Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Last Ride

As I bid good bye to my last customer at the airport, the walkie talkie cackled. Victor was on the other end. He was assigned a late night pick up in the neighborhood next to the clover intersection of the Airport Road and the Northern Corridor Highway. He was having a bad headache because he hadn’t slept too well the previous night, and just wanted to go home and crash. He asked me if I could go.

I agreed. I was an owl and always enjoyed the late night pickups. In the tranquil of the night, driving under the yellow halogen lamps on the empty streets of the city, I had met many an interesting traveler in those wee hours. Whether it was the silence around, or just the state of their mind that early in the morning, the conversations with the passenger in the back seat, in those trips were always interesting.  I spoke little and always loved to listen. Maybe that’s why they always loved to speak! They opened up a part of their lives to me… their stories, experiences, joys and sorrows…  Once I dropped them, our ways parted, yet that little lovely intersection of our paths, always made that last ride worth it.

Victor’s sms with the details of the pickup buzzed on my phone. It was a lady. That late in the night? A party-goer who wanted to be dropped home, I guessed. Or maybe she had company. Or maybe some lover who had had a fight with her man. As my mind wandered aimlessly, I pulled into the parking area opposite to a row of beautiful old villas. They all were from my parents’ generation, easily over 30 years old. The beautiful arches over the windows and at the corners of the fences, nobody made those sorts these days.

3:30 am. My GPS said I was at the right place. I looked across and saw just one light among all the apartments. It came from the first floor of the beige villa across the street. I switched off the engine and peered at the window if I could get a glimpse of someone. I could see a shadow. I called the mobile number in Victor’s message. The phone rang, but no one picked up. I called again. No response either. Weird… I thought.

Any other driver in my place, would have probably honked to call the attention of the customer. I hated to honk. And in fact never did it late in the night. It disturbed the calm of the night and the neighbors. The city had been safe since I was a teenager, and unless there was a visible sign of danger, I preferred to walk up to the customer’s door and knock, than honk. And who knows, the person there, might’ve been in need of my help, maybe that was why he or she did not pick up her phone, I reasoned.

I walked through the old creaking rusted iron gate and rang the doorbell. There was a noise of something heavy being dragged across the floor. After quite a long time, the door opened and in there stood an old lady. She looked as old as my granny… over 80 years old probably… In the faint light from behind her, I saw, despite being heavily wrinkled and frail, she had one of the most beautiful smiles I had ever seen.

“Can I help you ma’am?”, I asked, reaching out to the heavy suitcase behind her.

“Yes my son, that’s nice of you...”, she said, kindness in her eyes. “But I have something else to pick up from up there. Could you help me up the stairs please? It’ll only take a while.” 

“Sure!” I said.

I pulled the suitcase aside and took her hand. It was evident that nobody had lived in that house for some time. – covers on the furniture, with dust settled on them and cobwebs in the corners of the wall. I walked her to the stairs from the left corner of the big hall and helped her into the room with the light – the one I’d seen from outside. It looked like a huge study, but had no lights. Instead it had a large number of candles lit on candle-stands, across the room. From outside, the house had only looked old, but, now from inside, the candles gave the house the look of a medieval palace.

On the right, were huge racks of books along the length of the wall. But the wall on the left, just left me stunned. It was covered from the top to the bottom, without an inch to spare. With several large poster sized pictures of what probably was the old woman’s family. And there were little post-it’s stuck all over them. In the dim candle light, that mesmerizing collage of someone’s life story, literally took my breath away.

So awestruck was I that I did not realize that I had let go of the old lady’s hand and stood rooted, gazing at the wall. The lady walked over to the table at the back of the room, in what seemed like a depression in the wall. Behind the table, was a large window, through which the full moon came flooding in. The lady picked up what looked like a rolled poster from the table, and kept looking out of the window for a while. I looked back at the wall, and realized that there was in fact one poster missing there, in the shadow of one of the candle stands - which I missed before.

I stood right there and waited. She turned around after a while, her eyes moist and slowly walked back to me.

“Are you ok, ma’am? “ I asked tentatively.

She looked up. There was pain in her eyes, but she smiled through it and said, “Yes of course…”

“That’s a beautiful wall you’ve got there, very creative and tasteful”, I said, admiring the art on the wall again.

She gave a little chuckle. “Ah yes, that was husband’s idea.  We would put up some of our most memorable pictures up there, and every time there was something we wanted to capture as a memory, we would put up a post-it recording it”. She walked to the wall. Stood close and looked around. Touched the pictures, and felt them… like she wanted to hold on to them, live them all once again.

“Ma’am, do you want some more time with yourself?”, I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Ah no, it’s ok”, she said, turning back… “I’ve been here since evening, I’ve had my time”, she came back, took my hand and we walked out. I walked very slowly supporting her, afraid that she might just trip and fall.

“You are a very helpful young man”, she said, patting me on my back, as we got to the cab. 

“Well, I always love to treat people, like I’d have wanted my mother treated”, I said. She stopped for a bit, and looked deeply into my eyes  for a while, and smiled. I wasn’t sure what that meant, I wondered if she thought that I was just sweet-talking her. It was awkward.

After we settled into the cab, I asked her, “Where to ma’am?” 

“Let’s go to Austin Park, through the old coconut grove road”, she said.

“But that’s not the shortest route ma’am” I said, turning back.

“I’m not in a hurry son, besides my doctors say, I do not have very long to go. I might as well go today”

I turned back to the street, thought for a bit, and quietly shut down the meter next to my gear box. “Alright ma’am, let’s go the way you want” I said.

