Original story by Raj Paul Sandhu, translated here from the Punjabi original by Mridula Nath Chakraborty, via the Hindi translation by Rajendra Tiwari. Published in “Samkaleen Bharatiya Sahitya” (Contemporary Indian Literature), a Hindi Literary Journal published by the Sahitya Akademi (India’s National Academy of Letters) Nov-Dec 2013.
In that freezing cold night, even the trees seemed to be giving an illusion of the paranormal. I’d just finished my studies and started driving a cab once a week. The Saturday night’s take helped cover my entire week’s expenses.
It was 2AM. Still an hour to go before my shift ended. I was hoping that I’d get someone who lived near my base so I could drop them off and finish my day. That one last passenger every taxiwala wants and dreads at the same time. Lost in thought, I turned the taxi towards the railway station. Any taxiwala will tell you that passengers at the station rank are needy and polite. As opposed to outside pubs and clubs: mainly pesky drunks and young fellows. Doing ‘a runner’ without paying. Misbehaving and sometimes even beating up the cabbie.
The windows were fogging up. Despite three layers of clothes, I was still shivering. I checked and once again clocked all AC knobs to the full 5PM. It still took me few seconds to feel the warm air on my feet.
In the Taxi course, Ustad taught us to always remember two things to stay alive. First, if a passenger did ‘a Runner’—never chase them. Two, never go to ‘K’ street of ‘R’ neighbourhood.
Cruising by, I glanced towards the taxi rank at the railway station. Three-four passengers. Not one was swaying or dancing. Drunk young fellows always created a racket at this hour. But this lot looked like a good deal. My night had been profitable so far. I would just drop them, go home, have a hot shower and off to sleep. I had to visit the gurudwara next morning to help in the community kitchen. Working the streets at night was sure to restore your faith in god: snuggled in a cosy bed in the comfort of your own home, the warm breath of your woman next to you, man has no need for god.
Hooking a right turn, I eased towards the rank. Now I was trying to suss out the four passengers. Ustad had taught us that taxiwalas have to be psychologists. Doctors, comedians, thugs, sometimes poets and philosophers too. I think there is little difference between this profession and prostitution. Taxiwalas have to gauge the risk factor and swiftly read the expressions, gait, stride, colour and clothes of potential passengers. I’ve tried the theory many times. Have had to control many a difficult passenger, sometimes by joking, by aggression, sometimes threatening to call the police, and sometimes just simply appealing to their fear of god. Poetry doesn’t work after midnight.
I slowed down fifty metres from the rank. They sure looked aboriginal. Black skin, small eyes, broad nostrils, thick lips, high gums. A skinny lot, they were all wearing track suits, slacks and shirts. You seldom see people clad in such clothes on Saturday night. Tonight is the night to step into your best duds.
Ustad had also advised us to never pick ‘them’ up. They create a ruckus, and police does nothing. Moreover, they never seemed to have any money. I had heard endless stories of drivers returning with broken windows after a trip to the ‘K’ streets. They would be greeted with bottles and bricks. Though this had never happened to me or any of my fellow drivers. It was part of the taxilore.
I was still vetting them when I was startled by the ringing of my mobile phone. A fellow driver had texted: Don’t go to the station! I turned it off and put it in my pocket. At the least I didn’t want to lose my phone. My mobile has become a human limb in recent years.
It was a one-way and I couldn’t turn around. Seeing me stopped, the four had started walking towards the cab. Two of them had their slacks folded to the knees on one leg. Despite the rolled-up windows, I could hear their voices clearly. They didn’t look well built. Being from a wrestling family, I could easily lift a hundred kilograms. Knew a bit of boxing too. But trouble averted is the best option. Secondly, I was still on a student visa and didn’t want anything on my police record.
I locked the doors and slipped all the cash from my pockets into my socks. Now they were walking about 30-40 metres from the cab, right in the middle of the narrow road. Petrified, I turned off the ‘For Hire’ light and floored the accelerator. It didn’t take even a second to reach them. They didn’t budge an inch. I had to slam on the brakes. The taxi skidded to a stop. My breath was ragged: I saw myself robbed and beaten and the taxi burnt.
I was wondering if I should push the emergency button, when one of them tapped the window on the driver’s side.
Frozen in fear, my left hand inadvertently hit the automatic button, lowering the pane. I was so frightened that my balls came up to my throat.
I looked up like a goat does towards a butcher.
As a gust of cold air rushed in through the open window, I became acutely aware of the freezing temperature outside. This man was wearing just a flimsy cotton shirt. That too half-sleeved, printed with some words. No ordinary human being could wander about in the cold like that!
