Left or Right?
It is an unremarkable evening. I finish my meeting at seven pm and stand on the footpath in Indira Nagar, eyes scanning the traffic for an empty rickshaw. Lucky me, I find one under five minutes. He doesn't even ask for an extra ten rupees. I jump in, not at all embarrassed that I stopped traffic for a few minutes.
‘Know the back route to Cooke Town? By the railway crossing?’
‘Yes ma, less traffic route.’
Usually after getting in, I study the driver license displayed behind the seat to help the police identify the driver if I'm ever abducted. But lulled by the propitious signs of an unusually good rickshaw driver, I take out my iPhone and start checking my email. Most of the emails are related to permissions for the slum redevelopment project I'm working on. It is a very delicate subject because even after government approval, there's always an activist who starts a campaign. Then come the relentless emails to the susceptible public. The furore could take a while to calm down but the mall or apartment complex is built and the public forgets its temporary outrage, using it without another thought.
I secretly sympathise with the slum folk. They may be getting new homes but who wants to relocate outside city limits? I had moved to Bangalore three months ago from Kolkata. Only afterwards, did I realise that my salary was just enough to cover my living expenses. I wish I had the courage to express my views on redevelopment to my boss but I can’t jeopardise my salary hike this year. There’s a glow in my heart, as fragile as a newborn kitten, while dreaming of a credit bank balance at the month’s end.
My mind focuses on the road again. Not too many people seem to know this unusually empty back route; surprising, when you consider that it has no bus stops and traffic signals to slow down traffic. I discovered it last week when another rickshaw driver insisted on going this way. But that was during the day. Today my heart is beating a little faster on this road, which seems bereft of streetlights. After passing the railway crossing and a graveyard, we reach a fork in the road.
He asks, ‘Left aa - right aa?’
‘I’m not sure. You said you knew the route!’ I look down at my phone but the signal is too low to check Google Maps.
‘You should know left-right, no ma?’
‘Fine, take left!’
I have a slum visit tomorrow but I hate going there. Something about the place always makes me feel vulnerable even though we go in a group of four. When I meet the women of the slum and explain the benefits of relocating to them, they look half convinced. But it is the men who will decide in the end. Somehow I can’t talk to these men even though it is my job. I am scared of them though they have never said anything or acted out of line. It is something about their body language and the way they look at us.
I go back to my phone, trying to check for a signal, but five minutes later I regret not paying attention. The back route to Cooke Town has vintage colonial bungalows on both sides of the road, another reason I like the route. But I can see only mounds of garbage piled along a high wall on one side, not one pretty bungalow.
‘Aiyyo, stop! This is the wrong road. We took the wrong turn, you idiot,’ the last two words muttered under my breath.
‘You said left, I took left. Not my mistake, ma.’
‘Yes, yes. Just turn around and go back to the place where we turned left.’
We drive back but even ten minutes later there is no fork to be seen, just an empty road with a high wall on one side and two derelict cottages on the other. I feel tiny bubbles of panic rising in my chest. I look at the driver through the rear view mirror trying to judge if he has played a trick on me. He reminds me of the hyena in Jungle Book. Damn those auspicious signs!
‘Stop! Where is the place we turned left?’
‘Don't know, ma.’
‘What do you mean you don't know! You're a rickshaw driver! You're supposed to know all the roads in the city.’ No response from him. ‘No point in going on like this. Turn around, go straight. Maybe we can find the main road ahead. Understood?’
The driver shakes his head. I hope that means he understood. He turns the rickshaw around again. Whipping my head to the left and right, I nurse the desperate hope of finding the elusive fork but it has vanished. I’m directionally challenged but this is bordering on hallucination. We drive back for ten minutes and the high wall ends. Apartment blocks appear on both sides of the road. But these are different from the ones I see every day where I live and work. None of them have any boundary walls; they are built right on the road with three floors each. Some are still unfinished with pillars and iron rods on the top floor. Multiple lines of washing and decaying junk stored in the pocket-sized balconies whisper stories of low incomes and large families.
I spy a few scooters, the kind my grandfather drove and one rusting car with no tyres parked between the buildings. These days the newspapers are filled with real estate ads outdoing each other in the list of amenities. But here, a coat of paint seems like a luxury. My head fills like a gutter in the rain with vague fears about women’s safety. I usually go to great lengths to avoid passing through such localities. But here I am, lost in the landscape of my mind's terrors.
