped to church every Sunday for 7 years; he wanted open the door for her one last time and see her smile, before she finally left this city for good.

When he finally saw Mrs. Breganza come down the narrow staircase, he saw that she was coming down alone and he jumped off his seat to help her down the last few stairs. Anita and her husband Sunil soon followed. Mrs. Breganza had tears in her eyes as she got onto the taxi leaving the building she had lived in for the last 47 years.

Rajkumar stayed back to help Sunil load the luggage onto the trunk, as Anita got on after Mrs. Breganza.

It was only after he had fastened his seat belt and adjusted his rear view mirror, that Sunil said, ‘Kandivili Old-Age home’, when Rajkumar realized that they hadn’t come to take Mrs. Breganza back to Kolkata, they had come to drop her off at the old-age home in Kandivili, and his eyes briefly met Mrs. Breganza’s as he reversed his taxi and turned it around to head to Kandivili.

________

Rajkumar was struck by the irony of the situation, as he drove his taxi through the evening traffic. As a young orphan, nothing struck him as more painful than losing ones parents, and not a single night had passed in Bombay when Rajkumar did not wish for them to be alive. And yet, here he was, dropping Mrs. Breganza off at the ‘Kandivili old age home’ because her daughter had decided to willingly detach herself from her mother in her final years, so she could head back to Kolkata with her husband alone, never to come back to the city, as if her mother were like a than courier package that needed to be transferred from one place to another, no more.

________

For the first time in 7 years at 9.45am on a Sunday, there no taxi waiting below the babul tree across the street from the post office. Rajkumar had parked his taxi far away outside a restaurant and slowly sipped on his morning chai. He thought about Mrs. Breganza in her old age home in Kandivili, and wondered if she was okay. He realized that she had been on medication herself, in the last 3 months before Mr. Breganza had passed away, and he hoped the nurses at the old age home reminded her to take medicines on time. He passed the old age home a couple of times the next week, and once more week after.

The following Sunday when he could take it no more, Rajkumar got up early in the morning, put on his khaki shirt and trousers and drove straight to the old age home, and asked the lady at the reception for Mrs. Breganza. When she went inside to fetch her, Rajkumar took a seat by the reception desk. He knew that his house was too small to take her home, although he knew he would’ve gladly taken care of her for the rest of his life.

When Mrs. Breganza finally came out she was surprised to see Rajkumar waiting for her next the reception. Had she forgotten to pay him the last time? She didn’t understand. When she came closer, Rajkumar looked at her in the eye and said,

“Aaj Sunday hai. Main aapko church leke jaane aya hoon.”

________

Mrs. Breganza went back to her room and put on her church dress, after which Rajkumar held her hand and helped her walk to the taxi. By the time they reached, Mrs.as Breganza was late for mass, but it didn’t matter. She would be back every Sunday after that, in time, after which she would walk across the street where Rajkumar would be waiting for her with the door open, standing next to his taxi.

________

Mrs. Breganza passed away exactly 2 years after the day Rajkumar had first taken her to church from the old age home in June. The monsoons had not yet begun in Bombay; but the first rains fell later on in the same week on the day when Anita and Sunil landed in the city. When they came to the old age home, Rajkumar was talking to the warden and while he recognized them, they didn’t recognize him.

Anita went straight inside to her mother’s room, while Sunil stayed back to ask the warden a few questions. The warden informed Sunil that Rajkumar was the taxi driver who had taken Mrs. Breganza to church ever Sunday for the last 2 years. Sunil turned around and promptly shook Rajkumar’s hand before reaching into his wallet to pull out a crisp hundred-rupee note to give to Rajkumar.

Rajkumar studied the note, and put it in his pocket before walking out of the old age home. He got onto his taxi and drove straight to Dadar where he parked his car under a familiar tree. Fate had taken away his mother for the second time in his life, but this time around it had shown mercy enough to leave him a hundred rupees to show for his effort.

Half an hour later he drove away, wiping away his tears, never to come back again. He left behind fate’s thank you note – a crushed hundred rupee note that lay in one of the dirty puddles that lined the streets of Hindu colony, opposite the post office, below the babul tree in Dadar.

– Adithya Narayanan

Pale white and dead

The lights are dim,
and I can only see,
the white paper swan you left me.

The weeks are dragging,
me on the floor.
I’m bruised all over,
and the scabs don’t heal.

The lights blind,
the noises deafen,
And I scream in my head,
when I walk back home.

I sprawl on the bed,
and I dim the lights,
I stare till I sleep,
at the paper swan that you left me.

Soon the walls will crumble
and the buildings will fall,
people will scream,
time will crawl.

