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August in New York City. The place is a ghost town, thirteen thousand cabs desperately roaming the streets in search of a fare.
Ranjit Singh sees the woman in the white dress waving at him from the other side of Broadway and swerves his yellow cab across a lane of traffic. Horns blare and a bicycle messenger shouts Asshole! as he screeches to a stop.
A bare brown arm reaches for the door handle. It clicks open and the cool air-conditioning leaks out, replaced by the smell of hot asphalt, sweat, and the faint, pungent odor of melting bubble gum.
Ranjit watches the woman get into the cab, the same way he watches all his passengers, looking for signs of trouble. Seasoned New Yorkers barely even notice Ranjit's red turban and full beard, but out-of-towners gape at him, reassured only by the hack license posted on the plexiglass partition. The crazies, of course, want to talk and talk.
This woman is different.
One long leg enters the cab, wearing a white wedge-heeled sandal, each toenail painted a perfect crimson. Her crisp white dress reveals smooth brown shoulders, her face is obscured by large oval sunglasses, and her glossy black hair cascades to her shoulders. She piles three crisp white Prada shopping bags on the seat next to her, and they crinkle against her hip.
"Seventy-second and Central Park West, please."
Her voice is low and modulated, but there are Indian undertones to it, as familiar as the voice of a long-forgotten lover.
I know this woman, he thinks, then corrects himself. That's absurd.
He nods in acknowledgment and pulls out onto lower Broadway, thinking of the quickest route: right onto Prince, swing over onto West Houston, cut through the Village on Sixth Avenue, and then a straight shot through Midtown to Central Park West. After two long years of driving a cab here, the city's streets are burned into his brain.
They turn and hit a red light. The taxi is caught in the seething, rumbling flow of traffic and Ranjit feels an equivalent disturbance inside himself. The woman in the white dress is looking out of the window, lost in thought, biting down on her plump lower lip.
A memory floods through him. He was still a cadet at the Military Academy in Chandigarh, and on one stifling hot Sunday he wandered into a cinema, bought a ticket, and sank down into a seat, enjoying the air-conditioning.
He'd entered in the middle of a film, a romance, apparently, because the heroine was waiting under a concrete overpass for her lover. Unlike the other Bollywood actresses, with their ample bosoms and pale complexions, she was dark-skinned and slender, with vulnerable, doelike eyes. As she waited, it began to rain, and she shrank back against the concrete, biting down into her lower lip. Transfixed, Ranjit sat through the rest of the movie, then bought another ticket and watched it again.
He was twenty-two then, and the actress on the screen was barely nineteen, the latest discovery by the megaproducer S. K. Nagpal, who had supposedly seen her getting off a bus and said, "See that girl? I will make her into a star."
The woman in his cab must be in her late thirties now: her voice is an octave lower, her slim figure filled out into womanly curves. Ranjit wishes that he could see her eyes, which are hidden behind oversized sunglasses.
The light changes to green, and the taxi nips around a bus, accelerating so hard that the woman in white is pushed back into her seat. She takes off her sunglasses and clutches them, and he can see her face clearly now. There is no mistaking her long-lashed, liquid brown eyes.
Shabana Shah catches him staring and smiles tiredly. "So you've recognized me. If you want an autograph, okay. But I cannot get you a movie role, or introduce your nephew to some producer, okay?"
He laughs. "Sorry to bother you, madam. No autograph needed. It's just that you looked familiar, and I was trying to remember—"
"It's okay. Happens all the time."
Shabana Shah leans her forehead against the window and looks out at the flower district. A man pushing a shopping cart full of purple orchids hurries past, leaving a wet trail behind him.
Ranjit finds himself still talking. "My wife, she was a big fan of yours—"
"Was? Why, what happened? She doesn't like my movies anymore?"
He feels his face flush, and remembers that Shabana's last three movies were all box-office flops. Critics have said that she is too old to play the role of the young, vulnerable lover.