We started out, taking the detour through the coconut grove road. Before long we veered away from our path to Austin Park. The old lady began showing me the places around the city, narrating to me how they were intertwined with her life. The movie hall, where she had watched most of the movies with her husband, the book store where they spent many Sunday afternoons reading together, the park they both had frequented at odd times,  the school where her kids had attended high-school, the playground where her husband used to bring their kids to play, their favorite ice cream parlor, restaurants and food pick up joints…

For two hours, we roamed the streets of the city, and she shot a movie of her entire life for me, showing me around. She was so excited and happy as she did this, it felt like a young child had just spoken on her favorite topic in the ‘show-and-tell’ session of her primary school class.

As we came to the city’s “Blue Lake”, she asked me to stop at the hawker who was selling tea to the city nocturnes. She slowly walked out, bought two glasses of tea, gave me one, and walked to the edge of the lake. A gentle moist monsoon breeze swept across, making it a perfect night under the full moon.

Looking across the expanse of water, she said softly “We’d been here on countless number nights… before we got married, and even after the kids came! He loved sneaking out after the kids went to bed”, she said and gave a short laugh. “And can you imagine… we did it even till two years back… before he left us…” her voice trailed. Silence again.

“Uh… ummm... how did he… I mean..if I may ask?”, I hesitated.

“It was a Sunday evening, and he was with our first granddaughter... his favorite, the apple of his eye. And they were there, taking a walk in the garden… and well... he just collapsed… And left just like that… the way he came into my life… out of nowhere…”. She was staring into the darkness in disbelief. It was evident that she still couldn’t believe what had happened.

My heart went out for her. “I’m… I’m so sorry ma’am, I shouldn’t have asked”, I stammered.

“My granddaughter... poor thing... she was inconsolable”, she continued, her voice cracking with the pain in her heart. “You know... she’s so much like him. The way she looks, the way she talks, thinks… she has his eyes, smile.. and the chin too. And they were the best of the friends… always together… She had cried for months after that... and she’s still not over him… she probably misses him more than I do”, she sighed.

“But she’s up there, living his dream”, she said, pointing to the star like lights of a plane that had just taken flight.

I walked up to her and put my hands gently on her shoulder and said, “She’ll be fine, ma’am. Her grandfather will always be looking over her and be her courage”, I said. I felt a lump in my throat and quickly took her empty tea glass and went to return it back to the hawker.

“Where are you going to, in Austin Park, ma’am?”, I asked coming back after a while.

“To my sons’ place… You saw the picture of the twins on the wall, dint you? That’s them…They live in one apartment, on two different floors in Austin Park… Near the highway… back there… well that used to be our home till my husband passed away. After he left, my sons decided to move to a different place, because they felt that old memories of their father troubled me too much in that  house… I go back there once in a while… Today, I also picked up some of the old stuff I’d left there… which I was missing for sometime… “

“I  know he still lives there, I can feel his spirit”, she finished, dreamily after a pause.

“Then why dint your sons come to pick you?” I asked, a bit surprised.

“Na…", she waved her hand, "I told them, I wanted to come back in a cab today. But they did not agree. They sent me one of their drivers to wait on me, in the evening. But at about 10 pm, I told the driver to go away, and that I wanted to get back in a cab. He left me only reluctantly”, she whispered, sharing her secret with me. “Well, so long as I get back home safe, and the driver keeps the secret, it should be fine right?”, she said winking at me mischievously. I smiled at her looking amused. “There is something special about a cab” she concluded mysteriously.

We stood there for some more time and had another round of tea. As she turned back to get to the car, she held my hand and said, “Thank you son, for spending this time with me… you gave an old woman something to smile about, on her birthday… when she was so badly missing her husband of 50 years.”

I looked into her eyes and did not know what to say. Instinctively, I just put my arms around her and gave her a big hug. Tears rolled down my cheeks. “I’m glad ma’am...” I said, in between my tears… “And wish you a very happy birthday!” As I looked back at her, she kissed me on my cheek, placed her hand on my head and said “You’re a very nice boy, God bless you my child”…

I got her back into the car. “Let’s go to Austin Park now, son… I’m tired”, she said. She did not say anything any more. I continued to drive in silence, taking in the events of that wonderful night. As I drove east, the streaks of dawn arrived on the horizon and came in through my windshield. I can’t explain what I was feeling… It was a mixture of joy, and yet an ache deep down… In the past six years I had been driving a cab, I’d had many interesting late night drives, but nothing had been as quaint and beautiful as today…

What'd have happened if it was someone else, instead of me, I wondered. Victor would have probably wanted to take her through the shortest route and get back home as soon as he could. Anyone else might not have been as nice to her, had the patience with her… probably would have left, since she did not pick the phone call. But it was I who was there. I looked up and thanked the Lord, for that night. For having me there. For bringing some happiness in the life of an old woman and making her birthday a little better…

Half an hour later, I stopped in front of a plush two storey modern looking villa in Austin Park. This was it, I thought. The end of a journey, which would remain in my memories for years to come. Somewhere deep down, I did not want it to end. I just wanted to be there with the old lady for some more time, and see her happy… some more…

“We’re here ma’am” I told her. She did not respond. I turned to the rear seat. Her eyes were closed, head tilted back and the poster opened up, in her hands. I stepped out, opened the passenger door, leaned over the seat and gently shook her, wondering if she’d been tired and dozed off.


No response. I shook her a bit more vigorously. Her head tilted to the other side, and she slumped on the seat.

I froze. The poster was still in her hand, clutched tight.

It was a poster from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, of Calvin kissing Susie on her hand. And there was just one post it on it.

“You win, my love… It ain’t another Susie… Its Calvin… and not one, but two of them!! But they both have your smile!”

Biwi… colorful…Thank you, for all the color that you have brought in my life.

Thy Absolut, ever…
Flying man…”

(Inspired by an article I read, and dedicated to my all time favorite comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes.)