Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Short Story: A Brief Encounter at the Lower Parel Peninsula Junction

Mumbai is notorious for its traffic jams and ever since I moved to this vibrant city six months ago, I’ve spent more time waiting at traffic signals than anywhere else outdoors. Today morning, on the way to office, while my Uber cab was waiting at the Lower Parel Peninsula junction for a red signal to disappear, my I-Phone lost its connectivity for a few seconds, sufficient time for me to observe that the black and yellow taxi which had drawn up along-side had a single occupant, a pretty woman. At first I thought she was in her early thirties, then I realised that she was a fair bit older than that. I glanced away and then made a semi-circular motion that allowed me to look at the woman again. She had applied her make-up with care, but was not well-off. Her clothes were neither stylish nor fashionable. Rather, the salwar and kameez were well-worn. A lower middle-class face. I quickly looked at her again, for the third time and decided that she was not pretty at all, rather, she had very average looks, even though she had obviously taken a lot of trouble to appear her best.

I smirked to myself. Probably a secretary or receptionist working for one of those run-of-the-mill outfits. I could picture her working for a paan chewing boss who sat on a sagging sofa and entertained guests with piping hot sugary tea served in small steel glasses, a plate full of greasy samosas dripping with oil, by the side.

I went back to my I-Phone and lazily flipped through Facebook. There were no new status updates and the two friends who had their birthdays had already been wished.

The traffic hadn’t moved and the woman and her taxi were still there. The woman stared straight ahead, as if she were craning her neck to look ahead. She appeared to be a bit nervous or even anxious, as if she were psyching herself for a tough day ahead. Why did she have to be worried as she headed for work? That she was headed towards an office, I had no doubt, since she looked as if she was on her regular commute and her black hand-bag had a well-worn look.

I looked at the woman again. There was a tenaciousness about her that was attractive. Even her clothes showed a bit of fighting spirit. They were not new and were faded, but had been maintained well. The handbag was neither branded nor new, but it could have been taken anywhere without embarrassment. It wasn’t tacky and didn’t have a cheap look either, though I was sure that the woman hadn’t bust her bank in order to buy it. A fighter, she had obviously worked hard to raise above her social settings. I could imagine her struggling with her English while studying at a suburban arts college close to her home, her hard work helping her acquire greater fluency as she progressed. The woman herself was an example of how something which is average can be shown to be much better than it is. A quick glance would mark her out to be a beautiful woman. Her hair was tied up in a loose, but elegant ponytail and her make-up was immaculate, neither pan-cake like nor too light. I looked at her again and decided that she was actually quite attractive.

The traffic showed signs of starting to move. I saw that the woman was rolling down her window. Was she planning to buy something from one of the loitering children selling trinkets? No, she was asking me something, the fingers of her palm half-turned in the universal sign for a question, her lovely lips forming an O. Was it me? Yes, the woman was definitely looking at me and saying something. Did she require directions?

I too rolled down my window with a smile. Should I ask the woman for her name and number once I had answered her question, whatever it might be?

The woman said something short and sharp once again. The traffic was starting to move.

‘What?’ I asked

‘Why are you staring at me so much, you nasty @#$%?’

I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t been staring at her at all. Actually I had been, but it was not the sort of staring which required to be penalised. I was at a loss for words. I quickly turned around in my seat and looked straight. My driver, a man fairly younger than me, gave me a nastier look without a hint of any sympathy. My heart was beating fast. To be accused of something so cheap and downmarket was not the best way to start the day, was it? I hazarded one last look. The former object of my affections was looking straight ahead, annoyance writ large on her face.

Why had I stared at that woman so much? I hadn’t even found her particularly attractive after the second glance. I had done so because I found her to be curiously different. If she had been someone from my class, an attractive upper middle-class woman on the way to office, I would have looked at her surreptitiously. A quick glance, followed by a circular movement that would allow me a second view for a few nanoseconds. It would never have been more than that. Did I stare at this woman so intensely because I was sure she was not from the upper classes and hence someone who would be tolerant of masculine stares? I just don’t know, except that these days, while commuting by cab I am a lot more circumspect when I look at women, any woman.

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