I was shivering. ‘Please thoda AC kam kar deejiye, I am not feeling well’, I said to him for the third time since I sat in the cab that I hired for a day in Mumbai. I was visiting the city for work meetings, and having just recovered from a nasty bout of dengue, I couldn’t afford to fall sick again. The 50-something driver (not naming him without permission) mumbled something under his breath, reduced the air conditioning by barely a notch and wiped his forehead to indicate that my request was being granted only grudgingly. A car suddenly changed lanes and overtook us from the wrong side -- a sight not uncommon in the maddening Mumbai traffic-- and my cab driver let out a volley of abuses. He seemed so angry at just about everything – from the humid weather to the people who emerged suddenly from nowhere to cross the road, from the Ganpati procession that was causing a traffic jam to the cop who was unable to manage it. I decided to concentrate on fiddling with my cell phone till we reached the destination of my first meeting. ‘Please wait here. Mujhe ek ghanta lagega,’ I told him. He nodded. The meeting took twice the time. I came out and tried to call him to bring the cab to the porch but he wouldn’t take the call. After calling persistently for 15 minutes, I asked the parking attendant to help locate him, and he pointed out that the cab was parked barely 100 meters away, with the driver sitting inside. I walked up to him. ‘Why are you are not taking my call?’ I asked him. “Music chalta hai, suna nahi” he casually responded, without a trace of apology. We started the journey towards the venue of my next meeting, and I noticed that the AC was back on full blast. Repeating my request to reduce it, I made a mental note to complain about his behaviour to the cab company. My meetings continued through the day, and so did his angry outbursts in Marathi at whoever came in front of the cab. Each time I got back in the car, the air conditioning was back to being at an unbearably cold level.
Till I reached the venue for my last meeting of the day, with actor Akshay Kumar, in his office. And the gentleman that he is, the Bollywood superstar came out till the parking lot to see me off. My cab driver, who had dozed off after spending all his energy on whining and shouting at almost the entire Mumbai was alerted by the guard to wake up, and he suddenly saw Akshay Kumar standing next to his window. Wide-eyed, the driver looked at me and for once I saw a glimmer of respect, which was coming my way only courtesy the film star’s popularity. All of a sudden, Akshay hopped in the cab with me, and asked me if I’d drop him at his gym, barely 200 meters away from his office. The driver, almost dazed that one of India’s biggest Bollywood stars was now his passenger, started the ignition and fumbled with his other hand to pick up his phone, keeping it ready to take a photo at the first opportunity. When Akshay Kumar got out of the cab, I noticed the driver trying to click a pic from an awkward angle. On an impulse, I asked Akshay if he’d oblige the driver with a pic, and he smilingly agreed. “I’ll take a photo of you with Akshay Kumar, quickly stand next to him,” I told the driver. He handed me his phone and stood next to the actor. Thinking that my iphone, with a hopefully better camera would take a nicer photo, I clicked the pic from my phone. Within seconds we were back in the cab, on our journey back to the hotel, and I could see him smile for the first time. He was fumbling through his phone to check out the photo, and I told him that the pic is in my phone. His smile vanished. “Aapne mere phone se nahi liya’? he asked. “Mein aapko whatsapp kar doongi’ I replied. ‘Madam I don’t know whatsapp. No internet on my phone’, he frowned. He was upset now, and me, guilty. ‘Ask anyone in your family to msg me and I’ll send the photo to them. Your children?” “’Kaun bhejta hai,’ he grumbled, and let out something in Marathi that I couldn’t follow. The AC was back on full-blast. ‘Thoda kam kar deejiye,’ I said. He didn’t. I had perhaps unintentionally killed his only happy moment in the day.
Late that night while I was surfing through the online news, I got a whatsapp message from an unknown number. ‘Mere papa ne aaj aapka duty kiya. Unki photo hai toh pls send it,’ read the message, which sounded unsure even in the way it was worded. I sent the photo. There was silence for a few minutes as it got delivered. ‘Thank youuuuu maam. So it is real,’ I then got the reply, with a string of smiley emoticons. ‘Of course. You are welcome’, I replied and slept off. Had to catch the early morning flight, and the pick-up cab was to come from the same agency.
‘Good morning, madam’, the same driver was back next morning, this time wearing a broad smile. ‘You were on duty till so late at night, how come you are working so early next morning?’ I asked him. ‘Aap bhi toh late night tak meetings aur kaam kiya madam,’ he replied. I sat in the car, bracing for the gush of cold air that had given me chills all of previous day. ‘Aapki tabiyat theek nahi hai naya, AC slow kiya,’ he said. I smiled. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Madam, thank you. Meri beti ne aapko message kiya raat ko. Bet lagaya usney that I have no photo with Akshay Kumar. I thought aap photo nahi bhejoge. When she got it, she went to the neighbours to show it.’ He said, grinning. ‘Meri teen beti hai. Ek teacher hai, ek scientist banegi, aur yeh wali BCA kar rahi hai,’ he said proudly. ‘She said, papa, aap bhi Akshay Kumar jaise smart lag rahe ho.’ I laughed. He did too. Suddenly, the Mumbai traffic seemed less annoying.
Sonal Kalra has turned into a storyteller. It’s better than dispensing unsolicited gyan. Right?
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