It is a weekday in Mumbai. My family and I have an important appointment at BKC (Bandra-Kurla complex) at mid-morning, which is a lousy time if you’re commuting from Borivali. I guess it’s a lousy time no matter where you’re coming from, because you will inevitably be caught in rush-hour traffic.
The local train is quickly ruled out, not with a ten-year old in tow. So we book a cab through an “online transportation network company”, one of several options you have in the city, (but sadly not in Goa).
I decide we should leave half an hour before the estimated journey time, which turns out to be a good thing, because pretty soon we’re caught up in a traffic snarl, the “mother of all traffic jams.”
You know how it is. A three-lane highway can morph into five or even six lanes, if you count two-wheelers on the left “hard shoulder.”
I’m seated in front. I sigh resignedly as we inch forward at the rate of a few inches a minute. This is gonna be a long, painful journey, so there’s nothing to be done but endure it. I sink into my seat and pull out my earphones to check what’s on the FM radio on my phone. Nothing interesting, so I begin to listen to whatever tracks I had uploaded on my phone.
I’m almost nodding off when I’m jolted awake by the slamming of brakes. A motorcyclist tries to recklessly weave between lanes, almost coming under the front wheels of our cab had it not been for the alertness of our driver.
Phew. Disaster averted. You would think that, but no. Far from being thankful, the motorcyclist, helmetless, earphones still in place, begins to berate our driver. A verbal exchange ensues. Not uncommon under the circumstances, you might argue.
But all of a sudden it turns ugly. The motorcyclist takes a long hard look at our driver and lets off a torrent of abuse. He then dismounts from his bike, and walks purposefully, menacingly towards the driver’s door, and motions to him to roll down the window. Our driver very sensibly doesn’t. But you can cut the tension with a knife. The motorcyclist peers intently inside at me, my wife and son. One wrong word or gesture, and things can escalate even further very quickly.
Fortunately all round, traffic begins to inch forward again. A cacophonic chorus of impatient horns and honks erupts from behind our cab. The motorcyclist takes an ominous studied glance at the license plate, throws one last baleful look in our direction, mounts his bike, and takes off. We cruise forward slowly as well.
I process what has just transpired. Amid the whirlwind of abuse, I did catch some Islamophobic vitriol that doesn’t bear repeating. I take a proper look at our driver, probably for the first time since we got into the cab. He’s bearded, yes. Was that alone a giveaway marker of his religion? How did the motorcyclist, a random stranger, literally off the street, just “know”? He took a look at the cab license plate, but none of us had the presence of mind to make a mental note of his. He had parked at an awkward angle, and it all had happened out of nowhere, too fast for me to take in. The incident calls to mind the accident scene in the film ‘Firaaq’. Those who have seen it will know what I am talking about, and its gruesome metaphor. The fault was his, but he made us feel uncomfortable.
Had he gotten violent, it would probably have been explained away as ‘road rage’. But we know better.
We drive on for several minutes in stunned silence. “This must happen a lot in your work”, I venture at last. He seems relieved that the silence is broken. “It’s getting worse day by day! What is the need to abuse? Only people of low thought do such things. It isn’t worth stooping down to their level. Then we only become like them.”
We get talking further. At what time did he begin work today? 6 am. “But I was up even earlier, 4.30. Ramzaan chaalu hai, na?” he says, almost hesitantly, sizing me up as he does so.
His name? Majeed (name changed). I notice there’s no election ‘nishaan’ on his left index finger. Why not? “Hamaare naam sab ke sab kataa diye”, he says ruefully. Four names from his family alone have just been summarily struck off, for no good reason. And this is apparently a common occurrence in his family and circle in Thane. He shrugs somewhat fatalistically when I ask whether he’s thought of complaining. Faayda hai kya?
He cheers up when I steer the conversation to Ramzaan, and breaking of the fast with Iftaar food. I tell him how much we enjoy the array of food at the mosque in Panjim. He seems impressed that we are familiar with these aspects of his faith.
He is actually a driver of heavy machinery, of cranes in particular. He’s even done a short stint of a few months in Goa (Vasco), and his work has taken him overseas as well, to Saudi Arabia. After several years there, he came back to his hometown in Uttar Pradesh, gravitated to the big bad city down south like so many others from his state. He’s now more or less settled here; although he visits ‘home’ periodically, home is now here, where the heart is, with his wife and baby daughter.
The conversation drifts back to politics, and the ‘state of the nation’. He’s a huge Akhilesh Yadav fan, and rattles off his many achievements in Uttar Pradesh during his tenure as chief minister from 2012 to 2017.
He is cautious when I begin to speculate who will win. He concentrates on the traffic as he thinks, takes a left as we begin to approach our destination. “We should all win”, he says at last. “All of us in this country should be able to live, study, do our work, practice our faith and raise our families in peace without being insulted or abused.”
He drops us off, surprisingly well in time despite everything. We wish him Id Mubarak in advance, a handshake and a smile, and he’s off.
By the time you read this, the results will be out, for Panjim and for this beautiful nation of ours called India. Whatever they may be, we can only fervently hope that lessons have been learned, that all the hate, anger and vitriol stops and is replaced by love, compassion and empathy, for every citizen big or small, rich or poor, for every living being, for the environment upon which we are all dependent. That we may all have won, just as Majeed wished. It is my wish too.
(An edited version of this article was published on 26 May 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)