ANUPAM  RAJAK

CABBY CREEPS

The train had just started rolling as I entered Platform number 3 of the Cuttack junction situated in the East Coast Railway zone. I wasn’t able to run with my luggage. Over and above that, I had my wife and two children following me. Someone probably saw my plight and decided to help. The train slowed down to a halt and a bystander helped me with my luggage, while my wife, somehow, managed to board the train with the kids. I shook hands with the bystander who helped me, and waved at him, while my train chugged off, much to the delight to the other passengers, who would rather have liked me missing the train.

As I entered the sleeper coach, to find my reserved seat, I found my wife, Smita, already in a verbal match with the man, who had been enjoying a sound sleep in our seat till then, and did not want to let go. It took me and a number of other passengers to convince him that the seat was reserved for me, and that he had no business holding on to it. By the time, the matter was solved, my wife had started taking out the luggage of other passengers from under the bottom seat, to make way for ours. This again lit up another argument, with the passengers who had taken my side in emptying my seat, a few moments earlier, had taken up cudgels on the opposite side now. Finally, a truce was achieved, when I repacked the space below the bottom seat with the earlier pieces of luggage and settled for keeping my luggage in between the seats, on the floor. Eventually, all four of us got seated on the bottom seat, which was rightfully Smita’s, as per the reservation list.

After being comfortably seated by the window, Smita was now enjoying the morning breeze with our seven year old son, Rohan, a brilliant piece of mischievousness apparent from his twinkling eyes. Rekha, my three year old daughter, was a diametrically opposite sibling to her brother, who was just content with clinging to my shoulder. As hawkers made their way through the passage, with sundries befitting the people they served, my son tried to attract my attention every time, for potato-chips or ice-cream, whenever these items made their announcements in the attractive voices of the hawkers. I relented buying anything from these hawkers, lest, they might cause upsets to his feeble stomach.

The train had gathered speed and the incessant noise of the metallic wheels rolling along the rails resembled a music to our ears. Small stations passed by as Rohan waved at the unknown commuters on the platforms, waiting for their scheduled trains. Most of our fellow passengers were now dozing off, with nothing to do other than watching at the images scurrying past the windows. Rekha had fallen asleep by now. So, I put her down on the seat, allowing her a light nap, while I picked up my android set to flip through the social media posts made in my timeline. After some time, I perched onto the upper berth to have some sleep, while Smita took care of the children.

The whole journey was peaceful, with no untoward incident. When the train reached Manmad Station, it was half an hour behind schedule. All four of us alighted from the train along with our luggage. The weather was dry, and the atmosphere serene. A cool breeze from the distant Sahyadri hills enlightened our tired souls till our train arrived, to take us to our destination, the holy Sainagar at Shiridi. We reached Shiridi just about half past noon, took a cab to the hotel booked for us, and after a hurried check-in, we rushed to the Sai Baba Temple to get a free meal. We were late for the morning visit, and would have to wait till evening, to get a glimpse of the Great prophet, who displayed his magnanimity to the entire world. 

Our planning was to visit the Sai Temple in the evening and move towards Mumbai next day in the morning. Torrential rain started at night, and all our plans to go to Mumbai seemed to be thwarted by the rainfall. The entire stretch of the road from Shiridi to Mumbai would be difficult to negotiate in this weather, with quite a long stretch passing through steep mountain passes, that turned treacherous in the rainy season. Coupled with that were the hair-pin curves, that could take the breath away from any driver, not acquainted with it. The morning had yet more bad news waiting for us. The rental, from which I had booked a cab to go to Mumbai, had refused the ride citing poor weather condition.

I walked to the taxi stand, to see if any body could help us, but, not a single cab was found there. Finally, I asked a local for help, but, he too warned me against undertaking the journey that day. When I told him, that, I was supposed to attend a wedding in Mumbai the next day, he gave me the mobile number of a cab-driver, and asked me to request him for the ride. With a completely overcast sky and a never ending downpour, continuing since the last evening, I seemed to have got no hopes whatsoever. Still, I tried to ring up the given number, as that was my last possible hope of exiting Shiridi that day. A day more of my leave, and my boss would ring me up telling me, that, he had got a replacement for me. I didn’t want to face his wrath anyway. After making around twenty futile calls to the given number, quite a few of them being denied by the intermittently disappearing network, I tossed the phone on to the bed of my hotel room in desperation. That’s when the phone rang. Reluctantly, I picked up the call and waited for the other end to respond after my hurried “Hello”. The person on the other end seemed to be annoyed at me on having made so many calls, and I was about to burst out at him, when I heard him saying, “Where do you want to go?” These words were such a delight to my ears that I would have kissed him if he was near me. I told him, “I need a cab to reach Mumbai tonight”. He said, “I will take you to Mumbai, but, the cost would be higher”. I said, “Don’t worry about the cost. I will pay you whatever you spell out”. He said, “You get prepared by 12 o’clock. I will reach you by then”. I put down the phone and asked Smita to get ready with the breakfast.