"No, no, that's not what I meant. She's still a fan, I'm sure. It's just that she is in India, and I'm here. We're … divorced."
She looks at him with a spark of interest. "Divorced? Is that common for Sikhs?"
"No." He feels the back of his neck burn with shame.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. It was stupid, forgive me."
"Oh, there is nothing to forgive."
Changing the topic, she gestures to the postcard he has propped on the dashboard: the Golden Temple in Amritsar, surrounded by the calm waters of the sacred lake.
"So that's where you're from? Amritsar?"
He shakes his head. "No, no … I'm from Chandigarh."
There is no way to explain that he used to visit the temple with his mother when he was a child. The postcard is a talisman: when he's stressed out, he concentrates on it and meditates, leaving the fray of Manhattan for the quiet, sacred space of the temple.
The taxi speeds on, slipping through the knot of Columbus Circle, the tall lonely statue of Columbus mirrored in the glass slabs of the Time Warner Center. Turning onto Central Park West, Ranjit feels a stab of sadness that the ride will soon be over.
With Shabana in his cab, he feels something that he hasn't felt in a long time: not just the quick flame of desire, but something weightier, a yearning to be recognized.
New York is full of unmoored women and a moving taxi is a refuge from the harsh reality of the city. Tired or lonely, some of these women hear Ranjit's fluent English and want to talk to him. Most of the time he humorously deflects their advances, but once he gave in.
The day he received his divorce papers, he picked up a tall blond woman at JFK airport, returning from a yoga retreat in India. They talked all the way into the city, and when she invited him up to her sleek Soho loft it seemed natural. After a drink, she simply stepped out of her clothes, and her slim, tanned body aroused him; after sex she fell deeply asleep. Gathering up his clothes to leave, Ranjit was shocked to pass an open bedroom door and see a man sleeping inside. The encounter left him feeling soiled and lonelier than before, and he swore to never pick up another woman.
But Shabana is different, and he can't help sneaking another look. Her black, lustrous hair has been artfully cut and falls in layers to her bare shoulders, almost too heavy to be supported by her slender neck. Her eyelashes have barely any mascara, and her lipstick is a modest shade of pearl, but she wears heavy makeup on her cheeks. She is older now, but he feels as though he has known her, has lain with her through a thousand and one nights, listening to her stories.
There is the sudden blare of horns on Central Park West. Ranjit hits the brake, bringing the taxi to an abrupt stop. A cop car is blocking the road, its lights flashing. Ahead, a long black limo is skewed across the road, a yellow cab with a crumpled fender stopped right behind it. No doubt the limo braked suddenly—livery car drivers drive like shit—but the cabbie always gets blamed.
He turns to face Shabana. "There's been an accident. Sorry for the delay. They'll clear it in a few minutes."
She nods, and peers out of the window.
He is conscious of staring at her. "Again, I'm sorry for the delay. I hope you're not in a hurry?"
She shakes her head. "Nope. I was just doing some shopping."
He gestures at the bags on the backseat. "Prada. Nice store. Nice design, the way that the wooden floor inside curls like a wave."
She looks sharply at him. "You shop at Prada?"
"I've been inside. Not to buy, just to look."
He doesn't say that his thirteen-year-old daughter, Shanti, will be arriving from India in three weeks, to spend a trial year with him. If she likes it, she will stay with him permanently. He needs places to take her that are free but that fit in with the glamorous ideas she has of New York.
"Now that's interesting. A taxi driver who likes Prada." She smiles, showing perfect white teeth, and he feels his heart race.
He wants to keep Shabana smiling and talking, and suddenly remembers his ex-wife returning, flushed and happy, from her shopping expeditions. She used to delight in showing him her purchases.
He gestures at the Prada bags. "So, did you get anything good?"
"You want to see what I bought? Really?"
She rummages through her bags and pulls out a pair of leopard-skin spike heels, holding them up for his inspection.
"Very fashionable. How do you walk in them?"