“Brother, you take us home, will you?” His voice had entreaty in it, a shiver too, and a whole lot of pain. But the trouble would start once they were in the cab.
I had only two options ahead of me: get my vehicle totalled now, or later. I calculated that later was better: this place was too deserted. Not a man or animal in sight. Sometimes even the shadow of a dog or cat allows you to believe that there is life around. I could always signal a fellow taxiwala further down. Or drive straight to the police station. But first, I had to get out of here.
I unlocked the doors. He came around and sat next to me. The rest got into the back seat. The moment a drunk gets into your cab, the smell of booze pervades it. Taxilore had it that all aboriginals were alcoholics and drug-addicts. But I couldn’t detect the slightest drop on them, not even tell-tale whiffs of petrol. Now I feared they were high on something more serious.
“My name is Mungo. Mungo Man.” Laughing, he extended his rough hard cold hand toward mine. Reluctantly, I put my small warm hand into his, with a false smile, “Where to, brother?”
“Look… he’s a brother. Ha ha ha…” Laughing maniacally, he turned around, and kneeling on the front seat, poked the rest of them. “He is our brother.”
Now I was the only sad one in the cab.
They were still laughing, when one of them yelled the street name. Something exploded in my brain.
Four aboriginals. ‘K’ street of ‘R’ neighbourhood. 2AM. I started looking for reasons for this misfortune. What sin had I committed to face this?
“Where you from, big fella?” asked Mungo Man in a scratchy voice. I couldn’t tell if his accent was full blood, half caste, or one-fifth aboriginal. You can’t just carry a calculator everywhere to work out the human race.
“India…. Punjab.” I wanted to prolong the conversation, so they could get distracted from their plan.
“Punja?” he repeated.
“Yeah. Punjab—meaning five rivers.” I felt around for my phone. If I had to stop the taxi and run, at least I should have my phone by me.
“I too come from river country… near the Darling. The one that meets the Murray, near Wentworth. We used to call the Murray, Millewa and the Darling, Barka,” he said happily.
I remembered all of a sudden that the spot where the Sutlej meets the Beas is where my people go to ritually immerse the cremated remains of their beloved departed. I was linking all kinds of improbable and unthinkable things together tonight.
“Brother, we been standing here for a long time. Not one taxi come near us.” Mungo Man warmed his hands by the heater. “Aah, how cosy this is. Kiddos, warm yourselves up.”
“It’s cold, aye?” He looked at me questioningly.
I kept mum.
“Brother Punjab, tomorrow is our grandfather’s death anniversary. We gather around his burial grounds. Us mob has to. We come every year. Today we miss the train from our town. It was hot there, we bring no warm clothes.”
Meandering about deserted streets, we soon arrived at a quiet ‘R’ neighbourhood. ‘K’ street was on my mind constantly. I was trying to engage them in conversation and make friends out of them. I had long given up on the possibility of money. I had just one wish on my mind: to somehow return to safety with my taxi.
Taxiwalas talked about how once some thugs had locked up a driver in the boot and set fire to the taxi. Since that incident, every taxi was equipped to open the boot from inside. I was now wondering if mine worked or not? Taxiwalas often used jugaad parts in their vehicles to save money.
I stole a look towards Mungo Man at the red light. Printed on his bright half-sleeved shirt was the picture of a bearded old man. Some words too, which I could not read in the dark. I could at least describe them for the police later.
“Mungo, that’s a nice shirt, brother!” Unable to conjure up anything else I said, in an attempt to keep the fear at bay.
“Yes, my sister gave it to me. She has two children. Fair as milk. She took up with a white man after running away from home young. Look brother, Whiteman came and stole everything. Our language, our traditions, our women, our land. Got us addicted to the drink.” Mungo Man turned red. “I have never once touched a drop. I swear by the Red Rock.”
This was news to me that an aboriginal wasn’t an addict.
“Punjab brother, they stole our land as if it belonged to their fathers. Our ancestors fought them everywhere. We had spears, they had rifles. They were soldiers. You tell me, what were our chances?”
What could I say!
“Well, let it be. What about you? Look, your and my colour: it is the same. We look brothers.” He compared his arm to mine and burst out into laughter.
I glanced at the taxi metre. It was over twenty dollars already.
“We have to go to our grandfather’s grave tomorrow. He was fishing when the Whiteman picked him up. Beat him up brutally. Asked him where all the sweet water holes were. They destroyed many of our sacred water holes, where our ancestors used to pay homage to their ancestors since the dreamtime.”
