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