The Evening Shadows
by Dellnaz Italia
Tasneem lowered her head instinctively as the rain drops pelted the tarmac. It was 6.15 in the evening but the gloomy, grey would have you believe that it was much later. Her office, in a high rise, in tony Worli, was abuzz with ‘paavush aala’ murmurs; people quietly elbowed out, neatly filing out of the sky scraper to face the daily trudge to the ‘Burbs of Mumbai. The trains would be filled to the brim. While the Mumbai rains send the privileged into rhapsodies about chaii, pakoda, and the choppy sea; the not- so-fortunate multitudes that use the Mumbai Life- line, brace themselves for the roughest and cruelest trudge all the way to Borivalli or Kalyan or Thane or wherever they are headed in the notorious local trains.
Tasneem sent up a quick prayer of thanks that her salary as an architect allowed her the luxury of taking a taxi everyday. Her parents were petrified of the Mumbai trains. They agreed to let their only daughter, born and brought up in Nashik, to live on her own in Mumbai; if she agreed to never travel by the train. They would pay for her travel they pressed. They even encouraged her to buy a small car; so she could drive to work but the parking woes in Mumbai were too big for that option.
The cabs were dirty, smelly and wet in this weather. ‘Taxi’, she called out running towards a ram shackle black and yellow battered car. The taxi drove off without batting an eyelid. Many more followed suit. The rain picked up its pace. Her umbrella now uselessly shielding her drenched self, Tasneem ran back inside her building to book an Uber. Twenty eight minutes away -winked her screen. Tasneem winced, shut her phone and walked back to the road resolutely. That’s when she saw him. An average looking, middle aged, nondescript, bespectacled man standing a few feet away from her. He didn’t look up when she glanced at him.
‘Bhendi Bazar, Bhaiyya, please’, she called out for the umpteenth time to yet another cabbie. ‘Trafffic bahot hai, udhar nahin’, mumbled the driver, before rattling away.
Tasneem decided to walk up to the main road because the crossroad would yield more cabs. She pulled in her useless umbrella; her cotton salwar kameez hugged her. Her specs bled little rivulets of rain down her face. The man followed about twenty steps behind. It means nothing- she thought: he needs a cab too. The evening now gave in to the night though it was just 7pm. It was pitch dark.
She was just outside the Mahalaxmi station now, but being a non-native Mumbaiker even the dark, rainy evening wouldn’t prompt her to get into a train. Besides even if she did, her rented home wasn’t at walking distance from Masjid Bunder- the nearest train station to her apartment. The man was looking at her, she felt no thrill or fear of being stalked- why was he so plain? She asked herself laughingly. She caught him looking furtively around while casting sidelong glances at her. She felt cold. The drenched night had a sweet smell wafting from somewhere behind her. Cutting chaai…just what she needed. Tasneem crossed the kerb to the chaaiwala, doing brisk business. She cupped her wet hands around the little, stained teacup. So happy, it wasn’t plastic, she thought as she blew into the overly sweet, milky chaai, when her eyes met the man’s over his tea cup.
The rains showed no signs of abating and suddenly the skies cracked. Tasneem glanced up at the lightning, quickly paid for her tea. A sidelong glance revealed the man did the same. She crossed the road quickening her pace. As she waited on the footpath opposite the busy station, the skies opened up wantonly. Suddenly she glanced at the man’s feet. They were all right; weren’t inverted. The dark night, heavy rains, the thunder and the lightning were calling for a ghost to spice her boring life; she thought laughingly to herself. A colleague called, Tasneem gave her whereabouts, felt safe and reassured. Did she need a lift? Not yet. She would surely get a cab shortly, she assured her kind colleague.
Yet another cabbie drove off, hearing her calling out Bhendi Bazar. Of course, now she got it. The problem was her address. Who would want to head to the traffic infested, narrow, broken immeasurably Bhendi Bazaar on an evening like this? ‘Bhaiyya Charni Road’, she called out to the next cab. It came to a grudging halt. Tasneem, how stupid can you be, she muttered as she bundled herself in.
