Inspired by a real-life incident, I wrote a short story called The Cab Ride on Christmas Eve. Twice. I sent the second attempt to a couple of magazines. I heard back from Muse India but ultimately, they couldn’t find a place for it. I like to believe I can obviously improve and the best way to do that, I figured, was to post it on the blog and invite critique from anyone. Be humble, please. I’m still green.
It was the beginning of winter and the dry, skin-breaking chill had just settled in the national capital region. “What’s with the Christmas-cheer all around us? I have barely seen an actual Catholic here. Never in my short life of twenty, at least”, said Gaurav to his friend Prashant as they sat in the mall’s courtyard. The mall was a flagship with every famous brand from every corner of the world jam-packed in one large ensemble. Gaurav shook his head as he saw people leaving through the doors, their hands overflowing with bags, stumbling. Prashant was silent. He had known Gaurav for a long time now and he knew that his friend was not a life-hating cynic but there were days when he needed to vent and crib. Prashant got that. His silence was evidence of the years they had grown together.
“Anyway, I’ll call myself a cab. It’s getting late and I have class tomorrow”, Gaurav said to Prashant as he tapped thrice on his phone. It took him less than ten seconds to book a cab. India had caught up with the world in the last half-decade or so. Auto-rickshaws were slowly dying and no one preferred them. Uber was here and with share rides, it was go-to for students like Gaurav. A Hundred bucks and you could move about seamlessly through the city.
“See ya in Doon then? I’m leaving for home tomorrow”, Prashant asked him as he booked a cab for himself too. As the two of them started walking out of the gates they heard a call, “Auto?”
Both shook their heads and phones toward the man dressed in a shirt that barely looked red, which was the original colour. The dirt, sweat and grease had made it a darker hue of brown. While the cities, the people and even the privileged auto-rickshaw drivers who had migrated to driving cabs were flourishing, there was a complete segment of people who had lesser fares, no rides and families waiting at home. Gaurav looked at the man and felt the usual background remorse, knowing how hard it can be for people stuck in what could best be described as a catch-22, wondering how great that shirt would’ve looked in its original, bright-red state.
His cab arrived in a couple of minutes. Uber share rides were cheap. Dead cheap. Anything that was dead cheap in one of the most expensive cities in the country was great. Especially for students. Filled cabs meant more stops and at that hour, anything faster than three separate stops would have been better. Noida, for all the glory and light of the day, was still not the best place to be out by yourself at night. Not for young people anyway.
“Damn, it’s filled”, Gaurav exclaimed as he squinted and looked through the window. “At least it saves you the full fare”, Prashant said, “and well, you agreed for zero to three co-passengers as soon as you clicked that Pool button, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, sucks to save money”, Gaurav chuckled, “Anyway, see ya around, man. It was a good day”, he gave him a hug and entered the cab.
“Ride for Gaurav?”, the driver asked to confirm. Gaurav nodded as he looked at the driver through the rear-view mirror. The driver was what you’d call the native Noida resident. It wasn’t a bad thing. It was just unattractive and annoying to him. The whole package from the accent, to behaviour, to everything wasn’t quite preferred by the people who migrated to Noida for work or studies. There was nothing wrong with the people though. It was all in the head of the privileged – the professionals and the students.
The dichotomy of being Indian and living an almost English lifestyle was the best way to describe it, Gaurav though as he remembered a conversation he had had with an acquaintance a while back. “One might say, it was the legacy the British left for us who were raised to be civilised. Half the country wants to stick to their roots and their roots are not exactly the de facto, standard definition of civilisation.” Gaurav had disagreed then. He was a humanitarian at heart, believing that everyone was inherently a good person. However, the native accent of internal Uttar Pradesh was sore for him despite his acceptance of different cultures and so he took his earphones out of his back pocket, plugged them into his phone and pressed shuffle.
Anything is better than listening to the twisted Hindi, he thought.
As soon as the music blared in his ears, he noticed a little commotion from the driver and his co-passengers in the back seat – a young woman, somewhere in her late twenties and her mother – so he took one earphone out from his ear and started listening trying to make sense without the original context.
“It shows cancelled on my end”, the driver said as he twisted the steering with one hand and pulled up on the side.
“How can the ride be cancelled automatically? I booked this cab. I’ll be going in this one. Do you think I can find another cab at this hour?” The young woman was angry as she murmured loudly to her mother, “These people, they create these situations, ma. The newspapers are filled with stories like this. Driver asked women to get out and they were exploited an hour later. It’s all a circle. It’s all planned.”
Gaurav heard it. The other passenger in the front seat heard it. The driver heard it. She meant for them to hear it. The murmuring was theatrics. No one commented on the allegation. No one had the guts. She was correct in her own right and no one dared to tell a woman to get out of the cab in Delhi-NCR. It was unsafe at night.
“Fine, what is your destination?” The driver asked, reluctantly.
“Sector 72”, she said, “I’ll pay you the fare that showed on my end, ninety bucks, just get us home.”
Gaurav lived near his university. It was just five kilometres from Sector-18 and it was obvious that his drop always came first in every pool ride he had ever taken. However, tonight, thanks to the detour to Sector 72. It had been over thirty minutes and he was still in the cab. He didn’t mind but he was anxious. So, he opened his window and put his earphones back into his ears. His relationship with music had been one of comfort. Even the hardest and heaviest music he had heard gave him solace. He looked at his watch, passively, and jumped a little as soon as he looked at the time. Frantically, he took his phone out of his pocket and texted his mother. It was almost midnight. He typed, “I’ve reached home. Good night, mom” and added a smile emoticon just to make the lie feel a bit more believable. He didn’t want to worry his mother. I will get home eventually and there is no reason she should be up, waiting and worrying, for a son in another city, he thought as he put the phone on the seat near him.
