Small price for a story
19 November 2019
A short story
Photo: Kiersten / Flickr
Like every morning for the past few months, Khraw booked one of those ever-popular bike taxis to work. This was his main mode of transport to work now. No more cab aggregators for him. It was 10.30 am and he wanted to reach his office by 11 am or, latest, by 11.15 am. He had done it many times. Going from Indiranagar to HSR Layout, a distance of around ten kilometres, is possible within half an hour even in peak hours, he would tell his friends. Many scoffed at him in disbelief. They did not know that the route he took went through the front doors of many houses. Bengaluru had become infamous all over the world for its traffic problems. Even The New York Times and the BBC had reported on the issue, but Khraw knew better, at least on this route.
Miles, kilometres and the usual units of calculating distances did not apply to this city. People here calculated distances in time, as though they were travelling in space. He would ask his bike driver to take the by lanes of S.T. Bed. No need to go to the main road and spend some half an hour or an hour just waiting at the traffic stops. These were things those international publications didn’t know and never published. A large portion of the road from the Domlur flyover ran alongside the army-owned areas. Once one crossed the Ejipura stop, you entered the by lanes. The problem was only some 500 metres away from this congested stop. But even here, Khraw had figured out a trick to beat the traffic. One just needed to reach this place at around 11 am. The thinnest concentration of vehicles here, in the daytime, was around 11 am. Khraw had calculated the timings for months to reach this conclusion, and it worked every time.
The only hurdle was the bike driver. Khraw anticipated the Captain (as the drivers of the bike taxi were called on the mobile app) to arrive within the scheduled time – 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes. Sometimes the drivers would go in the opposite direction and not towards him. He would call them several times and many of them would not turn around, despite assuring him that they would. Sometimes he would call them back just to give them an earful and cancel the trip. On this day, though, Khraw’s Captain came on time. He didn’t even have to call him. Such days were rare. In fact, Khraw was the one who made him wait for a while. Finally, he came down from his apartment and the Captain was there. The Captain flashed him a wide smile but didn’t say a word. He then handed Khraw his helmet, waited for him to climb on at the back and the two were off.
The Captain had a square-jaw and one of those faces that appeared to be ever-smiling. He was lean and fit and looked young for his age, which must have been around forty-five years. After what seemed about ten minutes, the two got talking. Sometimes, when Khraw had a lot on his mind, he liked a driver who didn’t talk much. Today, he was in a chatty mood. He asked the Captain if he was doing this part time or full time, which is where he always began when he wanted to start a conversation. He would judge the length of the answer and the driver’s enthusiasm in giving it, in order to ask another question and then another one. The Captain seemed interested to give more details about his work schedule and very soon their talk veered to the beginnings of his entire working life.
The Captain used to work as a daily wage labourer, painting high rises. He said he started that when he was just nineteen years old. They crossed the partially congested flyover at Domlur and then came down. He pointed to a building on the left side of the road and said he had done some work there back in the 80s. In those days, the city limits used to end some 500 metres away from the flyover (which wasn’t even there then), he said. One day, as he was working at this job, his life turned upside down.
Prior to this day, Khraw had never noticed the building. It did look like one of those old apartment buildings constructed decades ago, peculiarly designed, with small windows – that looked even smaller now, amid the current fashion for sheets of glass. The Captain said he was working on the walls of the third floor of the building when the rope holding the plank he stood on snapped – and he plunged down. His spine almost broke and he was in the most excruciating pain. He said he didn’t know whether he was lucky or unlucky not to die. The contractor under whom he was working, sent him to a government hospital nearby. There are no medical insurances or any kind of benefits for people in the unorganised sector even today. The question of having them in those days did not even arise, the Captain said. He was shifted to the ESI government hospital in Indiranagar, but going there was not of much help. Still in a lot of pain, he was transported to his village near Hoskete, located on the outskirts of Bengaluru, some 40-50 kilometres away from the main city. The Captain said he and his family were originally from another state but had been settled there since the time he could remember.
By this time, Khraw and the Captain were entering that portion of the road where greenery and trees grew on both sides. Thank goodness for the army, Khraw always thought, when he passed this part of his route. Otherwise, this area would have been crowded with buildings and overflowing with drains just like his own locality. One could also be assured that this place at least would remain green for many years to come, he would always think with relief. The Captain asked Khraw if he wanted to stop for some breakfast. A lot of people stood behind wheel carts on the big pavement by this road. Some sold the regular rice bath, chow chow bath, idli or dosas. The Captain stopped at one cart where he seemed like a regular, although he and the man behind the cart did not talk at all. On top of the cart were two big pots covered with a chequered cloth that was used as a lid. Khraw thought he was selling buttermilk. Instead, it was a coagulated form of ragi mudde. Khraw had had ragi mudde shaped as tennis balls before, but never in semi-solid form. A black-brownish liquid was poured in two big steel glasses and these were given to Khraw and the Captain. This liquid needed to be paired with a number of condiments that were in Tupperware containers on the man’s cart. Some had pickled cucumbers and chillies, others had salted chillies. The liquid tasted bland to Khraw, as if someone mixed some flour with water. The sides added some flavor, but these did not help much. Khraw still managed to finish the whole thing but with some difficulty.
