Sharad walks out of his office and is soaked within seconds in the violent downpour. Blinking his eyes through his now muggy glasses, he carefully treads his way to the edge of the footpath, which resembles a river bank beside the roiling waters that have inundated the road. He sticks a hand out and is weighed down by the sheer force of the rain. Shapes of cars and buses sweep past him and for a moment, he is struck by a fear of losing his balance and falling in the path of the herd. The vehicles running over him would probably not notice this happening, and his body would be carried out to sea in a mangled heap of limbs, sewage water and the detritus of the city that even now floats past him along with the traffic.
Out of the bustling traffic, a black and yellow taxi screeches to a halt in front of him. A dark face pokes out of the front window.
Sharad leans forward and shouts, imagining himself talking to a person with bad hearing.
He swears and his words are instantly lost in the honking of a big city bus that is grumbling behind the stationary taxi. Knowing that he wouldn't get a taxi to ply him in such conditions under the watchful eye of a meter, he opens the back door and heaves himself into the musty depths of the car.
The driver coaxes the car into life and it lurches forward like an animal being whipped. Even as it does so, its interiors light up in a dull blue haze. Sharad finds his initial surprise waning when he notices that the effect is manufactured by dozens of tiny blue lights that nestle in every possible nook and cranny of the taxi, at the little doormats at his feet, at the rear view mirror, at the driver’s wheel, and even in the space between the seats. His own body is bathed in the cool blue light, making him feel like he has stepped into an alien cocoon. He wonders how much time and effort was expended in conjuring such a spectacle.
Then his eyes are drawn to the dashboard. From one end to the other, the grimy surface is populated by images and trinkets of every possible religious denomination that he can think of. He notices the usual suspects from the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses – Shiva with his trident, Vishnu reclining on the snake, Hanuman tearing open his chest to show his love for Rama, a multi-armed Shakti vanquishing the demon. He notices a roughly hewn cross with a bloody Jesus stuck to it, his eyes looking up to heaven. He is flanked by a small portrait of a Sikh guru, complete with a halo and calmness in his face that mirrors that of his neighbour. There’s also a picture of the Buddha meditating and a scroll with Arabic text on it that he can only guess must have been derived from the Quran.
His phone rings, making him tear his eyes away from the religious paraphernalia on display to note the calling number before picking up. The voice that greets him is matronly and deep, so different from Shanthi’s that he immediately fears the worst.
‘Mr Murthy? I am Nurse Kamala from the Hinduja Hospital.’
Sharad splutters, water from his moist hair running into his eyes and coming out as tears.
‘Don’t worry. Your wife is doing okay. We are shifting her to the operation theatre soon. She wanted to speak to you before we did. Can you talk to her now?’
Relief washes over him and he finds himself smiling.
‘Yes, yes. Thank you.’
There is a crackle on the line before Shanthi’s strained voice comes through, dangerously feeble.
‘Sharad? Are you there?’
‘I can’t hear you.’
Sharad clears his throat and speaks out again.
‘Yes. I’m here.’
‘I’m on my way. I’ll be there very soon. The rain is slowing me down.’
‘They are taking me for the operation now. They say I shouldn’t wait any longer.’
He leans forward in his seat, his wet clothes squelching.
‘Listen to them, okay? I’ll be there very soon, Shanthi. You will probably be out of the operation by then. It will all be over soon.’
When his wife doesn’t answer, Sharad presses the phone against his skull, trying to listen to any telltale signs of her hanging up, silently cursing the cacophony of the traffic and the rain outside. Just when he is about to peel the phone off and see if the call has been disconnected, Shanthi’s voice wafts in.
‘They say it’ll be complicated.’
There is a resignation in the voice that turns Sharad’s blood cold. He runs his free hand through his hair and takes off his glasses.
‘They always say that, Shanthi. You’ll be just fine. Please trust me.'
‘And the baby?’
It isn’t a question but an accusation, he realises with a pang of embarrassment. An honest answer nearly escapes his lips before he restrains himself.
‘You’ll both be fine, Shanthi.’
His reassurance is greeted by a silence that stretches on even longer than the last one. He starts shivering in his seat, from the wetness of his clothes or the coldness of his pregnant wife, he is not sure.
‘I need to hang up now. The doctor is here.’
The line goes dead before he can utter more words of comfort. Sighing to himself, Sharad settles back into his seat, wishing that the inside of the taxi weren’t so bright.
The taxi driver is sneaking glances at him in the rear view mirror, his teeth glowing in eerie blue as Sharad is offered a smile.
‘Are you a South Indian? I heard you speaking on the phone.’
‘Me too. I’m from Cochin. Where are you from?’
The man gives a hearty laugh that Sharad cannot bring himself to reciprocate.
‘It’s good to meet people from the South, you know.’
Sharad feels compelled to reply to the man, even if his words are but token efforts to not appear impolite.
‘Yes, I’m sure.’
‘So what do you do in this city?’
‘I work in a bank.’
‘Ah. I’ll come to you if I ever need a loan.’
The man laughs and Sharad once again ignores the invitation to participate in some camaraderie. He thinks it futile to try and make the taxi driver comprehend that he doesn’t work at the kind of bank that gives out loans. He would spend the better part of the journey explaining the finer points of the long hours spent in front of a computer as an investment banker, so far removed from the idyllic life of a person in a conventional bank, going home by five every day to a wife who is happy to have you home. But no, what he has is a job that saps the life out of him in a city that he hates more with each passing day, coupled with a wife who resents his workaholic life, taking it as a sign of an aversion to the good old family life. Even the thought of his life makes him sigh.
