Raaz looked at Eshwar anna, the cook at the new 99 dosas stall who had girls attracted to him as if he was SRK. Girls surrounded him only because of the food, Raaz knew, yet he felt jealous. He pacified himself- I am luckier! I get to escort girls.
It was Raaz’s fixed spot- in between the pharmacy and the dhaba. Business was slow; the vicinity of a college wasn’t lucrative on a holiday. He checked out the girls that passed by him to enter the lane housing PG accommodations for females. Most of the girls had their faces covered in scarves as a shield to the pollution. He waited for a customer along with a few of his friends (other auto-wallas).
He was taking a long drag on his cigarette when she came by. She made eye contact with him and asked him in Hindi, ‘Brother, will you go to Brigade?’ Only her eyes were visible through the gap in the scarf.
He would declare his fare (twice the usual fare being a holiday) after she sat in, he decided and nodded, one of his friends, Brijesh, patted him on the back as a good-bye-see-you-later gesture. She sat in, with her handbag to her right. He set his meter running. She lightly touched his shoulder and said, ‘Brother will you please discard the cigarette?’ Her scarf loosened and it slipped from her ear, revealing her face below her forehead. He watched her, stunned and stammered, ‘Yes sure’. He flicked the cigarette away. She told him not to leave the cigarette butt burning so he stomped on it and took off. He thought, How rare, a girl not liking smoking. (He hated girls who smoked as if it was their birthright. He had never approved of his wife enjoying nasal snuff.)
He pondered over her words- dripping with respect; her touch- hesitant but authoritative. He looked at her in his rear view mirror. Her back arched as if seated behind him on a bike-elegant.
Usually he would speed the auto- rickshaw imagining himself as an F1 racer while he stared at the female passenger’s bouncing breasts through the mirror. But with her he took a longer route. She had covered her face again and was busy with her phone. She reminded him of Arti, the whore he had loved. Too beautiful to be a whore; she would address him as Mera Raja, My King.
His wife did not like his face and she did everything to avoid it when he returned home every night. Once she had said something he would never forget, ‘Have you ever stopped your vehicle mid-journey to take a leak on the side of the road?
‘Yes many times! Why?’
‘With a female passenger occupying it?’
He found that odd.
‘So that she can stare at you while you take a leak or maybe turn away and fantasise about you. You would enjoy that wouldn’t you?’
He had used his belt on her that night. He didn’t understand why she hated him so much. Was it because he was just an auto-walla and a few of her friends’ husbands ran small food stalls? How was that more dignified than his job?
‘Bhaiya!’ Brother!, her voice pierced through his thoughts. The signal had turned green. He pulled the lever a couple of times for the engine to obey. The petrol was sufficient to reach her destination yet he stopped by the petrol bunk. ‘Sirf paanch minut’ Only five minutes, he apologized. She nodded.
He stood beside his vehicle. Her jeans’ hem rose a bit, exposing her right ankle as she crossed that leg over her left leg. He stared at her ankle. So fair with a slight hint of brown like chocolate topping on vanilla ice-cream. He wanted to lick it. He felt an erection and it startled him out of staring. Embarrassed that she would notice it, he turned away. The petrol had been filled. He sat in and drove. He hadn’t felt so good in months.
He imagined long rides with her. He would sing for her. She would praise his tuneless singing. She would make him feel like a king.
He hoped she lived in the lane he had picked her from. Then they would inevitably meet, wouldn’t they?
Arti disappeared one day. ‘Not here? What do you mean she’s not here? She was here yesterday!’ he screamed at her friend, dreading loneliness- his wife had just threatened to leave him. He wouldn’t feel like a King anymore. He wouldn’t even feel like a good-for-nothing auto-walla. He would feel nothing.
Brijesh consoled him, with a quote, as usual, ‘’If you love someone, set them free. If they return, they were always yours. If they don’t, they never were.”
He turned the auto- rickshaw into a dark lane. He could see her getting shifty. She squinted at her watch in the dark as she tried to recognize the area. She asked him, ‘Are we there yet? Which way is this?’
He thought of her ankle.
He halted suddenly. She was pushed forward in her seat; she grabbed his head-rest for support. He saw the terror in her eyes. Like his wife’s eyes on seeing his belt buckle before it turned to a glazed look.
‘We’re almost there’, he said.
He dropped her at her destination. She squinted at the fluorescent digits on the meter. Before she could pay him, he drove away. He hoped he would see her again.
An Indian, born (1991) and raised in Bahrain, Michelle D’costa has short fiction/ poetry published in Antiserious, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Raed Leaf Poetry India and many others. Her poems are forthcoming in an anthology edited by Nabina Das and Semeen Ali. Her story ‘Her Arrival’ was a finalist in the Open Road Review short story contest 2015. She can be found here: https://michellewendydcosta.wordpress.com/