It was half past one in the night, and Abhineet, a lonely silhouette of a figure with his half-empty, slightly worn mini-backpack slung from his shoulders, ambled straightly along just below the sidewalk. The constant clacking of his thick-soled hiking boots was only intercepted by the drone of the occasional vehicle whizzing past him.
Only minutes ago, he had stepped out of the multiplex, with the imagery of John Wick Part 2 swarming in his head. In fact, he had wondered, ‘What would John do if he needed to get somewhere and there was no public transport? Perhaps, John would break into someone’s car or snatch a motorcycle from an unsuspecting rider…if he had to get somewhere in a jiffy.’ Abhineet’s life did not warrant such urgency, though, at the moment. Nor did his monetary situation encourage the desire to hail a cab. After a brief evaluation of his options, he had decided to set by foot.
The road that ran through this part of South Delhi was bright but wore the desolation of a countryside highway. On his left, the string of malls shone like pearls, by the courtesy of the high masts standing tall on their spacious courtyards, whereas on the other side, the outlines of the Khirki Village rooftops formed a jagged boundary separating the cold concrete below from emptiness merging into the skies above.
Not that the smoggy air afforded a view of the stars, though, and soon, the fusion of matter and light fading into black seemed to resonate with what he felt inside. As he eyed the trajectory of the tip of his own shadow, cast unusually longer due to the distance between the streetlights, he felt taller than he really was, and his chest instantly swelled with pride at his sense of self-reliance.
This pride, he reckoned, was justified, for his self-reliance had been driven by years of living alone – if he was allowed to overlook the fact that his daily supply of meals was serviced by a hired cook. Often though, when his pursuits, however vacuous, came to naught, he would lug his backpack on his shoulder and set off on solitary wanderings with no motive but to float in the comfort of his own company.
One such solitary wandering had led him just two months earlier to Khajuraho, where a scooter-ride fuelled by a mixture of the sense of self-reliance and perhaps, a tinge of arrogance, had ended in tragedy. Limping, in fact, almost dragging a nearly disjointed shin and a shaky knee, and drowning in a mire of painkillers, he had made his way back to his modest tenement in Safdarjung Enclave in South Delhi. Needless to say, his recuperation, including the solitary painfully wobbly visits to the doctor, was a vindication of his belief in his own abilities.
No wonder, then, that on this day, Abhineet felt no need to depend on hires. After two months of religiously taking his medicines and performing knee-strengthening exercises, tending to his wobbly leg, he felt sufficiently prepared to be walking to his place, no less than seven kilometres away. He knew in his heart how he had managed to shake off any outward indication of his recent affliction, and the thought of it infused his stride with a haughty confidence. Moreover, two decades of living away from his hometown had perhaps instilled the right amount of freedom in him to do as he fancied – even if that meant walking alone in the middle of the night with only a modicum of life in sight around him.
Suddenly, the tell-tale whir of a vehicle grew on him from behind. He immediately knew it was a tuk-tuk. The pitch rose until he could feel the vibrations wrought by the machine behind cause the hair on his arm to flutter, and he was instantly reminded of the tyranny of the tuk-tuk drivers, especially at night. ‘There comes another leech’, he thought. He decided he would let the tuk-tuk pass, for, he had to live up to his notion of self-reliance. Besides, would not the tuk-tuk man be the typical ‘looting’ type who spared no opportunity to fleece him, given the time and desolation around?
He sensed the tuk-tuk slowing, and he knew he had to steel himself so as to ignore it. As the tuk-tuk rumbled past him, he saw from the corner of his eye the driver taking a long hard look at him, as if soliciting, even as the vehicle’s speed slackened.
‘Oh, man, not what I wanted at this time!’, he muttered under his breath. He wanted to march on, reinforcing the steely resolve he had sought to maintain. ‘Keep moving, dude! I am not falling prey to your extortive machinations, at least, not tonight.’, he thought. By then though, the tuk-tuk had stopped about twenty yards ahead – clearly, waiting for Abhineet to catch up.
‘Where to?’, the driver asked Abhineet as the latter drew level with the front partition of the tuk-tuk where the driver sat. Now, despite what Abhineet had been thinking before this moment, he found himself responding to the driver, ‘Safdarjung Enclave.’ Perhaps, it had suddenly dawned upon him that the real reason he had been meaning for the tuk-tuk driver to leave him alone was not so much about him wanting to reach home without anybody else’s help as it was about not wanting to be fleeced by a ‘greedy’ tuk-tuk driver.
Even so, the math circuits in his brain went into overdrive, quickly computing the price he would be willing to accept to pay. Tuk-tuk drivers were notorious for quoting at night prices that were astronomically higher than the fare the meter would eventually have thrown up. ‘If he refuses to charge by the meter, I will not pay a single paisa beyond Rs. 100.’, he told himself, fully expecting the driver to quote twice that much. Within seconds, he spoke tersely as if ordering the driver, ‘Go by the meter, else I am off.’ ‘Hop in’, the driver said. Upon boarding, Abhineet noted that the meter already showed a fare, but since it was merely worth only a couple hundred metres, he let slide the fact that the driver did not reset the meter.
And so, the tuk-tuk glid along, leaving behind hospitals and metro stations, closed shops and shut restaurants, a mosque and a gurdwara, passing now under a flyover, and flitting then past a shopping complex, when before long the wide roads made way for less wide ones which in turn led to lanes so narrow, made even narrower by parked cars, that only one vehicle could pass through. He was finally inside his own territory.
Abhineet looked quizzingly at him, and inquired, ‘Why?’ The driver responded, ‘Sir, actually I was on my way home to Chhatarpur which is in the other direction, but then from afar I had been observing you limping for what must have been a mile. I figured you were in trouble – I cannot accept money for helping a fellow human. Take care, sir, and try to avoid the outdoors this late at night.’ Abhineet stood there, his eyes transfixed on the rear of the yellow canopy strung over the green frame of the tuk-tuk with a banner of a prominent politician pasted on it, receding into the distance.