The Captain, on the other hand, drank the entire liquid in one gulp and had one dry chillie at the end. Khraw paid the bill of 30 rupees. It was a small price for a story, he said to himself. They got on the bike and carried on forward but soon got stuck some 500 metres before the Ejipura traffic stop for around 15 minutes. Idle time brought out more from the Captain about his life. Without any money, there was little he could do to treat himself after the fall. He was howling in pain almost every minute he was in the dingy shack he called home. His poor mother did not know what to do. He had thought he was going to die very soon and resigned himself to fate and waited. His mother was beside him day and night. Then, one day, a neighbour told him about a local remedy – snake oil got from one particular kind of snake found in a nearby forest.
The Captain said it was a miraculous potion and something to which he owed his life. Khraw asked the Captain to tell him more. In the town he came from, in the Northeast, he had heard many myths about a similar magic oil. His grandmother had told him of many stories about this oil joining broken bones in a matter of weeks. This was the first time he found a person who had used, or even claimed to have used, the oil himself and vouched for its healing properties. The Captain said his mother applied the snake oil on his body, back and legs every day without fail for three years. It was not costly at all and was only a few hundred rupees, he said. The Captain got teary-eyed from the mere utterance of his late mother. She was a woman who had suffered a lot in life and someone to whom he owed his second life.
The Captain’s father was a drunkard. He was, however, an ace tailor who was well known in his locality and even his village. People from around his village would come to get their dresses, pants and shirts sewn by him. He drank day and night and would often beat up the Captain and his mother. His talents eventually left him, since he was only devoted to quenching his thirst. The Captain’s father did not even bother to send him to school. The Captain did not know how to write a single word properly. At least when one said you dropped out of school after a certain class, you knew your parents tried to get you educated at some point of time, he said. But in his case, the Captain was unschooled from the start. His mother was uneducated herself. She did not have the will to fight her drunkard husband nor did she have the means to send her son to school. She had too many other things to be bothered about, like not getting beaten every night. The Captain’s mother was not perfect either. But she cared for her son.
Life went on in this raggedy fashion for the next few years. The Captain became a teen. He survived by doing some menial jobs here and there and began contributing some money to the household. One day, when he was beaten up badly by his father, he ran away to Mumbai. He worked at hotels and as a daily-wage labourer at construction sites. After a while, he got fed up of that crowded and congested city and went back home. His parents didn’t seem happy or sad when he returned after three years. They just accepted the fact he came back and was going to stay with them. He started doing paint jobs on high rises and became good at it. But bad luck struck when he was nineteen years old.
One fine day, after the three years of paralysis, he got up from his bed and walked. It had rained relentlessly for a couple of days before this miracle. Finally, the sun had come out that afternoon. His room got a ray of sunlight through a hole in a wall near his bed. He felt like getting up, although he knew he couldn’t. But, to his utter shock and surprise, when he tried lifting himself up, he found he was able to do so. It felt as though nothing had happened. He feared he would collapse any minute after he got up and was cautious not to fall. For a while, he thought it was a dream. Standing there, he felt the rustling of his tarpaulin roof from a mild drizzle. He rubbed his eyes to make sure he was not in a dream. He wasn’t. He didn’t feel any pain either. Standing all alone, he cried in disbelief and in relief. That was about 20 years ago. He was completely healed now.
They finally crossed the busy Ejipura traffic stop and Khraw asked the Captain to take the left road into the narrow by lanes. There was a traffic jam of bikes here – nothing unusual and this did not last for more than a few minutes. The Captain had to negotiate bikes coming from the other direction while making sure he did not hit the people coming out of their houses on both sides of this narrow lane. One could get from one house into another across this lane in just one jump. These box shaped houses were made of concrete but appeared as though they were built in a hurry. Black water from the gutter spilled all over the lane and some of it entered the homes on both sides. It had rained heavily the previous night. Despite all of these hurdles, the Captain was happy to continue with his story.
The Captain eventually got married to a girl he had met right before his fall. She was from around Domlur and he used to meet her between his shifts here. He knew she was a keeper because she stuck by him when he became a vegetable for three years. She would often visit him during those dark days but she couldn’t do much, since her father was the controlling kind. They eventually got married once he got well and now had three kids. Despite all the talk of the adversity he had faced in his life, the Captain was optimistic about the future and radiated a smile when he talked about it. He had a lot to look forward to, especially in his family, he said. His voice particularly lit up when he spoke about his children – two girls and a boy. His eldest was taking the crucial Grade 10 board exams next year but he was confident she would ace it. She wants to be a doctor, he said. He would do all he could to fulfill her dream, which was his dream too, the Captain emphasised. He would not do to his children what his father did to him, he added. He had never laid a hand on any of his children and he would do exactly the opposite of what his father did to him, he again said. The younger daughter was in grade 7. He loved both of them equally, he assured Khraw, but you could tell he had a special place for his eldest daughter. His youngest, the son, was still growing up and in grade 2, he said.