"Practice. And I got this…" She pulls out a slinky piece of black fabric, glittering with tiny sequins. "Well?"
"Nice. What is it?"
"It's a cocktail dress. Off the shoulder."
"Nice, but it doesn't go with the shoes."
"You're right about that." She laughs as she leans forward to look at his hack license. "You know a lot about fashion, Mr.… Singh."
"Ranjit, please. I don't know anything about fashion, I just notice things. Anyway, you'll look fantastic in that dress."
"You're sweet. How long have you been in America?"
"A few years. I was in Martha's Vineyard before this, working as a landscaper. But then I thought, a place like New York has more opportunities. The cab is just temporary, till I get on my feet. How about you? Are you shooting a movie here?"
She stuffs the dress back into the bag without bothering to refold it, and he realizes that her shopping hasn't given her any pleasure.
"Well, I was working on a film here, but we ran into … some difficulties." She smiles bravely. "So I just stayed on here for a while. Mumbai is so hot at this time of the year."
Ranjit remembers reading about the cancellation of her latest film, something to do with financing, and curses himself for asking about it. She's biting down on her lower lip again, and looking distractedly out of the window.
Up ahead, a tow truck is finally moving the damaged limo. He turns the engine back on.
"Miss Shah. Can I say something?"
She looks at him, her eyes dull now. "Of course."
"I'm sure it is a temporary setback. You are a great actress. There is no doubt about that."
"That's sweet of you," she says, but keeps staring at the flashing lights outside.
There seems to be nothing left to say. The line of cars starts moving, and the Sixties speed by. Soon he is at Seventy-second Street, slowing to make the turn at the address she has given him. He stops in front of the Dakota, a massive yellow-brick building that takes up an entire city block. With its elaborate stonework and steeply gabled roofs, it looks as though a European chalet has been dropped down onto the Upper West Side. It even has a moat, a gap between the sidewalk and the building, surrounded by an ornate iron fence, and is so exclusive that the applications of rock stars and Wall Street moguls are routinely turned down.
"The Dakota. Very nice. You live there?" He gestures at the arched entrance on Seventy-second Street, guarded by a sentry box of tarnished copper. A doorman stands outside it, a tall, elegant figure in a peaked cap and blue blazer.
"Oh, it's a friend's apartment. I'm just borrowing it."
She begins to gather up her bags as they pull to a stop. Through the archway, he can see a dim interior courtyard with a fountain and swaying trees.
"Thank you, Sardarji," she says, using the honorific for a Sikh. Leaning forward, she gives him a crisp bill. "Keep the change."
He stares at it. Even with the wait, the fare is just twenty-four dollars. "This is a hundred-dollar bill, you know."
"I know. It was nice talking to you."
Before he can thank her, the doorman flings open the door and reaches for her bags. With a wave, Shabana Shah walks away, the doorman trotting behind her. As her white dress disappears into the building, Ranjit once again feels the disturbance inside himself.
He pushes the crisp bill into his pocket, his mind a jumble of thoughts.
A black livery car has nosed in behind the cab, and its driver is honking and gesturing at Ranjit to move. Its passenger, a short, bald white man, is standing obliviously at the Dakota's entrance, refusing to walk the twenty feet to his car.
Baarp, baarp, baarp.
There is a sharp knock on his window, and Ranjit powers it down. The doorman from the Dakota peers in.
"Move," he says, "you're blocking this entrance."
The doorman has a brown face and an Indian voice: he is a countryman, yet there is no trace of kindness in his voice. Tall and long waisted, he wears his sky-blue blazer and matching trousers like a fashion model, his cap tilted back at a jaunty angle.
"I'm moving, bhai," Ranjit says mildly, calling the man "brother."
"Don't bhai me. Get this maderchod cab out of here."
Motherfucker. The insult is delivered in a crude Punjabi accent.
"Who are you calling a maderchod?"
"You heard me. Now get out of here."
