This short story originally appeared in the magazine Eve’s Touch
It was getting dark when Prabha walked out of the teacher’s lounge. Her driver was picking her up at 6 pm. There was no sign of him when she reached the college gate. She looked at her watch and turned a worried eye to the dark clouds gathering. An unusually strong wind was beginning to blow, making small eddies of fallen leaves. Prabha tried to hold back her sari ends from flying in all directions and still not drop the test papers she was carrying. After waiting for nearly fifteen minutes she decided to call Anil at work. When she got her cell phone out of her purse it bleated and flashed “low battery”. ‘Can it get any worse?’ she muttered.
Earlier in the day a long phone call with her father-in-law had upset her.
“Beta, you never call me – even Anil has forgotten his father is still alive”.
“Papa, Anil tells me that he calls you every other day?”
Anil’s father belonged to the old school – daughters-in-law were meant to be seen, not heard. He never bothered to ask her if she could speak on the phone at that moment, insisted that she call him right away and began his litany of woes as soon as she phoned. The call had drained Prabha and her cell phone!
‘Anil, why is the driver not here? I’m running late – I’d promised Kriti to help her study for her mid term tests next week”. Prabha was impatient to reach home.
“I’ve sent him to the airport to pick up my boss – I’ll send you another car”. Anil was clearly irritated.
“Will you come home early today?” she persisted. “You’ve promised to help Kriti complete her science project”.
“You’ll have to do it – I have too much work here”.
Prabha resisted the urge to snap at him. By the time she gathered her thoughts the plaintive tones of her phone made her realize that Anil had hung up.
The wind had turned into a regular gale and was playing havoc with her sari. After the aborted phone call with Anil her thoughts were as tumultuous as the gusty winds. Stealing another look at her watch, Prabha dialed her best friend Rita. Her phone continued to bleat pathetically, while she waited for Rita to answer.
“Hey Prabha, what’s up?” Rita’s cheerful voice came crackling over the bleats.
“Oh, Rita it’s good to hear your voice. I’m waiting for my ride home and it looks like its going to pour.”
“How come so glum?” Rita was her usual perceptive self.
“Anil forgot to send the car,” she resisted adding the word again. “I’d promised to coach Kriti for her math test next week – I’m concerned about her grades, she’s not doing too well in this new school.”
“You worry too much Prabha – kids take some time to get used to a new school. Between Anil and you, I’m sure you can help her cope.”
“Hmm., I am not sure…”
“Why don’t you get Anil to help her? Last time you spoke you’d mentioned that things were not hunky dory between the two of you. And we never got to talk about it. Maybe this Kriti project will help”.
“I don’t know, Rita.” Prabha tried to keep anxiety out of her voice. “He seems distracted all the time – even when it’s just the two of us. When I try to talk about it, he becomes sullen. Sometimes I feel he’s turned into a stranger!” Prabha confided.
“Prabha I’m sure all the uncertainty at work for Anil is not helping. My cousin Sujay, who works in the finance department told me the other day that the company is facing a severe cash crunch – you may be reading too much into it” Rita’s thoughts seemed plausible. “Why don’t the two of you get away this weekend maybe to a resort? I’ll take care of Kriti. Both of you need a break and some quality time together”.
“You’re a gem, Rita. I’ll talk to Anil about a vacation when I get home today.”
“Prabha, make him earn this vacation – get him to study with Kriti!” Rita was on a roll. Still laughing, Prabha hung up feeling a little more buoyant after talking to her friend.
She saw the taxi approaching as the first few drops of rain began to fall. The driver stepped out and opened the door for her. She hadn’t seen him before. He was clean shaven chap with a well trimmed mustache and unusually big shoulders that looked incongruous in his white uniform.
“Madam, Sinha saab sent me from JB Road”.
“Yes, yes – let’s go, I’m already late!” She quickly got into the taxi and once he settled in behind the wheel, rattled off her address.
There was a grunt from the front seat and the taxi started moving.
“Slow down, you’re going too fast!”
The driver didn’t seem to hear her as the taxi swerved slightly to avoid hitting an errant cyclist. By now the weather had turned into a full fledged thunderstorm. Rain was coming down in thick sheets and small objects and even carts careened across the road even as the trees swayed precariously.
When Prabha looked out she could barely see the flyover.
“Arre, why are you taking this route? It will take too much time.”
The driver didn’t seem to hear her. He seemed to be in a race with cars she couldn’t see. The words “bat out of hell” rose in Prabha’s mind, as she tried to get him to slow down. A particularly nasty bump, made her reach for the handle on door – except that there was nothing there! A quick glance at the other door revealed itself to be as bereft of handles as her own.
Working woman kidnapped! All those articles on women’s safety that she had read flashed in her mind’s eye. She fought the urge to panic as she reached into her purse. The pepper spray in her purse seemed so useless – merely a pathetic attempt of bravado on her part. She remembered her cell phone and fished it out and with trembling fingers dialed Anil.
“Hello!” Anil’s voice, even distracted was a rush of adrenaline to her.
“Anil, thank God you’re there! I’m in danger – this taxi driver seems to be taking me somewhere, help me…”
“Speak up! Stop mumbling. I can barely hear you, the line’s bad”. Anil sounded brusque and she found her panic rising! She felt that he was going to hang up. “Please, Anil, do something…” When there was no response from his end, she knew that the call had dropped. She hit redial – static was the only sound that seemed to come out of her phone. Even as she tried calling Rita now, her phone went dead as the battery gave up its ghost.
As though this were a cue, the driver stopped the car and got outside. The violent rain had toned down to a steady drizzle and all around were tree branches fallen about like dead drunks. Prabha peered out to see where they had stopped – the car had pulled off the main road somewhere near the city reservoir. When the door opened, she aimed the pepper spray at him and pressed hard – nothing came of it! He laughed loudly at her foolhardy attempt at self defense. He reached with a ham-sized hand for her. The incongruous sound of a phone ringing distracted her just then. The driver grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her out of the car. The phone continued to ring. Prabha tried kicking him and beating him with her fists. He hardly seemed to notice her blows and gave her a hard slap that knocked her to the ground.
“Aaah!” The pain was unbelievable. The phone rings seemed to grow louder. Somewhere deep down she realized it was the driver’s cell phone ringing. As she struggled to her knees, she heard him answer.
“Saab, I haven’t finished the job yet!”
The strident voice from the other end sounded so familiar…could it be?
‘No, No’ her mind furiously denied the truth staring in her face.
When the driver gave her a wolfish smile, she knew!