Riddhima learns something out of an unusual experience.
| Riddhima drummed her fingers impatiently on the steering wheel; the traffic was backed up right from Ambedkar Circle, and it had taken ten minutes to traverse about five hundred yards. Horns tooted imperiously all around her, her fellow motorists believing in the power of noise to miraculously dissolve traffic snarls. A few enterprising souls had half their bodies out of the their windows, and were offering physically impossible solutions to the drivers ahead.
I’m going to be late for the interview at this rate, unless I do some inventive route changing. The turn-off for Andheri is just ahead ...
At the next opportunity, she cut across a lumbering van and entered the turn-off, the car swaying and jiggling as it manouvered across the available space and, suddenly, ending up with one wheel on the curb. The going was rather bumpy, but she made a deft recovery back onto the road.
The jolt nearly heaved her out of her seat, and now, there was an ominous clanging sound as she revved to regain the road. Ahead, the tar surface of the main road winked back at her in the late morning sun.
However, the car faltered; it kept losing power over the next few metres, and finally coughed and sputtered to a halt. Having anticipated trouble, she had taken care to stay in the slow lane. She took a deep breath and, pulling the lever just below the dashboard to open the bonnet, she got out of the car. Fumbling a little, she got the bonnet up and on its hook. She peered into the maw of the inner space. No smoke or steam gave any clue to the mysterious stoppage.
Cars occasionally whizzed past her, with the careless indifference characteristic of the average Mumbaikar. A couple of cars and motorbikes did slow down, but as these consisted of only those curious to catch a glimpse of a distressed lady, they did not halt at all.
She snapped her head up to check who was talking to her. She saw two youths on a sleek motorbike just behind her. The pillion rider had asked the question, and the other youth took off his helmet and flashed a grin at her in endorsement of his companion’s offer to help.
Riddhima was well aware of 'stranger danger' but the young men appeared genuine. The man behind the helmet had a dark but boyish face, clean-shaven, and a mop of curls rebelliously fell onto his forehead. The other was just barely out of his teens, as evidenced by the stubble-free chin, and had that clean boyish look. He quickly got off the vehicle.
The rider swung one leg over to alight and rested his bike on its stand. As he came forward, he extended his arms and folded both palms together in a traditional and respectful salute.
he said. The familiar term of respect and the greeting did much to allay nascent fears.
“Main mechanic hoon, koi madad chahiye?" he said, and then, hesitantly, he switched to flawless English. “I am a mechanic, may I help you?”
Riddhima nodded and stood back in quiet deference to the young man, who took three confident strides to the bonnet and took a careful and unhurried look at the innards. He walked around the car, glancing at the tyres and then took a flashlight from his belt. He threw a surprisingly powerful beam at the underside of the car as he bent down to peer at the machinery.
He straightened to an erect posture and gave her the bad news in a grave tone: the radiator pipe had broken. The mechanic added that there might be other damage but the broken pipe seemed to be the most obvious problem.
“What am I to do?” wailed Riddhima in a reflex screech of despair. "I have to reach for an interview within the next fifteen minutes!"
The soft-spoken mechanic spoke again. “Madam, if you permit, we can solve this problem.”
Riddhima felt a strange confidence in his pronouncement. She was desperate to complete her assignment; her boss had this strange belief that women always goofed up, as they did not have foresight or planning ability.
“I will take you to your destination on my motorbike. Nayan, here, will stay with the car until I can get my own car to tow it. My garage is just down the road, about a mile or so; and your car will be ready before you come back.”
Any bike in a crisis! Riddhima nodded approval of the plan and within no time, she had hitched her satchel onto her back and climbed onto the back of the bike. The bike reared and took off like a streak, slowing to a halt minutes later, before a line of sheds that lined the road. Nilesh, as he had introduced himself, disembarked and went in to instruct his mechanics, and dispatch a vehicle to tow hers.
Riddhima wandered over and cast an eye at the shed to which Nilesh made his way; there seemed to be three such structures adorned by the board that said “Shree Om Auto Refurbishing”. These were distinguished by uncluttered front yards, and the sheds were roofed with tile rather than with tin or corrugated iron sheets. She peered into the open sheds. Two of them were occupied with vehicles variously shorn of their gleaming exo-skeletons. The silhouettes were sleek and unlike that of the usual rectangular Fiats or bulky Ambassadors so common on the roads.
Nilesh spoke briefly to an associate and walked towards a compact car that stood just outside the first shed. He made his way to the driver's side and gestured for Riddhima to join him, explaining that another car was to be sent for the tow job.
“Do you stay near here?”
“No,” he clarified, “I stay right here." He led her to a tiny room tacked on to the end of the first shed. The door was plain wood and had neither latch nor lock.
“Don’t you lock the door?” was the city-bred Riddhima’s shocked question.
“What is there to safeguard?” Nilesh retorted.
He opened the door to reveal a pristine room, bare except for a few pieces of inexpensive furniture. A rope-cot was stored on its side. A plastic chair had its seat covered by a bright patch-work cushion; it faced a small bookshelf lined with books in English and Hindi. A small hotplate had a wooden shelf above, holding a few utensils and a neat row of steel containers. A small wooden chest was covered with another vibrant cushion. He opened the chest to reveal a rolled up thin mattress and sheets.
