I could not start earlier from the hospital. Uncle had just returned to intensive care unit after a major surgery. I had to be with my aunt to provide her company and moral support. I could leave only after the attending doctor said uncle’s condition was stable. It was past 11 pm.I was afraid to take a cab at that hour. As I came out I found one three-wheeler at the gate. The driver had a monkey cap over his head and had a woolen blanket over him to ward off the cold wind in the wintry night. From his face he appeared to be past 50.
When I was hesitant to approach him, I heard him tell “It is late, beti. Tell me where you wish to go. I will drop you safely”
“How much would you want to go to Paschimvihar near Jwalahiri Market?”
“Pay me whatever the meter shows. It has not been tampered with”
As soon as I got into the vehicle, he tried to cover the side openings with Tarpaulin curtains.
Let them be open. Do not cover” I said
Let them be open. Do not cover” I said
“Are you crazy? It is biting cold outside and windy too. Do not be afraid,” he said and continued to cover the openings despite my demur. I was tired and in no mood to argue. I hoped he would not engage me in conversation.
“Who is not well? Any of your close relatives?” he asked as the auto rickshaw started moving along the ring road. I knew he would ferret out more information from me. I did not reply him.
“It is ok if you do not wish to answer. Your fear is justifiable. The city has gone to dogs in the last three years by the wicked acts of a few but bringing bad reputation to many,” he said
“Sorry, it is not like that. I am very tired and stressed out. It is my dear uncle who is in hospital,” I replied
“I am sorry. Do you mind my smoking a beedi? It is very cold”
“No you can smoke” I said. I was not taken in by his deferential attitude and questions that expressed concern. I was happy that I was not travelling in a speeding car. Three wheelers are slow moving vehicles with openings on both sides. The driver was also within reach. I unzipped my bag and took the pepper spray in my hands.
He did not talk thereafter and continued to drive the vehicle at steady speed. It was dark and slightly foggy outside. I could only see the speeding street lights. I knew we had crossed JorBagh and was nearing Naraina. It was a desolate patch for a short distance. The vehicle made strange sound with jerks before it came to a grinding halt. I looked out .It was dark.
“Do not worry. I will set it right in a few minutes” he said as he climbed down the vehicle.
It was 11.45 pm. Some cars whizzed past. Memories of gruesome rape of a young and unsuspecting lady came to my mind. Is this a ruse and a prelude for some sinister act, I wondered. The pepper spray gave me some confidence.
As if he read my mind, I heard him sighing from darkness.”I know you are thinking of the recent rape and wondering why this man has stopped the vehicle. The snag is set right and we will be proceeding to Jwalahiri market now”
I did not like his presumptuous remark about the recent rape I cursed myself that my mobile was without charge but pretended to speak to my dad telling him that I am stuck near Naraina and would be home in 30 minutes.
As we were crossing Punjabi bagh, he admonished me for travelling late in the night “Don’t you educated people ever learn that Delhi is unsafe in the night for women? Why do you young women tempt the evil minded drivers by travelling alone?” he said
My anger grew at his audacity to advise me on what I should or not do. I decided not to answer him then but to give a piece of my mind when I reached my complex. I could see the vehicle turn into Paschimvihar road and my fears subsided when I saw the familiar surroundings. I was ready to forgive his unsolicited advice.
As he drew the vehicle to a stop after reaching my complex, I checked the meter and gave him 50 rupees more than the entitled night fare. Instead of accepting the money, I saw him crying and wiping his eyes with a kerchief. I asked him what the matter was and why he was sobbing. “Nothing, young lady” he said
When I insisted on knowing, he replied “Last year on this date in the same month, my daughter of your age foolishly but innocently took a three wheeler after late night shift. The driver stopped midway and took another accomplice in the vehicle only to destroy her dignity at a lonely place. She committed suicide the next day. Memories of her filled my mind when I saw you looking for a vehicle. May be I should not have advised you”
“I am extremely sorry, uncle, for misjudging all by the nefarious acts of a few. I have no words to express my sadness at your grief. Here take some more money” I said as I opened the purse.
“I don’t need any money, beti. I only want my daughter back” he said as he cried inconsolably.