(Prologue: It was the month of September in the year 1998 that I was at Willingdon Island, Kochi for official business on board a ship bearing an Indian flag. It was here that I met Anbu the auto driver who narrated this incidence to me.)
“Cannot go, my dear friend”, Anbu was quite adamant; and rightly so. It was pouring incessantly for several hours now and there appeared to be no way it would relent that night. Though the road from Willingdon Island to Ernakulam South Railway Station was only about an eight kilometre ride, the road was quite narrow and potholed and prone to flooding. Driving in this inclement weather would be taking quite a risk and if his auto stalled, Anbu knew there would be no help forthcoming at that unearthly hour.
“There has been an accident and I must reach home, don’t you see?” implored the gaunt, bronze-skinned man in the frayed, chequered, fawn shirt and ill-fitting brown trousers, almost drawn to tears. Anbu was a kind-hearted man and he could not help but feel the agony the man was going through. A migrant to the port city, Anbu was a genuine, soft soul with few wants in life. Just as most migrants there, his sole aim was to earn as much as he could from driving his auto and send it back home to provide for his family. After having lived for over a decade in the city, Anbu now felt at home here. His routine too was quite fixed; he would start his day well before sunrise, ferrying passengers throughout the day from the port to the city and back, stopping only for a quick break at noon for a strong tall tea and piping hot idlis at Mani’s handcart, and then finally end the day with dinner, mostly curd rice and pickles and rarely a spicy vegetable curry at Thambi’s restaurant. He would then proceed to park his auto under the restaurant canopy and settle down in the backseat for a well-earned night’s sleep. He was friends with quite a lot of fellow migrant workers and empathised with their travails.
So despite all his reservations, Anbu drew down the cheap black plastic curtains on both sides of the passenger seat, revved up the engine and drove the auto out from under the shade of the restaurant awning into the torrential downpour. Beckoning the passenger to get in, Anbu threw a quick glance at the fuel gauge and roared down the deserted street towards Ernakulam South Railway Station.
In the dim orange light of the small overhead bulb, Anbu peered into his rear view mirror. The passenger appeared to be a manual labourer, his tanned skin most likely a result of working constantly under the harsh sun. In the dimly lit interiors, his bony features and distraught face made him appear the very face of misery. “Have you checked if there is a train at this hour going in your direction”, Anbu asked, trying to strike up a conversation, hoping that it would offer the passenger some respite from his misery. “I certainly hope so. It is imperative that I get home as quickly as possible. It is all so terrible”, mumbled the passenger drawn from his reverie. Despite frequent goading the passenger refused to get drawn into a conversation and Anbu finally decided to leave him alone to his melancholy. All Anbu could draw out of his passenger was that he was a labourer who worked for various contractors, removing sludge and manually cleaning the bottoms of the oil tanks on board tankers which docked for unloading at the port. That explained the strong smell of oil that Anbu could perceive within the small confines of the auto. The flimsy plastic curtains afforded little protection to the passenger, but despite being quite soaked from the rain, he kept staring outside blankly into the downpour, his eyes betraying his turmoil.
Finally, after expertly dodging a multitude of puddles, Anbu brought the auto to a halt outside the foyer of the railway station. As the passenger got off, Anbu for the first time noticed that he had no luggage. The passenger drew out a hundred rupee note from the soaked pocket of his trousers and handed it over to Anbu without a word. Anbu, while accepting the pre-decided fare, noticed that the note was totally stained with what appeared to be oil. Seeing the perplexed reaction on Anbu’s face, the passenger spoke up apologetically, “I happened to drop my money into the oil tank this afternoon. I am sorry but I am afraid all my money is soiled”. “It is all right. You go on and find your train. That is important”, replied Anbu despite knowing well that the currency in its present form would not find many takers. “Yes, I have to hurry home. You see, it is a big tragedy”, trailed off the passenger gloomily as he walked away quickly into the station.
Anbu put his auto into gear and moved it over to one corner under the shelter of a parapet. The auto yet reeked of oil and he put up the plastic curtains and fanned the interiors with an old newspaper to dissipate the smell. Dreading to drive back to the city in that weather, Anbu decided to catch up on his sleep at the station itself and curled up in the back seat. The hoot of the morning passenger train caused Anbu to wake up with a start. It took him a few moments to realise where he was, just as the small incident of the night past came back to him. Anbu stepped out of his auto and walked to the small basin outside the station to wash his face; the rain had finally relented sometime while he was asleep. Wiping his face with the soiled kerchief from his pocket, Anbu saw that the morning newspapers had hit the stand outside the station. Picking up his favourite local tabloid, he walked over to the tea stall to grab a cuppa. As he took his first sip of strong, hot tea, his eyes settled on the small snippet of news on the bottom left corner of the front page.
Anbu read the news; and he read it again. A brief news item spoke of the tragedy at the port the day before, where a labourer had accidentally slipped and drowned in an oil tank, which was in the process of being unloaded. The body was discovered only several hours later when labourers climbed inside to clean the emptied tank. Anbu plonked down on the wooden bench, the glass in his hand spilling hot tea onto his trousers; but his body was numb and his brains refused to heed. He put his trembling right hand inside his shirt pocket and drew out the hundred rupee note. Looking down at the stained currency in his hand, he could only but recall the words of his passenger, “There has been an accident and I must reach home…”
(Epilogue: I do not know whether this story was a factual narration or a figment of Anbu’s imagination. But I have to state here that I have seen that newspaper clipping and the soiled hundred rupee note which Anbu had carefully preserved in a plastic sleeve.)
– Narendra Nayak © 2018
“The Passenger” is my seventh short story as part of the series “Add Salt to Taste”.