In the shadow of the moon,
as smoke begins to rise,
the walls will be splattered,
with most of our dreams.

Through burnt ash,
then I suddenly see,
a white paper swan
floating towards me.

When the smoke clears,
and the birds begin to fly,
The dawn is cold,
But the sun will rise.

Finally you see me
beneath the sky.
We lie together,
the swan and I,
pale white and still yours, just crushed alive.

– Adithya Narayanan

Featured Posts

1. The Taxi Driver – Adithya Narayanan
First published in the Helter Skelter Vol.4 anthology of short stories, The Taxi Driver is set in the old Hindu Colony in Dadar, Mumbai. It revolves around two characters: Rajkumar, a young taxi driver, and Mrs. Breganza, an old widow whom he drops to church every Sunday. When tragedy strikes Mrs. Breganza’s family, Rajkumar has a choice to make.

2. Amina – Sharanya Ramesh
Amina explores the relationship between two young women who teach in Shankarwai, a community in Jogeshwari East. Amina, the older one of the two, helps the narrator brave through a bad day in school, talking to her about life and lessons along the way.

3. Paperthin – Adithya Narayanan
A young school going boy, fresh to the ways of Bombay, has a love-hate relationship with his Marathi tuition teacher. She upgrades him to the first bench in her class and things look well for a while, but they begin to change when two friends join the same tuition, and a little more, after the tuition teacher decides to gets married.

4. Jukebox – Sharanya Ramesh
The narrator comes back to her old room in the big city, a room she had run away from a month ago. She reminisces about the failed relationship that had forced her to run away – a relationship that made for a good story, until you decided to open it and make sense of it.

5. The Brown Diary – Adithya Narayanan
Raji Subramanium receives a brown diary from her mother – a diary whose contents help her revive her dormant marriage. Today, her own daughter is getting married, but Raji can’t find the brown diary she had promised to pass on to her daughter.

Jukebox

– Sharanya Ramesh

She sighed as she opened the door of her car, her dark hair catching the sunlight.  Her single suitcase stood at her feet and the bright yellow bag hugged her waist as looked for her black oddly shaped umbrella.  Finding it lodged between the seats, she pulled it out and shut the door and turned towards the apartment that had been her home for the last year. As she trudged up the dingy staircase, her thoughts ran ahead, opening the blue door bursting into the tiny rooms that held more memories than a jukebox held pennies.

The rooms stood exactly as she had left it a month back, the only exception being the dust patterns like fine fairy dancers all over the furniture.  She walked over to the bed, lay down and stared at the creaky fan as it circled above her.

It had been a month and she thought running away from the city where it all had happened, would help. She turned towards the wall and suddenly like an old drive in, the lights dimmed and the memories which had been tinkling in the jukebox, started playing.

__________

He was a question that neither one of them had the courage to ask. He was the storm beneath her skin, the dark shadows that flirted with her bare back in the night. Sometimes, he would watch her and she would stare back, but only for seconds. She would push back her hair, left open because he had mentioned once over a drunken phone call, once, in those first few days, that she looked pretty with her hair open. So, she left it open, even though it got in the way of her thoughts on those windy nights.

He would trace her fingers with the finesse of a tight rope walker, looking at every crevice her hands had to offer as if searching for an adventure.  In the moments that passed, he would stare at her, all those questions pouring out of him and she would let herself drown in that uncertainty, her feet never hitting solid ground. 

She would wonder if he ever got tired carrying those bags under his eyes or whether he would ever tell her what he packed in them.  But she would never ask, perhaps afraid that their ears were too small for their hearts.

They were like salt and sand, alike, yet so very different. He was coarse, black and white and no shade in between. She would hang her vague ideas of life on his sure sensibility and lie and watch as he would try to make sense of what they were doing. All the while she knew, that the questions, one day, would catch up to him too.

They were a good story, till you actually opened them and tried to make sense of it. They were complicated clichés, filled with hopes of loyalty and noose-like loopholes. Mostly, they were a cheap imitation of the ‘real deal’, flirting with the possibility of a future, all the while knowing that the morning sunlight was the only thing certain about them.

And then one day, the questions engulfed him, pushing him away from the shore as she stood and watched. He jumped onto a sailboat of answers, suddenly excited by the prospect of new adventures, forgetting the ones on her fingers, his lips searching for something more than what he had been kissing.

 You see, his hands, his beautiful scarred hands had never been reaching out for her. They had been reaching out for the reality that lay after. For the days that weren’t made up of smug metaphors and coffee side poetry. He wanted flesh and bone and all she had to offer, were words.

 But instead, he curved himself into a question mark around her, finally stretching out for something more.