In contrast to the seediness of the buildings, the area is brightly lit, like a street party is about to start. I urge the rickshaw driver to go faster but he doesn’t reply nor does he drive faster. The road is getting narrower. With the finely honed sense of someone who has been lost in Bangalore many times, I know this way won't lead to a main road.
‘Stop! Don't you think we should ask someone for directions?’
‘Ok ma. I'll ask someone.’
He abruptly stops the vehicle and steps out with a sideways glance at me. The streetlight shines on him. His eyes seem to change colour like a hyena. His loping gait and long hair tapering down his neck add to the impression. I watch him as he disappears into an apartment building.
Finally I have a moment to myself. Let me make a call so that I can tell someone what's happening. Looking down at my hand, a scream dies a soundless death in my throat. The phone is dead because the battery has run out. Coffee-flavoured vomit rises at the back of my throat but I force myself to swallow it. Can't breakdown now.
I wait fifteen minutes but I know from the beginning of the wait that the driver isn't coming back. With all the driving back and forth, I'm not sure how far the original fork in the road is from here. I contemplate walking back. But the rickshaw feels like my last link with safety. I don't want to step out. I sit for a couple more minutes looking at my watch and praying that the driver comes back. There's no choice really. I will have to ask someone for directions. I sling my laptop bag across my shoulder and step out. That's when I understand why the locality feels so eerie. There are no people on the road, no shops, just unpainted crumbling blocks of apartments. I can hear the buzz of loud conversation from the flats. It could be from a tv. I walk carefully into the building that is closest to the rickshaw. Three small steps lead to a rectangular landing. Beyond that are three apartments with their front doors open. All three have lights on inside. In a bizarre moment, I think of going eeny meeny miny moe but as always, I choose the balanced option – in this case the middle door.
When I walk in, what seemed like bright yellow light from the outside, is flickering blue, green and yellow. There are three men and three women seated around a table. They look at me and smile. Ohhhh! What a relief to finally see some people. How silly to let an uneducated rickshaw driver scare me out of my wits. I am going to memorise his license plate and complain to the police tomorrow. The light flickers to blue. Now I see that the people at the dining table are pigs dressed in human clothes. The light flickers to yellow and they look human again. One of them says something with a grunt and gets up to come towards me.
My feet take me out of the apartment without conscious thought. I dash into the next apartment. There's no one there but the table is laid for six. I run to the next block. The doors on the ground floor are closed. Manners don’t matter anymore. I hammer, at the left door this time. A tiger dressed in a soiled white shirt and patched pants of indeterminate colour opens it. The tiger says, ‘Who are you? What do you want?’ His breath smells of cheap whiskey. No, he's actually a man. His wife comes to the door too. She looks at me with narrowed eyes. ‘What do you want?’ The yellow light changes to red. The two tigers roar simultaneously and come towards me with paws outstretched. I can't hold my terror in. I scream so loudly that it seems to echo in the building. It stops them. I turn and run madly towards the place where the rickshaw was parked. But it isn’t there anymore.
Get to the road! No! It is too open if the human-animals come after me. I creep to the side of a building and then run across a well-lit patch to get to the rusting Ambassador I had seen earlier. Kneeling by the side of the car, I can hear a bike, more than one in the distance. God, hear my prayers and save me!
I hear loud chattering and howls before I see them, a pack of jackals on motorcycles. I count nine as they pass by howling to each other. I wait in the same spot behind the car for the most agonising forty-five minutes of my life. At nine, I decide to make a run for it. As I get up, I see a wolf looking at me from a first floor window. But he makes no move towards me. Still clutching my laptop bag, I run down the road. I wish I could run faster but my knees hurt. After a few minutes, I am gasping for breath but I don’t dare to stop. And then I see the fork again. A rickshaw is coming towards me.
‘Stop, stop. Cooke Town please.’
‘Extra twenty rupees? Its past nine.’
‘Yes, just go.’
The road, the ride, the potholes, everything is a blur. Finally, I am in front of my apartment. As I clamber out and pay him, a girl walks up and asks the rickshaw driver, ‘Will you go to Indira Nagar?’ He nods, she gets in. As the rickshaw turns and passes by me, the light falls on his face. His eyes change colour like a hyena’s eyes.
Once a sharp-suited banker, Sudha Mathew is now an entrepreneur who creates unforgettable holidays. When she's at home, she dreams about travelling and when she's on the road, she longs for home. Addicted to dark chocolate and travel magazines, she blogs on travel at http://www.goseekandhide.com/blog-home and tweets @sudhamathew.