He then led her back to the car. Riddhima had a hundred questions burgeoning in her mind, and she was glad that they were now to travel by car. She could never had satisfied her curiosity on the bike as the wind would have whipped away her words and the helmet would have blocked his answers.
On the way she quizzed him about his garage and how he came by it. Although at first reluctant to talk about himself, Nilesh began telling his story quite competently.
"Is your family in the trade, so to speak? Is this garage a family business?"
"No, I come from a clan of priests who earned their livelihood by presiding at some temple. Money was meagre and irregular, depending on the ‘season’ - whether auspicious for rituals and functions - or not. My father had wanted me to study and make some other livelihood for myself."
"Did you study then?" she settled herself into the seat, pressing her back into the comfortable incline with a grateful sigh. She was curious about his obvious comfort with the English language.
"Yes, for some time. I was a good student, and I secured the Mathematics prize for two years running during high school. I showed skill with my hands too; my physics projects had won acclaim at many a Science fair. But it was Asha who became the first graduate in our family."
"Who is Asha?"
"She's my younger sister. I made sure her education did not suffer." As he said this his eyes were fixed on the road ahead but had a far-away look, almost as if he were reliving the decision.
"What happened to derail your dream?" Her tone was soft with sympathy for the cruel road-block he must have had to face. She turned her head to look at him and admired the fact that his recitation had no tinge of regret. He turned at the same instant and flashed a swift grin, she warmed to a man who took reversal in his stride.
"Oh, not my dream, merely my formal education. My father died in a bus accident when I was in the ninth standard. He had gone out to conduct a marriage in a nearby village and the bus was overloaded with the boisterous wedding-party. The driver might have got distracted by the commotion made by festive drum-beating and singing. Or maybe the bus had defective brakes. Perhaps the roads were slick with the pouring rains. Maybe it was a combination of all the three."
"What happened?" asked Riddhima, although she guessed where the story was going. Her right foot pressed down upon imaginary brakes as she imagined the outcome.
"The bus was going around a curve when it suddenly plunged down the hillside. Nineteen people died on the spot. My father was one of those who died, a statistic for most but a calamity for us."
"Were you dependent only on his earnings then, for your livelihood?"
"Not only livelihood, shelter as well. We were evicted from the temple quarters almost immediately as the next incumbent had to move in. Out of sheer desperation I induced my mother to allow me to begin work, as a garage apprentice-cum-cleaner. The blue collar equivalent of the 'hey-you’ office boy." He said this with a wry smile. "My mother took up a job as cook and maid with a rich family, accepting meagre pay in return for board for herself and my sister."
" How did you get to your present situation from such a humble beginning?" She was eager to know the formula for success; surely it would be a model for others too?
"I accepted all tasks without complaint and remained cheerful despite hardships. This attitude, as well as the fact that I knew English, and was much more educated than the average mechanic, soon put me in the position of assistant manager and record keeper, tasks that I organized efficiently. On the other hand, if called upon, I never hesitated to climb into the pit. My dexterity stood me in good stead there; customers soon began to ask for me."
"Yes, but now you own the garage. How did that happen?" Impatient to get the magical mantra, she leaned forward in excitement.
"I received some compensation from the wedding party and the government for my father’s death. I tucked this money away in a mutual fund. During the past several years, as you know Madam, Indian economy has really gone up; and my investment also appreciated considerably. I used only a small amount for Asha’s education."
Riddhima wriggled in her seat, unable to hide her mounting interest to hear the rest, and he continued his tale.
"My sister completed college and was soon employed by an accounting firm. She was thus able to take care of herself and my mother in a tiny one-room tenement. I poured my earnings into motor accessories bought second-hand at the famous One faithful client who had come for repairs of a major dent on his car's side was upset at the cost, as all the panels had to be replaced to match. I convinced him that I could give the car an entirely new look if he gave me the chance to do this."
"Was that the turning point?" Triumph at arriving at the crux was reflected in her voice.
"Yes. The result surpassed his expectations and we started the side-business of custom-built cars. It soon overshadowed the normal business. I bought into the business with my savings, and later bought out my old Sikh boss."
"Is this car one of your 'specials'?". Recognition dawned upon her at last.
"Yes, this is my version of the Beetle on a Maruti 800 chassis."
"And Asha? Where is she now?" The journalist in her wanted to complete the 'story'; to tie up all the loose ends.
“Asha recently got engaged to a colleague. My mother will continue to live with them after their marriage.” Riddhima mentally applauded Asha for having found a partner with progressive views. In patriarchial India it was almost unheard of for a mother to live with her daughter and son-in-law.
The tale came to its happy conclusion just as Riddhima’s destination came up. Nilesh insisted upon waiting for her with an outdated but charming chivalry.
Her heels clacked their hurried way into the foyer of ‘Gardenia’, a plush twenty-five storey tower. The gleaming panels of the elevator slid open to reveal marble flooring. Who ever heard of marble flooring in an elevator? The elevator deposited her before carved teakwood doors with “Maheshalaya” inscribed in inlay work. She grimaced with disgust. The ‘House of Mahesh’?