The rain stopped abruptly at eleven. Though the sky was overcast, the break in the downpour gave me a little relief from the anxious moments I spent in the morning. We started at half past noon. At times, the sun came up from among the clouds, but, receded very soon. The entire ride would take us around five hours time if the rain did not play spoilsport any further. The road was initially fine, but, gradually worsened as we headed towards Sinnar. Just as we were about to enter Sinnar, we saw a group of policemen posted on the road. They had covered almost half of the road by their presence, and all the vehicles had to pass through the other half. As we approached them, a tourist bus came from the opposite direction at a tremendous speed. I thought the bus would crush us, because there was very little space in between the policemen and the bus. The bus zoomed past and I thanked my stars. But, almost instantaneously, there was a loud thud at the back of the taxi. The driver stopped the taxi and went out to meet the police pesonnel. When, I got out of the cab, I saw a family of three, thrown on the ground after having struck our cab from behind, as the driver had applied brakes to stop the taxi from hitting the policemen. I told the policemen, that, we were not at fault, as the bike had hit us from behind. However, they asked us to take the family to a nearby hospital and tend to their treatment. I knew this was unfair, but, had to comply, as the place was new to me. We lost almost an hour in the process, and my heart skipped a bit or two as we saw clouds gathering fast overhead.

The rain started in drizzles, but, very soon the drops started pounding at the windscreen. The road ahead was hardly visible. By the time we reached Kasara, the sun had set, and my worst fears materialized. The rain was striking the windscreen with such ferocity, that, it seemed as if the glass would break. The taxi was moving cautiously with headlights on. Rain water was pouring in from one side of the mountain and flowing our to the other side after giving us a hellish moment of low visibility and uncertain maneuverability. We were all praying to God, that, he might forgive us all our sins and let us escape this perilous journey unscathed.

Just as we cleared a hairpin bend on the road, we came across an accident. A lorry had skidded off the road and a breakdown vehicle was trying to haul it up. There was very little gap between the breakdown vehicle and the steep hill-side, but, vehicles were squeezing past through that gap, as they were anxious to cross the treacherous highway fast. Our driver also decided to squeeze past the vehicle, but, just as he was about to enter the narrow gap, the breakdown vehicle inched backwards, as it had been able to haul the ill-fated lorry up, by a few feet, and wanted to have a better foothold. I could see all the vehicles on the other side having lined up along the mountainous side of the road, while the other side, where the only support was a one meter high wall of stones, before leading to a 200 meters fall below, was completely free. Just as the lorry was hauled up and was visible to us, our driver stepped on the throttle and bolted for the gap between the breakdown vehicle and the ill-fated lorry. A slight mistake, and we would all have been shooting into an abyss. I closed my eyes, while Smita cried out in horror. Our children were struck with awe as both their parents lost their sense of being responsible adults, and were crying like children.

Exactly at that moment, my son gave out a cry and startled me, “Papa! Look back. The lorry as well as the crane is gone”. I looked back, and saw the scene with petrified eyes. The breakdown vehicle and the lorry had gone down along with a few other vehicles stranded nearby. Had we not shot through the gap at the right moment, we would have been thrown down as well. I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to absorb the horror I had been, just now, exposed to. We smoothly crossed the vehicles lined up on the other side. I thanked God that we had been saved by His grace and by the expertise and split-second decision made by our driver. But, how could I know, that, we were yet to experience some rare features of the world.

The taxi was negotiating another dangerous bend, when a flash of lightning blinded my eyes. I heard the thunderous roar after the lightning, but, could not discern the roar of an up-coming lorry from the opposite left side of the road. The speed of the up-coming lorry was such that, our taxi needed to go towards the unprotected curve of the bend on our right, otherwise we could be crushed under the wheels of the lorry. As our cab swerved past the lorry, I felt the low protection wall disappear from sight. I almost cried out, fearing that our driver must have overshot the bend, but, when the cab landed back on its left wheels, I knew what he had done; a trick hitherto seen only in films and stunts.

I was praying with closed eyes, which I opened only to the shouts of my son, Rohan. :Papa! Who’s driving the taxi?” “What do you mean, Rohan! The driver is at the wheels. It is he who is driving the taxi and saved us from sure death on two occasions”, I said. Rohan said, “Papa! Look! The driver’s seat is empty”. I looked at my right. Yes! Rohan was right. No one was driving the taxi. It was steering through the road all by itself. I froze on seeing this. A cold chill swept through my spine. The steering wheel was moving all by itself, the throttle was getting pressed without any one doing it, and the gears changed as required . I tried getting up to control the steering wheel. But, just then, the driver appeared, and I simply looked at him in awe.

When we reached Mumbai late in the evening, I was terrified. I didn’t even look at the face of the driver, lest, I might see something gory and faint. The entire fare had been paid in advance. So, we just got down from the cab and walked up to the room, rented for us.

THE END.


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