I was taken aback by the abruptness of the rickshaw driver when he demanded, “Do you need a ride baji?” (Baji means ‘elder sister’ commonly used by strangers to address women) and then added “You will not get any other vehicle. There is police everywhere and whoever is seen on the road is considered a marcher. I will take you where you want but I will charge double the usual fare.”
Many fears clouded my mind. What if we get trapped? What if this rickshaw driver is evil and does not take us home? News of rape, murder, and abduction, the headlines, the police, accusations, and my daughter was with me too… What was better, boarding the rickshaw or staying on the street? I looked at the passengers in the back. The rickshaw was already overloaded. I could see four women with three on the seats and one crouched on the floor. Despite that, they were willing to make room for more. “Hurry up baji. It’s too risky to stay at one place for long. And also, I will only drop you as near your house as possible. I am not going to risk my vehicle. “
Though I was still apprehensive, I had to take the risk because of the limited options. I shared the little space on the floor while my daughter got into the lap of one of the women. They were chatting cheerfully and I gathered that they were also teachers and belonged to the same school. One of them was a chatterbox.
“But we never met?” she asked me.
“I teach in the higher secondary section.” I replied.
“Oh… Okay. The college block?” I nodded. “We are all from the junior school.” I nodded again.
“You know if the principal wanted, she could cancel the ceremony and we could have been spared of this inconvenience” She rattled on. “But what can we do. Despite the summer vacations, we have to come and celebrate. I agree it’s fun but it could be exempted given the situation”.
“Principal lives in the school residency herself. Why would she care about the situation?” Another, older looking woman said.
“You are right. No students came. We raised the flag and sung the anthem all by ourselves but she only cared for the pictures to show off her efficiency”. I was stressed and jittery and wished she would shut up for once.
They kept rattling on till the last one was dropped off. By then, I had lost all the sense of direction. I and my daughter were alone again and the rickshaw was going full speed ahead, winding through lanes and streets unknown to me.
I was sweating profoundly, whether it was heat or fear, I do not know. I was intently following the route and trying my best to figure out my whereabouts. With shutters all down and the doors of rickshaw closed, I was unable to know where I was and that was making my stomach churn. My pulse was high and I didn’t dare look at the driver in the mirror lest he get any wrong ideas. My only resolve was to appear brave and confident. I feared for myself but I feared most for my daughter. She was too young and I could not even bring myself to think of her innocence getting scarred. I was scared. For the first time in my life, I was living through hell. Confined in the small suffocating space behind the bars of my fear, I cursed the independence and the Independence Day. For we were still slaves, slaves of all the imaginable (and even unimaginable) evils of the society bred by the corrupt system. I wish I had not brought her with me. I did not want to bother my father with her care in my absence. I wish I had thought better.
Tired of all the goings-on, my daughter put her little head in my lap and fell asleep. She was not afraid at all, or even concerned. Ignorance is a blessing I’d say. She didn’t know how grave the situation could turn. She didn’t know this journey towards home could also lead us to hell, I shuddered.
Suddenly I spotted the main road, I knew my surroundings! Across that main road was my home! A new life, a new hope ran through me. I confidently addressed the driver and told him to cross the road. As soon as we reached the end of the street that led to main road, he slowed down and almost stopped the roaring engine. My nerves throbbed once again but before I stepped on the rollercoaster of dreading possibilities, the rickshaw taxied to a halt at the end of the street. I came to know why he did that and could not but appreciate his wisdom.
As feared, there was a heavy contingent of police along the main road. “They have blocked the crossing baji. My rickshaw will not go further” declared the driver. “But how shall we reach home then?” I almost cried out. I was panicking. Yes, I was panicking again. “Our home is very near. We can walk home in 10 minutes. May be I could just ask them to let me through.” I wished I was a bird and could fly home. It was so close.
“If you want you can go and ask them baji, but if I were you I would never go near them. They are always on the lookout for finding a prey and then they try to rob them off. I would not expect sympathy from them.”
I fell silent. He was right. Our police was not dependable. Since childhood it was instilled in us to avoid them.
If only I could use my mobile and call my father, he would surely find a way or know someone. My heart ached to think how worried he must be. It was outrageous, the use of force by government to sabotage peoples’ right to protest peacefully on the very day of independence. I was pissed off. Didn’t we win our freedom sixty eight years ago? Did our elders face tyranny and sacrificed their lives for this, this namesake freedom? They would be turning in their graves to know we just switched our masters. Now there are no ‘angrez’ or ‘hindu’ to dictate us. Now our tyrants are our own kinsfolk. I was sickened of all that pointless oppression.
“Think, think!” I ordered all my common sense to service. Hiding behind the bend of the road, I gradually overcame my panic. The driver was no longer a threat as the police were there. What a bitter sweet sentiment towards police, I reckoned. The crossings were blocked by the police for vehicles but rest of the road as far as I could see was clear. I asked the driver to take us a few streets away and sure enough there was no sign of any policemen. I decided to continue on foot from then on. Far away, I could see the policemen guarding the square, yet no one seemed to react. I don’t know why the police didn’t stop us. I am sure they must have spotted us. Maybe a woman with a child far away along the road was of no interest to them.
We reached the lane that led to our home when my daughter spotted my father. “Abba” she cried and ran into his arms. My dear father was sitting on the stone outside Nazim’s office, his white hair flickered in sun, sweat dripped along the wrinkles of his pale worried face. His eyes gleamed in relief to see us safe. Drained and exhausted, we made our way to the safety of our home silently.