The taxi grounds to a halt as the signal flashes red. Horns begin honking angrily all around them. The driver drums his fingers on the steering wheel, impatient. When he turns around in his seat, Sharad is prepared to divert his attention from further questions with one of his ones, pre-empting any requirement on his part to engage in what he instinctively labels in his mind as more useless conversation.
‘Why do you have so many religious symbols on your dashboard?’
The man is caught off guard by the question but recovers fast.
‘Why not? If I keep praying, at least one of them might hear my pleas. Don’t you believe in a higher power?’
‘Not really, no.’
The man seems more surprised by this revelation than the first question.
‘No? That is sad, my friend. So you do not pray at all?’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘You don’t find yourself lying in bed wishing for something to happen in your life, something that will make you happy?’
Sharad opens his mouth to reply but finds himself hesitating. Tiny alarm bells go off in his head as he ponders over the man’s question.
The man looks at him once before turning his attention to the road ahead, where the traffic is moving again slowly. Sharad feels his mouth drying up as he thinks of Shanthi in the hospital, pregnant with a baby that, even at this late stage, he cannot bring himself to accept as his child. Shanthi’s words come back to him in a rush, the word complicated, hovering before his mind’s eye ominously.
‘Well, don’t you?’
The words come tumbling out of him, in a voice that seems unlike his own. The taxi driver smiles his azure smile again, and pats his steering wheel in triumph.
‘See? You’re praying, my friend. One day, when you realise that your wishes have come true without any effort from your own side, you’ll know that a higher power exists.’
‘Would they grant your wish even if you weren’t praying to them?’
‘Of course they do. That’s how they make believers out of you, you know.’
The logic seems twisted to Sharad but the uneasiness brought on by the man’s confident proclamation refuses to leave him. The taxi seems to become smaller, inducing a claustrophobia that is suffocating, like an invisible hand pressing on his windpipe. He cranks the window down a little and is greeted by a swift lashing of rain, making him reverse the motion and close the window hurriedly.
‘You look a little worried, my friend. Is everything good?’
The taxi driver is no longer smiling, his eyes peering at Sharad with curiosity in the rear view mirror.
‘Do you have children?’
The man nods slowly.
‘Three. Two boys and a girl, back home in Cochin.’
‘Do you miss them?’
‘Every single day. Not a day goes by without me praying that we can all be together. But I need to work here to pay for their education and everything.’
‘I’m going to become a father tonight.’
Comprehension dawns on the man’s face and the smile returns.
‘Ah! That’s why you’re going to the hospital! Don’t worry. I’m sure everything will be good. Having a child in this city is a good thing.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Well, you are so far from home, without roots in this city of tall buildings and cars. It can get terribly lonely, you know. Having a child gives you those roots, something that reminds you of home.’
‘Back home, yes. You see, when you’re giving your child a home, you’re building one for yourself too.’
Of everything the man has said from the moment their journey began, his words seem imbibed with a meaning that is at once simple and true. Sharad marvels at them, turning them over in his troubled head, trying to find a weakness in their wrought iron conviction. Is this what Shanthi was hoping for, he wonders? A child that would bring them closer, remind them of a home that they had left behind and were pining for individually? A child that would bring happiness back into their fledgling marriage. A child that was now in danger of being a victim of his fervent wish to remain childless.
‘And you pray every day to be closer to your children?’
The man nods sagely, drumming his fingers on the wheel again to emphasise his point.
‘Every single day.’
‘But it hasn’t happened yet?’
The man shrugs.
‘Sometimes, these things take time. One must be patient.’
Or maybe the higher powers don’t care much for wishes when they involve children, Sharad tells himself. Maybe they couldn’t care less for the many days he had spent fantasising about not having a child; of waking up one day and finding that Shanthi’s pregnancy wasn’t real. A fantasy that had stuck around in his head even in the advanced stages when there could have been no doubt that Shanthi’s burgeoning belly contained a child that belonged to them both, just waiting to come kicking and screaming into the world.
For the first time, he experiences tiny tendrils of guilt creeping over him. It is too late in the day to be praying, he tells himself. That would be plain hypocritical of him. Nevertheless, the thought of Shanthi lying on a sanitised table, surrounded by anonymous doctors, all alone and in incredible pain, makes him nauseous and desperate. He could have been there earlier. Nobody at work would have minded him taking a day off for the birth of his first child. His mind starts stringing together words of a rudimentary apology to Shanthi and, by extension that seems natural for the very first time, to his unborn child. The taxi screeches to a halt in front of the white facade of the hospital, throwing Sharad against the front seat. He fumbles around in his wallet and gets out a five hundred rupee note. The driver accepts it with a sheepish grin, still illuminated in blue.
‘Given your situation, I’d like to reduce my fare but I’ve my own children to think of.’
But Sharad isn’t even listening as he clambers out of the taxi. The man calls after him. ‘Don’t worry. I’m sure your wife and child will be fine. I could pray for them, if you want.’
Sharad hesitates outside the taxi, the rain having finally lost much of its potency. He turns to the man and leans over the open front window.
‘They will both be fine.’