A couple of minutes passed and the driver pulled up near a stranded township. The women got up as the guard smiled at them and wished them a good evening. This was classic Noida. Highways surrounded by dust fields with drops of townships and IT towers in between. This place reminded Gaurav of a trip where a bus had left him and Prashant stranded out on the Yamuna Expressway. That sudden reminder wasn’t a pleasant one and he hated that unnecessary déjà vu.
The passenger in the front seat finally spoke up. “Could you drop me now? This is Sector 72, yes? Sector 100 should be nearby.” The driver looked at his phone and showed it to the man. It says Mr. Gaurav is to be dropped first. The man was about to say something as his phone rang. Muffled anger could be heard even from outside it. “Whoever it is must be furious”, Gaurav mumbled.
“He wants to talk to you”, the man handed the phone to the driver. Puzzled, the driver looked at him, then at Gaurav. Hesitant and trying to understand what was going on, he paused. He then took the phone and answered, “Hello?”
“I did not charge the cancellation fee”, the driver said, “Sir, it is the company. You must have cancelled a cab before this one which incurred the fee”, the driver said. It was clear the man didn’t budge and the argument continued for a while. “Okay, okay, sir I’ll drop him first”, the driver reassured the man on the phone.
“Sir”, the driver turned and explained to Gaurav, “even though it shows your drop first, I’ll be dropping him first. His friend has booked the cab for him and has incurred a wrong charge. I’ll sort that out with him first. I must mark your ride as completed for his navigation to trigger. Could you do me this favour?” Gaurav nodded. Unwillingly. A ride that would’ve taken him about half an hour had taken him over one hour. He looked at his watch and yawned simultaneously. He realised he was tired too and as per the app on his phone, he was already home for the ride was complete. Bloody perfect, he thought.
As they reached Sector 100, the guards stopped the car. They asked for identification and the house number. Gaurav’s anonymous co-passenger provided them with the same. The cab entered the rather large colony. A couple of turns later, they stopped at a posh looking house, clearly distinguishable from those around it. Glass panels, electronic doors, everything that can make someone look rich was probably used in that house. The feeble one story house beside it looked like a wimpy kid in comparison to the bully besides it. In front of the house stood a buffed man, with a bat in his hand. He was angry and so he came toward the car as soon as it stopped. The driver’s window was open and he immediately grabbed him by the collar.
“You really lookin’ to lose twenty-five bones for twenty-five bucks?” He threatened the driver.
“Sir, I did not charge you extra. It’s the company and their policy. I can’t help you with this. If it’s necessary, you can pay me twenty-five bucks less than what it shows”, the driver tried to negotiate.
The man, taken over by his unfounded rage, didn’t budge. “Don’t throw money at me. I can buy you and your family off in a second, you get that? Why did you charge extra in the first place?” He asked loudly in the middle of the night. His voice echoing along with that of the barking dogs.
Perfect analogy, Gaurav thought. He hated people who had a temper. He had always thought of them as weaker human beings. The driver got out of the car and the two men started arguing. Their silhouettes clearly visible in the headlights of the car.
Gaurav watched the situation escalate and asked his co-passenger, “Is he always this angry?”
“He mostly is, I’m so sorry, I’ll take him inside”, he said as he got out of the car. Gaurav watched the three men through the windshield. The headlights clearly on the two men almost exchanging fists now. As the co-passenger was about to reach them, the man picked the bat he had dropped in the corner and bashed it on the driver’s head. The driver fell. Gaurav’s pulse started racing fast as he saw the silhouette smash the bat a couple of times. In a second, the situation had grown from what was a usual brawl in Noida to a possible homicide. Afraid and breathing heavily now, Gaurav peeked in from his window. The driver lay there, unconscious and bloodied. His face barely visible now.
Gaurav tried to get out of the cab as silently as he could. He had watched enough movies to know what happens to those at the wrong place at the wrong time. The door opened with a thud destroying any attempt Gaurav made toward sneaking away. The man looked at Gaurav and started talking to the other, “What of the kid? He’s seen me do it.”
“Let him go, brother, let’s get the situation under control. You’ve already done enough. What the fuck did you just do? You killed the man… over twenty-five bucks.”
Gaurav started walking away from what only looked like death. He started running, fuelled by adrenaline he ran. He ran for over fifteen minutes, taking any turn he could, trying to escape the simple sector that now felt like a maze. He wanted to puke. He wanted to rest. He wanted to cry. He started crying as he ran. He ran through the colony gate. “Why are you running, boy?” The guard shouted. He kept running until he was well away from the place.
He put his hand his jeans pocket to take his phone out. It wasn’t there. He checked frantically. The thought that he left it on the seat back when he had texted his mother crushed him. Almost in tears, he checked the other pockets. Then, he laughed as he found and took his phone out of his jacket pocket. Eyes still filled with tears, he laughed out of agony and he laughed out of frustration. Then looked at his phone and laughed hysterically, the tears finally rolling down his cheeks, as he booked an Uber.
Did you like it? Where can I improve? Was it worth the read? Anything to say at all? Pour it all out in the comments section below so I do better in the next attempt.