By now Khraw and the Captain came out of lanes of S.T. Bed and were on their way to Agara Lake on HSR layout. There was a traffic jam just before they took the turn towards the main road that led to Khraw’s office. The Captain said he went back to painting high-rise walls after coming out of his paralysis. Despite being afraid of the job after the incident, this was the only skill he had, he said. He even started a firm with eight people. But the contractors who gave him the jobs would never fully pay him, once he finished. He had to pay his workers from his own pocket. After a while, he realised there could be no profit in the business if he went on like this. He dissolved his enterprise and had been looking out for something to do next.
There were these new jobs his neighbors’ sons would tell him about, something he had never heard of five years ago. The world around him was changing rapidly and he didn’t know about half of the things that went on in his locality. Knowing about these new ways to earn a living was out of the question. He was told he could deliver food and earn 30,000 rupees in a month with the bike he owned. He thought about the idea one night and then remembered his fast depleting savings, if you could call a few thousand rupees that. He was sold. He woke up the next day, asked his neighbour to show him how it all worked on his phone, registered that same day and started the job.
It was exactly what they said and he did earn that much. But they did not tell him how many hours he had to put in to earn the amount. In the one year he worked at the job, he did not remember a single proper meal he had had during the day. Once you made yourself available for duty, it was a constant rush, going from restaurants to people’s homes and vice-versa, he told Khraw. He sometimes wondered how much food people could eat in the city. Here he was delivering all the food in the world but he had to remain partially full every day. A single day’s food he delivered could feed a small village like his, he thought. Still, working for these companies was better than doing nothing, running his own firm at a loss or working for a cruel boss, he said.
One day when life was going on like this, he overslept at home without switching off the mobile app on his phone. A long list of orders were lined up, but the Captain was nowhere to be found. After he woke up, he got a message that he had been thrown out of his job. There had been a few other incidents and issues earlier which were not his fault. The customers were always right and were always holier than thou for these new companies. For anything that went wrong, it was the delivery drivers like the Captain who got blamed. He tried to explain to the customer care executives over the phone what had happened. But this last fault was indeed his. Most of the others weren’t. He accepted his expulsion and began looking for other things to do. That’s when he found the bike taxi job and became a Captain.
In any case, the previous job was getting a bit hectic, he reasoned. He told Khraw he was the master of his own fate now. He just switched on the mobile app whenever he felt like and he would get his customer. He could switch it off whenever he wanted and make himself unavailable. However, here was the catch – he had to make a certain number of trips to get his extra money or the ‘incentives’, as the Captain called them, apart from what he earned. By now Khraw and his driver had been let out by the traffic signal. The roads were pock-marked with a number of potholes and puddles. It was fine a few weeks ago when the heavy rains hadn’t started yet. After the rains, the roads appeared as if they were made of paper mache instead of concrete. The Captain had to negotiate loose gravel and puddles but he didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he didn’t even stop his story, as he skillfully zigzagged a few of the depressions and went on as if it was just any other road. At the signal, the Captain had asked Khraw about his friends. He said he had a few. It did not take long for the Captain to tell him about the only friend he had.
Every day, as a ritual, the Captain said he went to the temple with his friend. Khraw told him he did not come across as the religious kind. The Captain told him he was talking about a booze joint near his house and stated it so matter-of-fact that Khraw was stumped. Every day, no matter what, he and his friend would have to meet over a couple of drinks. They were childhood friends and had stood together through thick and thin. The Captain said he had even helped his friend find a wife. The friend was the shy kind who didn’t even dare be near a girl, the Captain said. The Captain was himself the shy kind too, but he had just got lucky. Now his friend had been happily married for many years. But the evening ritual was the same since the time the two began to drink during their teens. Khraw was near his office by now. The Captain had one last thing to say. “People can’t escape their fate no matter what. You just need to learn how to smile at whatever life throws at you. Look at me,” he said. Khraw thought about what the Captain said for a second and then fathomed the hectic day ahead. He nodded. Khraw asked the Captain to stop beside a tea shop near his office. The bill came up to 100 rupees. Khraw gave the Captain 200 rupees and asked him to keep the change. The Captain did not protest. He just smiled, took the amount and thanked him.
~Ramzauva Chhakchhuak is a journalist based in Bengaluru and Shillong. His work has been published in BLink (The Hindu Business Line), Deccan Herald, National Geographic, Indulge (The New Indian Express).