August 29, 2010

Tax-I

Erm, I’m vegetarian.

When the train pulled into Howrah station, shortly after it was scheduled to reach, I sat motionless on my seat, not sure if I was in Calcutta yet. I asked a porter, who looked at me like I was his country cousin, and sniggered to reiterate his impression. And then I spotted the local trains.

It took me a while to locate the exit to the station. I found a knot of cabbies who immediately surrounded me and quoted stupendous prices. When I finally settled on an offer that made me feel less fleeced, I started unloading my luggage. We were in the taxi lane and a Sardarji cabbie was driving past us. He exchanged pleasantries with the taxi driver and then remarked to me, “Beta, Chennai Mail aa gaya kya?” 

It took us twenty minutes to cross the stretch in front of the station. I was not sure if the driver had heard where exactly I had to go. So after we had covered a safe distance, I told him again. It would have been too easy if he knew exactly where I wanted to go, so he didn’t. And my friend Srin is not very, erm, goal-oriented. She bunny hops from goal to goal, you see. And my phone wasn’t even working, so each new twist by the cabbie meant I had to check back with Srin and then confidently answer his questions. After a while…

Cabbie: Where in Lake Gardens do you want to go?

Me: AK Ghosh School. AK Ghosh Bidyalaya.
(Is it even called bidyalaya in Bangla? I should have known when I once got a prize in a Rabindra Sangeet competition for my courage, for attempting to sing in Bangla. Face it, dear Ranjana, you are Chennai Mail material.)

Cabbie: Where is this school? I don’t know. 
(Cabbie has also smoked his last Charms cigarette and is getting increasingly restive)
Should I take the flyover?

Me: If it’s on the way there…
(Srin has messaged saying I can also use Dhakuria bridge)
Or we could take Dhakuria bridge.

Cabbie: (getting gruffer) Now it’s too late! How can you ask for this now? Why didn’t you tell me before? Then you will complain I took a longer route! ^?&*(**((%#$

Me: Just get to Lake Gardens, please! Whichever way you like.
(This fast resembles a lovers’ quarrel. We soon reach the lake that gives Lake Gardens its name. Cabbie stops with an air of finality. Turns back deliberately and informs me…)

Cabbie: This is the lake. (Implied speech: this is the lake, get off my back and go drown in it.) You said you wanted to go to Lake Gardens. This is the lake. This is Lake Gardens.

Me: (Gulp) Yes, that’s great. Now can we please go?

Cabbie: I don’t know where that darned school is. Find out yourself!
(I find out.)
That is past the flyover. This is too far. You didn’t tell me you had to go so far.
(One would think I’d asked him to drive me to Dhaka.)

Me: (in my best primary schoolteacher voice, as he drives, muttering angrily under his breath) Now this is the flyover, you go over the flyover and then we will be in Lake Gardens.
(Meanwhile, I am frantically messaging Srin for directions, which do not meanlandmarks. Not Lords Bakery, but right-left-right-median-fork-blah-Lords Bakery! By this time, we have left the safe space of the flyover and are again at the left-right-left crossroads. Having stopped again for directions, we are hurtling through Lake Gardens, a spluttering cab with an angry cabbie and a primary schoolteacher, my rucksack bouncing in the back. Note, we are now in Lake Gardens. I can see the signboards by the houses, which say, say, 234/4224, Lake Gardens. I hope the numbers are in some order, so that I reach 188/64 soon. But, alas, the next one is a 929!)

Cabbie: This is not Lake Gardens! This is not Lake Gardens. You fleeced me! You cheated me! (Wow! Such original indignation!) 

Me: (having lost all pretence of the loving student-teacher relationship, I have now joined the decibel-busting competition with gusto, determined to lay down my life before I lose) Don’t you see the SIGNBOARDS that all say Lake Gardens? You think I’m a blasted fool who’s never been to Calcutta, which is why you’re taking me for a ride? (I’ve never been to Cal, so what? Now I have.) You operate from the railway station and you don’t even know your way around the city? What did they teach you?!

Cabbie: (yelling/ bawling) This is not Lake Gardens! This is not Calcutta! You fooled me! You fooled me!

Over the next few minutes, having woken up all the sleepy morning walkers in Lake Gardens with our early morning not-so-loving exchange, we gradually reach the school in question, where cabbie stops his car, insisting that the right turn I ask him to make takes us into Dhakuria; now we are properly leaving Lake Gardens. Another shouting match ensues, and my visit to Lake Gardens/ Dhakuria will be remembered by many early morning stragglers. Thankfully, the one place Srin did give me right-left instructions for, I didn’t go wrong and was safely deposited at her creeper-laden red house.

As a parting shot, cabbie dearest hefted my rucksack out of his boot and dumped it on the road. The dumping part, however, was not so successful, because the weight of my rucksack hampered the freefalling nature of his emotions. 

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