“They were on horses. Dog-collared him and dragged our grandfather and his brothers two hundred kilometres to their station. Made them chop firewood for hours. Then they mixed rat poison in their food. When they became unconscious, Whiteman cracked their skull with sticks, shot all of them and hid the bodies in the bush. They say that they killed my grandfather because he had speared a cow. Although the cow was found alive later.”
I stole a glance at him again. Mungo Man was leaning his head back on the seat now. I was dead scared by his story. Just imagining the scene was enough to give you the shivers.
I now remembered the adivasis (original inhabitants) of India. True, where is the match between a spear and a machine gun?
“For long time my grandmother could not know about my grandfather. Then a good Whiteman pushed for the case to be brought to the courts. Know what the judge said? ‘They seem like black monkeys to me, animals, these brutes! The sooner they vanish from the face of the earth, the better. I know that our white brother committed a crime, but I would never want a Whiteman to be hanged for the murder of a black monkey.’” Mungo man looked at me pitifully.
“Our grandmother used to tell us all these stories. Till today, we enact the tortures perpetrated on our grandfather during our last rites corroborees.”
I turned right at the ‘K’ street sign. This was a different world. The walls were painted with graffiti. A few burnt car shells. There were no lights on the streets. Old sofas and broken chairs everywhere. Four-five people were gathered around a fire in front of a ramshackle weatherboard. The minute they saw the car, they started walking towards us. More joined them in seconds.
Mungo Man popped his head out of the taxi window, shouted something in his own language and looked at me.
“I told them you are a brother. How would they know if it is one of us mob or a white pig?” Mungo Man again burst out into laughter.
“Look, drop us off here. How much is it?” Mungo man asked politely.
I looked at the metre, and then at Mungo Man. What kind of a joke was this?
I had completely banished all thought of money from my head. I just wanted one fare: to get out of here alive.
Mungo Man pushed his hand into his pockets. Could it be a knife? Or a syringe? A couple of days ago, a passenger had pushed a syringe against a driver’s arm and said, “The syringe has AIDS virus in it. Give me all the cash or else I’ll inject it.” The poor taxiwala had to give up his entire night’s earnings.
I started to work out an escape route. If I turned the wheel towards the left and gave it full gas, the taxi would be straight in a minute. U turn was the safest way in my mind.
Mungo Man looked at me. Seeing the terrified look on my face, he put his hand over mine. I was now ready to throw all the money I had hidden in my socks at him.
“Brother, you take care!” He slapped his left hand on the dashboard and jumped out in one move. He walked around the front of the taxi and came towards the driver’s side. Tapped on the window. I couldn’t automatically lock the vehicle because the back door was open. His hand crept under his shirt. My heart was in my mouth.
The next minute, he had taken off his shirt. In that chilling night, he was now only in his slacks. Shaking it out, he folded the shirt. The other three were next to him now. The people from the house were also moving towards us.
“Here, brother, take it. A present for you. My sister gave it to me. I wore it today for the first time, to come to the city. I give it to you for safekeeping. You liked it, it’s yours.”
He slipped the shirt in through the slit at the top of the window.
Now they were all greeting each other. Mungo Man brought them to me.
“Come on brother,” they pulled me out of the car.
“Look, another brother. Decent man. He let us warm ourselves in the taxi.” In sheer happiness, Mungo Man seemed to be oblivious to the cold outside.
They all hugged me and started to dance. We were all dancing. I was dancing in the ‘K’ street of ‘R’ neighbourhood with my aboriginal brothers. We danced like an Emu. We hopped like a Kangaroo. We travelled to dreamtime.
When I got back to the car, the seat was strewn with five and ten dollar notes. I pocketed them without counting.
When I got home, I tried on the shirt. Written on my brother’s shirt were the words: “OWNER OF LAND—SINCE TIME BEGAN.” In between the two sentences was the photo of the bearded old man.
It’s been ten years. I still have that present.
Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty is Deputy Director of the Monash Asia Institute, Monash University. Her edited collection of essays, Being Bengali: at home and in the world (Routledge 2014), is an enquiry into the socio-intellectual history of this eclectic linguistic group from Eastern India and Bangladesh. She has co-edited A Treasury of Bangla Stories (Srishti 1999) and her translations have appeared widely. In 1996, she received an AK Ramanujan Award for the most felicitous translations from two Indian languages, Bangla and Hindi, into English. Most recently, Mridula’s work has been in public diplomacy between Australia and India. She has facilitated deep-impact literary-cultural exchanges between Australia and India through Literary Commons!, a tri-nation Autumn School in Literary Translation (Kolkata 2013) and ALIF: Australia India Literatures International Forum. ALIF was nominated for an Australian Arts in Asia Award by the Honourable Tony Burke, Minister of Arts and Immigration in 2013.