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Seshadri Sreenivasan

Terror in Taxi

The pain that once burned like a fire had faded away to an icy numbness. His vision was turning foggy and he could hear his own heartbeat. Sardar Pritam Singh was lying next to his yellow taxi. His breath came in shallow gasps. He allowed himself a wry smile. As he lay I lay there he heard voices. People swarmed all over him, trying to help him and save him from certain death. He thought they were like children, naive to the darkness of the world of departed souls. In his last living moments, Sardar Pritam Singh thought of all the despair and suffering he had gone through in his fifty-odd years of living in Mumbai and the cruel fate that took everyone he loved away from him. Now it was his turn. What a way to die!  But he consoled himself thinking he would be joining them soon and he could die happy now. He wondered who would pay the next EMI for his taxi. He had always prided himself on his honesty and hard work. His once strong heartbeat one last time.

 

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In his life Sardar Pritam Singh had given more to the small world around him than what he took. He used to get carried away by emotions than street-smart wisdom. He had loved his family and friends without any expectations and donated money to the Gurudwara for feeding the poor. His acts of kindness nourished his soul and body. His well-wishers were constantly advising him to switch jobs and give up driving taxis.

 

“Taxi drivers are the most likely workers to die a violent death on the job because they work with cash, with the public, alone and during nighttime hours” Sardar Gurbux Singh many years senior to him advised him  “I came face to face with death a number of times during my active days. I couldn’t care less and sorted them out single-handedly. But as age caught up with me I couldn’t take it any longer. So, I took retirement and am serving the local Gurudwara now”. Pritam Singh smiled and nodded his head. His well-wishers warned him constantly after seeing the increasing incidents of violence happening in the city. But Pritam Singh pooh-poohed them saying his was a noble profession and an act of public service.

“You guys are suffering from paranoia and are overreacting. It is wrong to generalize the danger. In fact, that danger to life exists in every sphere of our activity”.

 

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It was not the sound of the rear door opening that woke him up from the slumber of the midday meal. But it was a human sound. He sat straight in his taxi, adjusted his turban, and saw the man from the rear mirror. He appeared to be pitch drunk. The man was fat and big. He let out a big belch. Pritam Singh held his breath and it happened again. He wiped his hand across his mouth, and then belched loudly. There was something unsettling about the smell.  It reminded him of the smells of the city that were alien to him when he first landed in Mumbai from a small village in Punjab. This chaotic smell set him on edge.  As if this was not enough, the stranger, the big fat man in his forties lit a cigarette and let out a billow of smoke. He grunted.

“Start the taxi. What are you waiting for?”

The stench of the tobacco was overpowering and Pritam Singh didn’t want to go home smelling like an ashtray!

“Yes Sir” Pritam Singh replied politely. “May I remind you, Sir, smoking in the taxi is prohibited?

“Who in the hell says that?” The fat man retorted.

“Under the Prohibition of Smoking in Public Places Rules, 2008, smoking is prohibited in public transport. Taxis constitute public transport. Hence the smoking ban applies to them as well”

Pritam Singh had done his homework well. He pointed to the notice stuck on the front and rear sides of the taxi interiors.

“ I don’t care” the man growled. “Just shut up and start driving. “

Just then a policeman started to approach him, looking at a photo in his hand and the man in the backseat.

Pritam Singh sensing trouble started the car and drove fast. The fat man threw the cigarette out of the window and let out a series of unprintable curses.

“Where would like to go Sir” Printam sigh asked his rude customer.

“ Just keep driving along the highway. I will give you the directions”

 Pritam caught the fat man in the rear mirror glancing furtively at both sides of the road and looking back.

“This man in the backseat appears to be a total mental wreck. Just the opposite of me”, Pritam Singh thought. “I wonder how long this drive would last.” Just then the fat man asked him to stop and pull over on the side of the highway. He asked him to wait or face consequences.

“It is my duty to serve customers Sir” Pritam Singh answered as politely as he could. Please take your time. But note the meter will be running”.

The fat man glared at him and the meter and quickly got down and swaggered through the crowd.

Thirty minutes went by and Pritam Singh wondered why the fat was taking so long. Had he given a slip and run away?  He leaned back in his seat and slipped back into sleep only to be woken up by the sudden entry of the fat man in the taxi. He started the taxi and waited for his instructions. He looked back and found the fat man had blood on his shirt and hands and was trying to hide something in his bag.

“Don’t look back. Stop staring. Drive ahead. And don’t ask questions” the fat man said angrily in a staccato manner.

“It’s none of my business Sir” Pritam Singh answered softly and pulled up to the high way.

