He sighs and brings the car to a stop for the third time in twenty minutes.

There goes the family dinner.

The woman hurries her daughter out of the car just in time for her to retch audibly into the bushes.

“Easy, sweetie, that’s it. Have some water.”

He lights up a cigarette and thinks about what he could buy Manav as an apology for missing dinner again. He pats the thin wad of money in his breast-pocket. Every rupee a meagre reward for every minute he fails to give to his family.

“I think I’ll sit in the front, mummy.”

He frowns at the girl as she slips into the passenger seat beside him. She gives him a pained smile and reclines the seat back as far as it would go.

“We really need to ask the doctor about this” comes the mother’s tired whisper from behind him, one of the many soon-to-be-forgotten-promises in the unchanging humdrum of routinized life.

He restarts the engine and there is silence. He likes the silence. Craves it. No uncomfortable secrets being spilled to seemingly deaf ears, no silly games to bide the time, no motion-sickness woes of 14-year-old girls and their overly-concerned mothers, no cooing lovers, or breaking relationships at the back of the car. Silence means the freedom to let his attention drift. An opportunity to retreat into the scaffolds of his own mind and hear the repressed voices there, away from the relentless intonations of his passengers.

This is a dark place, he thinks. The driving seat. Rendering him near-invisible to all these people he is surrounded with all the time. It is incredible how he inadvertently becomes a constant presence in their most memorable journeys, or family trips, or life-altering epiphanies, or even shares in their solitude for a while, and yet himself remains just a back of the head in their memories, a fleeting glimpse of a face at the most. This place is an odd paradox of permanence and transience; it has become a second-home to him now, seeing that he doesn’t remember the soft fabric of his own bed half as well as the texture of this seat.

A faint smile tugs at his lips as the girl snores lightly beside him. After all the halts and vomiting-sessions, she found reprieve in the passenger seat, a seat that not many choose to occupy if they can help it. Some unspoken norm with travellers. He is too accustomed to an empty seat beside him to not be startled by how close her snores are.

That gets him to think of all the absurd sleeping habits and snoring patterns he has been made privy to. It feels strangely intimate, even more so than knowing their life-stories. His job should be pretty colourful; his car is always brimming with life. All this tangled mesh of lives that he encounters everyday should feel more exhilarating, more eventful. But all of this only distances him more. It is a one-way interaction where he can never have an active role. Not to mention that all this flurry of life only heightens the monotony of his own, of constant sights of never-ending roads and signposts.

He checks the time. Another hour before his passengers reach their home. Another after that to reach the taxi-stand. Manav will be asleep by the time he returns home.

Shouldn’t have promised about today.

The girl’s phone slips out of her jeans-pocket and lands on the floor. His number is in there, he recalls. She had fed it in earlier that day. He wonders how many people have his number saved on their phones. Quite a lot, he wagers, seeing he has been more than ten years into the job. It could even be a world record of some sort.

He then wonders how many of them have it saved under his name. Or even know his name. “The Driver” has become a convenient sobriquet for him now, and it is perturbing how strongly he has started to identify with it. The girl had been innovative and saved it under “Driver Uncle”, which is refreshingly endearing.

But yes, this is the funniest bit. Like watching TV, for lack of a more sophisticated analogy. Like how you could know all about your favourite celebrity, their idiosyncrasies, private lives, likes and dislikes, and despite being a constant audience to them, all you remain for them is a nameless face amidst the crowd. In his case, more likely the back of a head.

[Swara Shukla]

Image courtesy of Nour El-Issa


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