On an impulse she looked behind and saw the man get into a cab too. The cab trundled along slowly carrying her through the now familiar streets of Mumbai. The radio cracked a Bhojpuri song, normally she would request the cabbie to switch it off but today she didn’t. She felt strangely happy. The
man was out of sight now. It is impossible to tail a cab in this traffic, she thought. The streets were brimming with people determinedly going home from work. Mumbai is by and large a safe city, she affirmed to herself. Born and brought up in a conservative Bohri Muslim family, Tasneem was so grateful for her broad-minded parents. They believed in her implicitly. They weren’t happy with her decision to shift to Mumbai though and only gave in when she found safe accommodation in a cozy apartment where most of her community members lived. It was a small price to pay from her viewpoint; she would have loved to spread her wings and stay elsewhere. This address gave her parents succor. Plus it was cheaper compared to the rest of South Mumbai. She was happy to give in and it had been over a year now. She loved her work, her colleagues were delightful and Mumbai loved her back.
‘Kahaan utarna hai’ the cabbie broke into her reverie as they reached Charni Road. Tasneem directed him to the narrow lane on the left. She would come out straight at Kalbadevi through that pedestrian lane which crossed through a Muslim graveyard- the biggest of the city- Bada Kabrastan. The rain continued to batter the city. Maybe tomorrow would be a holiday, she thought dejectedly, as she paid the cabbie. She hated holidays as work filled up her days and made her less lonely. She crossed the road towards the narrow lane. Crowds were filing in; it was organinsed mayhem as the teeming dozens came in from the other side too. She hugged her bag close, held her shut umbrella close to her chest. Mumbai had taught her to deal with gropers effectively. Walking fast was impossible. Suddenly she felt the slightest tremor and a waft of chaai-laced breath on her cheek. He was right next to her. Her breath caught up. Her brow was now wet – with the rain and her sweat. She tried her best to quell the fear that rose into her now. She pushed herself deeper into the crowds and quickened her pace to almost a run.
The narrow lane gave way to a big street; Tasneem glanced back. He was there- some twenty steps behind her. She was only about five minutes away from her apartment. It seemed inordinately long though. Should she raise an alarm? Why wasn’t she bumping into someone familiar today? Her building came in sight. Her eyes wide with unconcealed fear; she looked over her shoulder. He had stopped near another building and was writing something in a pad. He looked up at her as if on cue and almost immediately tore his gaze away. Heart pounding achingly, she raced up to the wide wooden staircase two at a time. She fished out her keys. She turned to look back. There was no one. She let herself in and bolted the door from inside. The television played reassuringly at her neighbors’. The house-help in the apartment on her right was clanking the vessels loudly. The familiar sounds quieted her pounding heart.
Inside her apartment, she could hear the rain pounding hard on the ancient windowpanes. All the buildings in their area were more than seventy years old and somehow the rain made them look even older. Tasneem went up to the window. There he was. He held a camera pointed towards her.
He was clicking pictures. She slammed her window shut and peered from the stained glass. He continued to click. Tasneem felt a righteous rage. He was stalking her. He was tailing her right from office. She was as wet as a church mouse yet she grabbed her umbrella. She raced down; drew herself to her full height. It was just nine pm. The neighborhood was safe and she just had to let out a scream. There would be people and they would teach him a lesson. She crossed the street. He was clicking furiously now. His brow furrowed, his palm shielding his camera. She marched up to him.
‘Aap ne mera picchha kiya’, she managed to get out tremously. He looked at her.
‘Haa, yes’, he looked sheepish. ‘I am new to the city. I had to survey this building, which is up for redevelopment. I work with ‘Patel Builders’. When I heard you call out ‘Bhendi Bazar’ to so many Cabbies…I thought I would get here…too.’
She stared at him refusing to fill the silence.
From close he looked so ordinary and harmless; the kind that wouldn’t hurt a fly. ‘I am sorry, my phone died and I couldn’t Google the address…so…’, his voice trailed off. Tasneem looked at him wordlessly. The rain had messed up her street and her head. It was dark. It was mucky. It felt safe. It felt ordinary.
‘I hope you didn’t misunderstand…’, the man said. She nodded. She walked back to her apartment. The rains poured on relentlessly. ***