“Drive straight and pass the toll gate without making any fuss. I have a knife with me and don’t make me use it to cut you to pieces” the fat man threatened.

“The situation is getting more serious and dangerous by the minute” Pritam Sigh thought. “I should report this matter to the police as soon as this guy gets off my taxi”. He said a silent prayer.

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As he drove along the highway, often glancing at the fat man in the rear mirror, Pritam Singh tried to suppress a growing fear. There was something evil about the man and his breath was cowering. He couldn’t shape it. The fat man was dozing and gently snoring. Pritam Singh was trying to invent a silent language that could enter his sleep. He was scared of waking him up and remained to be silent.  And the sound of snoring continued. As the toll gate approached, he was waking up in the slowest possible way. Pritam Singh had never taken such care with his driving. He didn’t rush through the toll gate. He waited patiently for the man at the tollgate to give him the change and receipt for the toll fee. There were a couple of policemen posted there who were busy chatting and laughing with some villagers.

Life looked quite normal.  When he looked back on his youth, it made him smile. It had brought him many joyful moments. Sad moments. Tense moments. And more in-between spontaneous moments. The journey of life did not become easier as he grew older, but he seemed to understand it better as his perspectives evolved trying to adjust to the living in a big bad city. He had taken a conscious decision to explore different paths in his life. It was time to change. To lead from the heart. That was the problem with his life. He always asked himself. “What are you doing for others?”  He was never appreciated for the kind things he did for others. Trying to do good, he had failed over and over again but never gave up to lead a helpful and meaningful life. He found that every day was not good for him. So, he invariably tried to find something good in every day.

Pritam Singh was ruminating on his life as he drove along and realized that he had never thought about life in this way. “What have I done wrong”?, he tried to recollect.

 “ I have returned the borrowed money on time with interest”

“ I have never indulged in falsehoods”

“ Never did anything that would bring me and my family to grief  and immerse me in a guilt complex”

The high decibel noise coming behind him alerted him and he recognized it as a siren that comes from a police car. He intuitively knew that the man in the toll booth must have alerted the police when he saw the suspicious looking fat man in the back seat. Momentarily Pritam Singh felt relieved.

“ What the hell have you done?” the fat man angrily shouted. “You have alerted the police and have betrayed me”

“ No Sir I did nothing of that sort. You have been watching me all the time” Pritam Singh pleaded.

“Take a turn to the left and enter the small lane. I know how to handle this situation”

 Pritam Singh stepped on the accelerator and without applying the brakes, he took a sharp turn accompanied by the screeching noise of the tyres. He drove on the road which had seen better days decades ago. It was full of potholes and the taxi was hopping down the road like a frog. The fat man got restless as the police jeep was closing on them. At the next big pothole, the axle of the taxi broke and it came to an abrupt halt. Three policemen got off quickly from their vehicle and approached the vehicle. The inspector asked the fat man to lower the glass window and bellowed.

“ Pappu Yadav, You are a wanted man in four states. You were involved in selling fake canisters, illegal kidney transplants, and killing of twenty taxi drivers in secluded places and driving away in their vehicles. You are under arrest for various criminal activities. Get out of the taxi slowly”. He then motioned the constables to handcuff him.

The fat man got off the taxi and confronted them. Two policemen grunted as they took hold of the fat man’s collar and tried to handcuff him. Then the fat man started jabbing them in the ribs with practiced precision. Then one policeman grabbed his hair, bringing his face down sharply onto the bonnet of the taxi. Blood flowed from the fat man’s broken nose and he staggered backward.

On seeing the scuffle, Pritam Singh got off from the taxi and ran towards the policemen.

“Watch Out. He has a deadly weapon” he shouted. It was then the fat man took out the sharp killer knife and stepped forward menacingly.

The fat man held the knife with jagged edges, twisting it in the daylight, his expression matching that of a wild animal frothing at the mouth. He jumped at Pritam Singh held him against the taxi and ran the knife deep into the neck and sliced it with full force. Pritam Singh was too shocked to feel what had happened. He could see the fat man through the stream of darkening blood spilling through his neck and mouth. He could see the three policemen pouncing on the fat man and beating him with police clubs.

And that seemed to be the end of the deadly scuffle. Short, violent, and bloody. Everything happened so fast.

 Sardar Pritam Singh slumped on his taxi and held it tight as if it was trying to drive away on its own. But the process of dying was more cruel than any fiction one would ever read or a movie would ever show. There was no dignity here. He held both hands to his neck and tried to smile weakly at a policeman trying to help him and stop the gush of blood. In the meantime, a crowd had gathered.

They say a man who lives fully is not afraid of death. He didn’t mourn the life well lived for others.

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