And so she packed her bags, on that one strange night after he told her, excitedly about the future he had planned for himself, never looking up at her dark eyes that held all the questions she had never asked.  In the quiet of the orange lights that lit up the street outside her house, she got into her car and drove to the airport, not knowing where she was going, just knowing that she couldn’t stay.

_________

She snapped out of her reverie,  the hand under her head spreading pins and needles across her arm.

Her open hair framed her face as she turned back over on her bed, closing her eyes, willing herself to sleep.

Amina

– Sharanya Ramesh

“Only use blue ink pens to sign in the register. Another thing, if you pin your duppatta from the inside onto your kurti, it won’t keep sliding off when you’re bending down to pick up your bag. Oh, also, you can share my locker till you get your own to keep all your papers and books in. My name is Amina. If you need help with anything, come find me. I teach 1st grade, on the ground floor.” She said with a hint of a smile on her kind face. It was my first day as a teacher and I was nervous as I stood there in my red kurti, stuttering and pulling at my hair and bag all at the same time.

It doesn’t change. First days are always scary. What helps, on every first day, is that one kind face that will not ridicule your sudden lack of coordination, but will instead help you pick up your papers and offer to steady your balance.

For me, on that first day, it was Amina Miss.

Cut to almost 8 months down the line and nothing has changed.

__________

It was one of the worst days I had ever had in my ongoing journey as a teacher. I was frustrated and the thought of going back to an empty apartment where a pile of uncorrected papers and cold leftover food, just worsened my mood. My students had just left and I sat in my empty classroom packing my bag, trying to breathe through the chaos that had been that day.

I failed, miserably. I could feel the tears welling up and I tried to push them back as fiercely as I could, telling myself to buck up.

“Bad day?” said a voice from near the door. “I knew you had a bad day when you walked down to fill water and you didn’t pop in to mine and Simmi’s classroom to say hi.” She continued without waiting for me to say anything. “Here, I got some biryani from home today.” Without waiting for me to say anything she sat opposite me with those kind eyes of hers. I half snorted and giggled as I tried to wipe away the tears on my face and reached for the biryani.

She waited for me to finish eating in silence not asking about why my day had gone bad and I offered her no explanation. She finished correcting some papers and then said, “Okay, now instead of going back to your house where I know all you will do is correct more papers till your food comes, come to my house. I want to show you something.”

I agreed. I didn’t really have a choice. Once Amina decides it was time for you to get better, you had no choice but to do so.

__________

We walked out into the community I taught in – Shankarwadi, Jogeshwari East – and even after 8 months, the cramped tin houses and the dark lanes still surprised me. The tiny houses jostling into each other while kids played marbles in the little space available was a scene I thought I would get used to.

“My husband and I took a small loan from the bank to build this small place which we are going to hire out to Zari workers. And on the top floor my sister and her family can move in.” She announced as we broke out of the tightly packed cluster into a relatively wider lane. I stared up at the small building that seemed large because of it’s short neighbours.

“Zaid!” She yelled out at the street where a bunch of boys were playing. “Bring two cups of chai. We’re going up to the terrace.” She then led the way up a narrow flight of stairs and I stumbled along behind her. After precariously balancing our way up two flights of steps, we reached the terrace. “I come here when I have had a bad day and just sit here. It’s quiet. When you live in the kinds of houses that we do, quiet is hard to find.” She explained as she settled herself on the floor.

I took a moment to stare from the terrace out into the community. It was beautiful, with the sun just about to set. You could see a huge part of the community surrounded by the mosques and the tin roofs. I sat down next to her just as Zaid came with the chai.

I’ve seen you when you walk up the lane into school.” he told me as he handed me my tiny cup of tea. “You carry such big bags with you every day. I thought you were a student and then my friend told me you were a teacher. I’m in 6th grade at that school.” He said, pointing over my head.

I laughed and told him many people had made that mistake of thinking I was a student instead of a teacher. The big bags, I explained, was all for class.

“Okay Zaid, go down now and tell my kids to come up. And make sure the door is latched in my house.” Amina said as she put sipped her tea. “Let’s enjoy the calm before my children come here.” she laughed.

____________

“Do you know I got married when I was 21. It was considered late at that time. All my friends were already married. I didn’t want an arranged marriage. I was like you, I suppose. Independent, thought I could do all this alone. But I had to get married, didn’t have a choice.” She said as she pulled off the duppatta covering her hair. “But I did. And now I can’t imagine a life without him and my children.” She smiled at me, urging me to finish my tea.

I sipped it slowly, being careful not to burn my tongue and asked her why she wanted to be a teacher. “At first it was because I just needed a job. We had loans to pay, children to put into school, family to take care off. My job at the AIDS centre wasn’t paying much.” She said.