Ranjit's vision constricts. This fucking city. Abused by passengers, hassled by the cops, cut off by livery car drivers, and now this chutiya in a monkey suit, pushing him around. Enough.
Ranjit swings the door open and steps out. He is at least a head taller than the doorman, who scuttles backward.
"I'm trying to earn my living, just like you. Why must you disrespect me?"
"This is private property. I'm calling the cops. Got it?" The doorman whips out a cell phone and begins to dial.
Fuck it. The anger is bright red, clouding Ranjit's vision. His fists are clenched, already knowing their targets.
"A rooster can crow, but can it fight?" he mutters.
"Kya bola?" What did you say? The doorman jerks his head up.
"Tum nay mujhe suna." You heard me.
Amazingly, the fright leaves the doorman's face, and he steps forward. "Captain? Captain Singh? Is it you?"
Ranjit stops in mid-stride. The roaring in his ears fades, and once again, it is a hot afternoon and he is standing on the sidewalk outside the Dakota.
"It's me, Captain." There are tears in the man's voice as he advances with open arms. "You don't recognize me? From the Military Academy? It's me."
Who is this crazy bastard? Ranjit peers at him, seeing a chiseled face with a cleft chin. The brutal army haircut has been replaced by long, wavy hair and modish sideburns, and a neatly trimmed mustache now hides the small, effeminate mouth.
"What the hell? Mohan Kumar?"
The two men embrace.
The livery car is still standing behind the taxi, and Mohan whirls around, adjusting his cap. "I'll fix this chutiya."
He strides up to the short, balding passenger, still waiting by the entry. Saying something about a broken-down cab, Mohan walks the man to the livery car, and it swings quickly out into the street.
Mohan Kumar walks back to Ranjit, grinning and shaking his head.
"That man … that was Phil Smith. You know, the band Eruptions, big in the eighties. Now he's a has-been, and a has-been millionaire is the worst kind; they need me to bow and open doors. Captain, damn, it's good to see you. I'm sorry I didn't recognize you at first…"
"Jaane do." Forget it. Ranjit puts a hand on Mohan's shoulder. "How long has it been? Twenty years? And I see you again in this city?"
The two men stare at each other for a moment.
"What happened to you, Mohan? You just vanished from the Academy. No good-bye, nothing, you were gone. All these years, I thought you were dead…"
Mohan looks away. "It's a long story, Captain. And you? Why are you driving a cab here? I always thought you were going to be a general—"
A young woman with closely cropped hair and a flame-colored dress steps out of the Dakota and looks vaguely in Mohan's direction.
"Oh shit, this is an opera star, from France. Doesn't speak a word of English, and I have to get her to Lincoln Center. Do me a favor and drop her off? I get off at six, come back, and we'll have a drink and catch up, okay?"
"I have a second job, Mohan. I won't be done till late—"
"Doesn't matter, I'll be here. Just ask for me at the entrance." Mohan grasps Ranjit's hand and presses hard. "This is fate. I'll see you, Captain."
The opera star gets into Ranjit's cab, and he heads west down Seventy-second Street, his mind a whirl.
First Shabana Shah, then Mohan, both in one day. What are the chances? There are times when he's picked up the same passenger twice in one day, and what are the odds of that, with eight million people and thirteen thousand cabs?
On autopilot, he turns down West End Avenue to Lincoln Center, remembering that the entrance for artistes is on Sixty-fifth Street. When they get there, the French opera singer pays him slowly, leaving no tip.
It is almost three in the afternoon as Ranjit drives slowly down Columbus into the thickening crowd of Midtown, right on the cusp of rush hour. The hundred from Shabana is fantastic, but he still needs to make up for the slow week. Passengers think that cabbies make money sitting in traffic, but the meter actually runs slower when he's going at less than six miles an hour. The best trip is a long, traffic-free stretch, when the meter clicks every fifth of a mile.