She pressed the door-bell and it pealed a sonorous tone. The door swung open to reveal a tall, thin man, almost cadaverous in pallor. The gold rims of his spectacles hugged the crooked bridge of his nose. He peered over them questioningly.
Riddhima introduced herself and was waved in by an impatient gesture of nicotine-stained fingers and a brief glimpse of yellowing teeth as the host made an automatic gesture of welcome. She followed him down the hallway, intimidated by the profusion of brass figurines in niches along the way. They came into a large room with floor-to-ceiling glass on two sides.
Mahesh Mantri lowered his lanky frame onto a low sofa chair backing one wall. The sofas had a futuristic steel frame and unrelieved black cushions. Riddhima made her own reluctant way to the wood block and sat gingerly upon its very edge. The walls were crowded with paintings and hangings. A black and beige plush wool carpet covered the floor. Riddhima longed to take off her sandals and run her toes through its luxurious strands.
The interview was certainly not a very pleasant one, her host being abrupt and intrusive, interrupting her questions with his own orchestration of observations. He smoked one cigarette after another, neither being courteous enough to ask permission nor gracious enough to offer her any refreshment.
"Sir, may I start this interview?' she began tentatively, her respectful address tinged with not a little awe and fear of such a successful entrepreneur.
Mahesh was anything but cordial. He sniffed something from his finger-pinch into his nostrils. "Isn't that why you're here?"
"I'm sorry for being late. I hope you are not being disturbed?"
"I have a peptic ulcer and eat small frequent meals, so any time is inconvenient for me." This was snarled rather than spoken.
"So, tell us something about your latest creation. The revolutionary software that you ..."
"I have created at least twelve software programmes and you talk of only the latest? However, I am glad that my genius is finally being recognised." He had interrupted her question with an arrogance that her question was leading in only one direction.
Riddhima made squiggles on her notepad. "I believe it has applications never dreamt of before? It brought change into-"
“That's true, but no sooner is a product out than the vultures begin to circle. There are already two rip-offs and umpteen pirated versions on the market. It erodes my software's market value you know."
"Is it true that you were paid a very large sum for your software?" She had learned to speak fast and get the question out.
"Ha!" The sound was midway between snort and grunt, but the derision as apparent. "That's what should have happened if greedy money-making multinationals had not spoilt the party. They sweet-talked me into accepting part of it as percentage of future sales, and what with the cheaper stuff available, now that's a percentage of nil."
"The industry sources say you negotiated that deal yourself, Sir. That you insisted ..."
" Lies that are circulated by vested interests, that should be apparent to a seasoned journalist, surely?" Riddhima was unsure whether he was implying she was inexperienced or uninformed. Either way the insult was barely veiled.
"Sir, what in your opinion..."
"Call me Mahesh." The open invitation in his eyes was in direct contrast to his sarcastic manner until now.
Riddhima pushed the wooden block a little further back and continued,” So what is your next project?"
"Not with this company that's for sure. I'll be bigger than Sabeer Bhatia, you just wait and see. But I can't reveal the secret now. I have some unique ideas, even though no ..."
The voice droned on in the background as Riddhima disconnected her attention from it.
The outcome was a boring reiteration of facts. The whole bland experience was unremarkable after her refreshing chat with Nilesh.
She looked at the signs of opulence all around her, and its dissatisfied owner. She contrasted it to the simple and clean workshop that had brought much joy to an entire family. They too had faced hardship, of greater magnitude perhaps; and come out of it with heads held high.
She managed to interject a farewell and made a nimble escape before her host could extricate his gangling frame from the uncomfortable confines of the deep-cushioned chair.
As she walked out into the hot and humid afternoon air , she somehow felt comfortable. It was honest and real down here. She sighted Nilesh in his parked car across the street, the window racked fully down to let air in. She knew what spin to give her story now. She thought of her grandfather's motto, a truism she had understood but not lived until it had blazed its way into her mind.
When choosing a career or life path, choose liking over money. If you like what you do, you will do well enough for money to come in. If you do not like it, no amount of money can compensate for that. Do what you like or like what you do.
The truism fitted Nilesh to a 't'. Now, it would come true for her too, she thought joyously, sending up a thankful prayer for her sapient ancestor.
Her boss was reluctant to give her permission for the item but the week had been slow, and they had column space. She ran the first interview, each bland detail reported faithfully so as to be impartial. Then, she capped it with the contrasting feisty human-interest piece, careful to draw parallels without being critical of the other piece. It was the readers who intuitively picked up the nuances and appreciated her remarkable counterpoint. She received over 500 letters, thanking her for posting such a wonderful story.
It was one of the most successful features of that year. Christened “The Story Behind The Story”,it became a regular weekly feature after that, and she got her first by-line. Nilesh and Riddhima became the best of friends soon, and as to whether they ever became anything more, well, that's another story.
3256 (after editing post contest)
Prompt: That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way. - Doris Lessing (English Writer)
Author's Note: This item is "Team India" 's entry under the "short story" format for the February 2008 round of