Wait, you worked at the AIDS centre, I asked, surprised.

“Yes. I understand that tone of surprise. Why would I work in a place that doesn’t pay that much money only to help others when I should be helping my own family?” She asked me instead.

No, I meant..I don’t know.. I faltered.

“I went there when I was in college. And it as the most meaningful thing I had done. These people were all going to die but they had so much life left in them and I wanted to make the life that they had remaining, beautiful. Do you know how wonderful it is to share someone’s life like that with them? Watch them give you a part of them to keep secret?” She offered as an explanation. “My husband understood until we ran out of money. I had to find another job and quick, so I started teaching.”

So do you like it? I asked, somewhat lamely. She looked over at me and smiled, not unlike an older sister humouring her naive younger sibling. “Of course. It’s tougher than anything else I have done. It’s tough knowing that I have two of my own at home that I need to take care of but I choose to come to school anyway to teach twenty five other children and take care of them instead. It’s tiring, you know.”

At that moment, her two children rushed up the steps and onto their mother, wrapping their tiny arms around her. “Ammi! I got full marks in dictation!” yelled her daughter, while her son, who had just noticed me, smiled shyly and offered me a piece of his chocolate. I declined, smiling at him and shifted my attention to the little girl who had crawled into her mother’s lap and stared at me from under her duppatta. “Her favourite animal is a giraffe. Most kids say, dogs or cats or even lions or tigers. This one likes Giraffes. She’s different.” Amina said, with a slight hint of laughter in her voice.

“They’re so tall. They touch the clouds with their heads, Ammi. Thats why.” justified her daughter. When I told her that giraffes were one of my favourite animals too, she smiled, finally leaning towards me and offering me her toy to play with.

“I know you had a bad day. But bad days are a part of our job. I know you’re far from your parents and I know you think you’re sinking on most days. But you’re not. You’re doing good. We all watch you in school. I know you don’t think you have anybody in school, but you do. You have us.” She said, quietly. “I know we’re different, you and I. You come from a different world almost, a different religion, a different family. But you chose to come to my world, anyway. And that can’t have been easy. We’re not that different, you know. You remind me of when I was 21. Full of life and dreams. It’s good. I don’t want that to change just because you came to my world.” She said.

__________

In all the 8 months I had known her, we had never talked about these things. We talked about school and work and other teachers and whether the construction at the local mosque had been completed. But on that day, on the terrace, we talked about her life and mine. I learned how strong and extraordinary this woman was. She cared for her family at home, her family in school, faced more bad days than I could count and still offered to help the klutzy new teacher that everyone was wary off, on that first day.

“I’m not any different from the many women who do this every day in this community.” She said when I told her how wonderful I thought she was. “They work many jobs, take care of their children and their husbands and pray to allah that their children will get all that they couldn’t. We do it every day here. I’m not different or special. It’s what we all do.”

I finished my chai¸set my glass down and walked over to the edge of the terrace. “We fly kites from here. My son is very good. He will teach you. I saw you trying to fly kites with your kids the other day. You’re terrible.” She said, laughing at my embarrassed face. “Come down now, come meet my husband.”

I had seen her husband before on a couple of occasions when he had come to pick her up from school or drop the kids off in school on their days off. We walked into her tiny little house where she put some hot samosas on a plate and pushed them into my hand. “I know you won’t eat them now. Take them home and eat them when you’re working at night. Heat them up though. Don’t eat them cold.” She said sternly. I promised I wouldn’t and tucked them into my bag.

“My husband will drop you home.” She said. “He bought a new bike but don’t tell him you like bikes because he will race the other bikes on the road and it’s dangerous.”  I tried in vain to tell her I would just take an auto home, and the only help I needed was to just show me the way out because of how confusing the identical lanes could get, especially in the evening. “Why? He will drop you home. Stop it. No arguments.” And that was that.

I spent some more time with the family, as they laughed at my Hindi and offered me more food. When it was time for me to leave, I hugged Amina and she held my arm and said, “You will have more rough days. Come to the terrace whenever you want. I’ll probably be there too. We’ll drink some chai and talk about it, okay?”

I promised her I would as I walked out of the house.

___________

She was right. Her husband drove me home at a ridiculous speed through lanes barely wide enough to fit us, with me holding onto my bag for dear life. When we reached my house, I thanked him, asked him if I could take a picture of him for this story I told myself I was going to write and then walked up to my apartment.

I thought of Amina and women like her. Women that had braved the storm, women who were strong and holding their family together. Women, who had in their own way, created their own calm amidst all that chaos.

I promised myself that tomorrow was going to be a better day. I had found my calm, in the chaos. And all I needed was a little chai and a story of the woman with the kind eyes to help me find it.