Goregaon Station, Mumbai
I am desperately trying to catch a rick for Oberoi Mall. I have been turned down by at least 50 rickshaws and I could very well kill the next auto rickshaw who nods his head in disapproval. If you have ever been at Goregaon Station at this hour, you would have known that my previous statement is everything but an understatement. It is so frustrating to speak “Oberoi Mall?” to 50 different drivers in 50 different tones ranging from request to sweet request to question to anticipation to desperation to command to demand to fierce order to an exhausted monotone the driver can barely hear. I also mentally make a note that my hair is tied in a bun and not left open which is not making me look as dashing as would cause the rick driver to say yes just by looking at me without bothering about my destination (it’s stupid, but it’s also true). And while I am mentally cursing every fucking rickshaw driver passing by (and my whole life for ending up at this place at this time), I hear a voice of a savior.
“You want to go to Oberoi Mall, right?” speaks a man from a rick across the lane.
“Umm, yeah”, I mutter confused and amazed.
“Come I’ll drop you. I have to go a bit ahead.”
I mentally calculate the time the mall closes and the time I have to reach to my hostel and that this is a MAN offering me a rick and then I look at him and wonder that he looks decent and then I think what if I don’t get any rick today and decide to say yes; all in a fraction of second.
“Okay”, I mumble and walk across the lane and get into the rick.
“I saw you struggling for the rick, so I thought I should offer you a ride”, he explains.
“Thank you, yeah this is frustrating”, I speak words of wisdom.
The atmosphere inside is suddenly awkward. Neither of us is speaking anything. And then suddenly I regret saying yes. Those newspaper stories start running in my mind. What if he is a creep? What if he was stalking me and then did some setting with the driver? What if he gauged me as gullible and is trying to use my situation to his advantage? What if he takes the rick someplace else? What if he rapes me and throws me away? Being a girl is so much of being cautious at all times.
I call up my friend.
One ring, he cuts the call.
Second ring, he cuts the call.
I mentally calculate that he is with his boss and cannot take calls. But I also know this is urgent, so I call him again.
Third full ring, he doesn’t pick the call.
Fourth full ring, he still doesn’t pick the call. He has probably put his phone on silent mode.
Fuck, I think. This situation is getting more and more troubled. I text him this:
“I’m in an auto with a man. He offered me to drop me to Oberoi Mall as he was going further ahead to Dindoshi. I was not getting any auto. Auto number is XXXX.”
He calls me instantly.
“Aayushi, I’m sorry I was with my boss so couldn’t take your calls. Don’t worry. Keep talking to me while you are in the rick.”
“Yeah, I figured”, I am suddenly cautious as to what I speak. The man sitting next to me (if he is genuinely helping me) should not feel that I don’t trust him and (if he is up to something else) should not feel that I’m gullible and can be used.
“Aayushi, repeat what I say. The man should know that you are not alone and that someone is waiting for you at the mall. In fact boys are waiting for you at the mall. He should not get the idea that you’re alone. Okay?” says my friend on the phone.
“Yeah”, I approve.
“Okay, say this: I’m coming to the mall. You wait for me outside.”
“I’m coming to the mall. You wait for me outside”, I repeat. The man sitting next to me is not reacting. He decides to check his phone.
“Now say: I called up Gagan and Karan as well. They must be reaching the mall too. (Say this in Hindi, the auto driver must also know)”, dictates my friend on the phone.
I repeat what he says in Hindi. This is getting weirder. I am starting to feel really uncomfortable with this whole situation. But this is the only way I can muster at this time.
“Now say: Oh they have already reached the mall? They’re with you? (The man must know there are 3 guys waiting for you at the mall)”
I speak those words. I feel pity for the man sitting next to me. He may have genuinely thought of helping me, but I am in this situation where I can’t help but say the things I am saying.
“Alright now, say how much time you will take. Ask the auto driver, how long will it take to reach the mall”, says my savior on the phone.
“How long will it take bhaiyya?” I ask the driver in a loud voice.
“Ten minutes madam”, he replies. I wonder whether the driver is understanding what is going on.
“Ten minutes, I am coming to the mall. Wait for me outside”, I tell my friend who is currently in his office in New Delhi.
“Okay, now talk as if this is a normal conversation. You also don’t want to freak the guy out in case he is helping you. Be cautious though”, suggests my friend.
“So, how was your day? Did your senior bust your ass?” I ask trying to sound as normal as it gets. Somehow I can tell this has started to sound like a genuine phone conversation to the poor man sitting next to me. I notice that he is not showing any reactions to my phone conversation. I also notice that he probably regrets offering me the rick. Probably the driver is also getting the hints.
“I knew that. The things you did, you should have known you’re inviting trouble”, I say another inconspicuous sentence which should do the job of sounding like it has nothing to do with the situation I’m in.
“Wait for me to come. I’m reaching in five minutes. Will kick your butt for saying that.” I throw another sentence with a timeline in it. I wonder if auto driver has been in such a situation before. Probably he has been. The man sitting next to me is still not saying a word. Probably he has gotten the hint and has decided to keep mum. Saying or asking anything from me could throw him into unwanted suspicion. Meanwhile my friend on the phone is constantly there on the line and giving me clues and things to talk about.
“Will you get down at the signal madam?” asks the driver.
I will get down here, right now if I can. I just want this ride to get over as soon as possible, I think.
“Yeah, drop me at the signal”, I reply.
As the signal approaches, I reach out into my purse to pay my share. The man sitting next to me offers me not to pay as the mall was on the way and that he was only dropping me. I resist but he doesn’t budge. As I get out of the auto and try to pay the driver, he refuses to take the share and takes the rick ahead. I stand and watch as the rick disappears into nothing. I sigh a sigh of relief and vow to never do this again.
“Yeah, I have gotten down, thanks for the help”, I assure my friend on the line.
“Be safe Aayushi. Don’t worry, I understand you must have been in a rough situation to say yes to the man in the first place. I trust you. Take care. You’re fine and that’s all. I’ll call you later”, says my friend.
“I so am. Thank you. Call you later”
Weeks later, here I am. Still having this incident on my mind and feeling so awful for the poor man who offered me a ride. It was nobody’s mistake. Not mine, nor his. Yet we both ended up regretting it. Why, I think. Why did we grow up this way? Scared and cynical about every stranger who passes by? Why couldn’t it be just a normal ride where he and I had a normal conversation about the weather and about our jobs or maybe about so much more?
The society I grew up in doesn’t allow me to have a normal conversation with a normal stranger who means no harm. In a big city like this, I have to be cautious about everything and everybody. I couldn’t not do what I did. But at the same time a tiny place in my heart is happy that the man offered me a ride. In a world where we can’t help but be skeptic about everybody else, there still exists a tiny bit of humility in us to reach out and help others. Because truly speaking, in the end we are each other’s only hope.