Stopping for a light, he thinks of Mohan Kumar back at the Cadet Academy. A dandy even then, his khaki uniform immaculate. Always talking loudly and confidently, but with uncertainty in his eyes, searching to see whether he was being taken seriously. Women seemed to be drawn in by his vulnerability, which lay just below the surface, like a badly healed wound.
He was never without a girlfriend, always swearing that he'd met the woman of his dreams—until the next one came along, with ruby-red lips or a bigger bosom. The last woman he was involved with was an officer's wife, and she had begun to talk about leaving her husband. Had Mohan been frightened by the seriousness of the situation and run away?
Ranjit is so lost in his thoughts that he barely sees the fat man stepping off the curb, arm raised high.
Slamming on the brakes, Ranjit screeches to a stop. The fat man peers indignantly through the window, sweat stains marking the armpits of his cheap gray suit.
"Jeez! Were you going to run me over? JFK Airport, okay?"
Ranjit groans to himself. His wish for a long ride has been answered, but after he gets to JFK, he'll have to spend hours in the taxi queue, waiting for a fare back into the city.
"I'm sorry, sir, I was just going off duty."
"What the fuck? Your sign is lit. You have to take me to the airport."
"I said I'm sorry." Ranjit turns his medallion light off, then activates the OFF DUTY sign.
"Hey! I'll report you to the TLC! The mayor is cracking down on people like you."
"You do that."
Ranjit puts the cab into drive and speeds away, conscious that all it takes is one phone call, and he'll be up before the Taxi and Limousine Commission. But the man hasn't taken down his hack license number, and there are hundreds of Sikhs driving cabs in the city.
Suddenly exhausted, he decides to turn in the cab and take a breather before his second job. Driving across town to the cab depot in Long Island City, he can't help thinking about what Mohan had said. Yes, he should have been a general by now, living with his family in a cantonment bungalow in India. But here he is in America, driving double shifts in this cab and renting a one-room apartment in Jackson Heights. He thinks about the chain of events that landed him here: his attempt to start a new life on Martha's Vineyard, his affair with Anna Neals, the Senator's wife, and her unnecessary death. After that his marriage collapsed, and Preetam went back to India, taking their daughter, Shanti. He followed them back there, to persuade Preetam to stay with him, but she wouldn't listen to him, and it was too dangerous for him to remain in India, so he came here, to New York, and, like so many others, stumbled into this job. And while he punished himself, working day and night, saving every scrap of money, Preetam met a rich businessman and filed for divorce.
For the past two years, his job has been his drug, his own will subsumed by the darting needs of others, and his only company has been the other cabdrivers. Like him, these men are trying to rebuild their lives—back home they were landowners, doctors, and engineers—and, like him, they do not want to talk about the past.
Now Shabana Shah has sliced through the numb cocoon Ranjit has so carefully created. As he drives across the Queensboro Bridge, he feels again the sharp ache hidden inside himself, and, unbidden, a scrap of prayer drifts into his mind:
Meditate and listen to the name of the Lord, and pass it on to everyone.
In this way, the filth of lifetimes shall be removed, and egotistical pride shall vanish from your mind.
Sexual desire and anger shall not seduce you,
And the dog of greed shall depart.
* * *
The Uptown Cab Company is on Jackson Avenue, flanked by a graffiti-covered warehouse and a vacant lot. Its dirty white cinder-block garage is fronted by a row of antiquated gas pumps and an asphalt parking lot. The shift is changing, and the lot is packed with rows of yellow cabs, their drivers yelling greetings to each other.
Finding a parking space, Ranjit carefully puts his postcard of the Golden Temple into his battered black gym bag, which holds his cabdriver kit: a bottle of water, aspirin, a change of clothes for his night job, and a tire iron, in case a passenger tries to mug him. Shouldering the bag, he takes his trip sheet and his meter into the garage, and joins a line of men ending their shifts. Having started at three or four A.M., they all look exhausted, and the air is thick with body odor.
Ali Khan spots Ranjit and waddles over, his bulldog-like face creasing into a smile. His girth and brightly colored Hawaiian shirts hide his shrewd intelligence; a labor organizer, he is highly respected by the other cabdrivers. Ever since Ranjit helped get rid of some street hoodlums who were bothering Ali's teenage daughters, he's been a loyal friend.
"Aare, Ranjit, time for some food? They have biriyani today at Karachi Kabob. They say it's biriyani, but they use food coloring in the rice, not saffron, and the meat is more horse than goat. But still…"
Ranjit smiles. Ali always complains about the food at Karachi Kabob, the small Pakistani greasy spoon around the corner, but then eats heartily.
"Not today, bhai. I have to go to my other job."
"You work too much. You're a Sikh, not a Jamaican. All this driving will kill your back, destroy your knees. What you need is a wife, some nice big Punjabi woman to make sure you come home."
Ranjit inches toward the front of the line. "You're married, and I don't see you hurrying home to Naazia."
"Aare, mera bath chor do." Don't talk about me. "I have been married for thirty-three years."
Ranjit reaches the cashier's booth and hands the meter and trip sheet through the small opening in the chicken wire to old Jacobo.
"How did it go today, Taliban?" Jacobo smiles his crooked, gap-toothed smile.
He's one of the co-owners of the cab company, of indeterminate Eastern European heritage, and claims that his advanced age exempts him from all political correctness.
"Tough out there, Mr. Jacobo. I don't know where the customers have gone."
"You ever hear of the Hamptons, Taliban? Well, don't feel too bad. King Kong over there"—Jacobo gestures at a Nigerian driver—"made only twenty bucks today. But we all know that he scares customers away."
Jacobo bends his head and makes some quick calculations. After paying one hundred and ten dollars' rent on the cab and fifty-three for gas, Ranjit would have made only eighty-seven dollars if it wasn't for Shabana's generous tip. For the millionth time, Ranjit curses this job.
He heads out, waving at Ali Khan. "I'll see you later, bhai. Don't eat too much biriyani. You'll spoil your appetite for Naazia Bhabi's cooking."
As he's walking away, one of the Mexican cleaners runs up to him. "Hey! I found this in your cab." The man smirks as he hands over a wad of silky fabric, covered with sequins. "Getting some action in your cab, huh?"
Shabana's dress from Prada. "One of my customers must have dropped it—"
"Yeah, right." The man makes a thrusting gesture with his hips, then runs back into the garage.
Embarrassed, Ranjit walks away quickly. Slowing down after a few blocks, he lifts the dress to his nose. Shabana must have tried it on, because he inhales her faint perfume, sandalwood and jasmine, and something muskier, the scent of her own body.
When he meets Mohan at the Dakota this evening, he'll return the dress to Shabana, and maybe she will even invite him in. He imagines himself making her laugh again, seeing her sweep away the thick fall of hair from her high forehead …
Stuffing the dress into his gym bag, he takes the M train into Midtown Manhattan. He finds a clean Starbucks bathroom and changes into the uniform for his next job: a black shirt with epaulettes, black cargo pants, and knee-high lace-up boots.
Looking at himself in the mirror, he sees that his shoulders are slumped over from the day's driving, and he is developing a belly—too much rice at Karachi Kabob. He stands straighter, feeling the pain shooting through his stiff back. He has to look professional; who knows, this job could even turn into a full-time gig. With Shanti coming to stay with him, he can't be driving a cab all day and night.
He emerges from the bathroom and orders a cup of Earl Grey tea. The young woman behind the counter smiles at him warmly, and he can't understand why, but then he catches a glimpse of himself in the window. In his crisp black uniform, he looks like a soldier, not a worn-out cabdriver. For a second he feels like his former self, then sees that the three gold stars on his shoulders are missing.
Don't think about all that now. He heads down the street, sipping his tea, but it tastes like dishwater, and he throws it into a trash can and hurries down the street. There is a huge shipment coming in tonight, and he can't be late.
Copyright © 2014 by A. X. Ahmad