Rohit’s phone, lying on the coffee table near the unused twin bed, started buzzing just when he entered the shower and let the warm water wash away his somnolence. He yelled diatribes in his mind and his lips synced with the words on his mind as he hurriedly wrapped a towel around his slender hip, and hurried over to it. He noticed that the call was coming from an unknown number.
“Hello?” he answered, a bit hesitantly.
“Hey, Rashid, did you call for a cab?” said the voice at the other end.
“Eh . . . yes, but my name isn’t—”
“Well, I am your driver, and your cab is here. You are late, man. Are you ready?”
“I’ll be down in the lobby in a second. Thanks,” Rohit said hurriedly. He walked to his travel suitcase and started ruffling through the clothes inside. After a few seconds, he pulled out a shiny blue striped tie.
Where the hell is the red one? Shit, I shouldn’t have packed when I was drunk, Rohit thought.
He straightened the collar of his white shirt, loosened the knot on the tie, and dropped it around his neck. He grabbed his coffee in one hand, stuck a slice of bread between his teeth, and held his bag and jacket in the other hand. Balancing everything, he managed to step into his freshly shined Balmorals.
The door to room 232 opened, and Rohit stepped out into the cold winter air. He placed the coffee mug on the floor and closed the door with his free hand. Then he rushed toward the motel lobby.
Rohit had been hustling a lot these days, which was a big change from how he had been a couple of years back. Old habits had been to religiously drink every night and sleep a lot, waking up with barely enough time to make it to class and keep up his attendance record. He had avoided people at any other time—those high-achievers who looked at him with judgmental eyes, his parents, who wanted him to do something useful with his life, and his girlfriend, who wanted his attention every second.
Fuck these people and their expectations.
When he had graduated a few months earlier, he realized that he had not learned anything from his classes, and quickly discovered that not one company was willing to give him a job. A tinge of bitterness towards people had made a nest in his behavior, and had started rearing its ugly head when he least expected it.
Once, his mom had asked him to get her a bag from the top shelf of their cupboard. Rohit had been half-asleep on his bed, and he whispered without thinking, “Bitch . . .”
“What did you say to me?” his mom had exclaimed.
“Which . . . I said, which . . . bag do you want?” Rohit had fumbled.
Things like this happened once in a while, but Rohit was learning to control it. His future depended on it.
He reached the lobby and looked around to see if he could spot the yellow of the cab in the parking lot. Not seeing it, he took out his cell phone and placed a call to check on it, quickly realizing he had forgotten to ask for the driver’s name when they had spoken earlier. “Hi, Yellow Cab? This is . . . uh . . . Rashid,” Rohit said, taking a breath.
“Hey, Rashid, where are you? I have been waiting for quite some time.”
“I am in the lobby, and I don’t see you. Where are you parked?”
There was a silence at the other end.
“Hello?” Rohit said after an awkward moment.
“All right, all right, I get you. I will be there in a second, man. It’s all good.” With that, the driver hung up.
Rohit looked at his watch. It was already 8:05, and his conference was at 8:30 AM. He was frustrated and started pacing around in the lobby.
Five more minutes passed and the cab was still nowhere to be seen.
Irritated, Rohit called the Yellow Cab Company. When the person at the other end picked up the call, Rohit said, “Hi, I need a cab sent to the Days Inn on the northeast side of the UT Austin Campus. Could you hurry up, please?”
Just when the pleasant yet sleepy lady at the other end started to say her usual line, a cab pulled up in front of the lobby.
“Never mind, cancel that,” Rohit said, and ended the call to quickly walk over to the cab.
Rolling down the window, the cab driver asked, “Rashid?”
Rohit nodded a yes, as he did not want to waste more time by correcting the cab driver about his name when he was already late. “Take me to the AT&T executive center, please,” he told the driver. Once settled, he pulled up the conference agenda on his cell phone to gather information on the speakers for the day.
After a few seconds, Rohit noticed that the cab had not started moving yet. He looked up from his phone, furious, to meet the stern gaze of the cab driver. The driver was a young, lanky guy with a long, thin neck, dark skin, and short, curly hair. He was wearing a shirt that was a few sizes too big for him, and the sleeves of it were rolled up to his elbows.
Rohit asked, “What’s going on? Why are we still here?”
“You do not ask for a timed cab when you want to go a short distance,” the driver said in a serious tone. “You use it when you want to catch a flight. Not when you want to go to a place nearby.”
Whatever happened to ʻthe customer is always right’? Rohit thought, but he wasn’t ready to follow it up with the time and effort it would take to argue with the driver. He wouldn’t even see the guy after the ride anyway.
“I am sorry, sir. I will never call a timed cab again without giving it a good amount of thought.” He wanted to add a bit of sarcasm to his tone, but knew that this would just slow him down even more.
The cab driver turned back to his wheel and started driving.
Finally, Rohit thought and got back to his cell phone.
“So what is going on with you today, Rashid? Am I saying your name right?” said the driver cheerily.
Rohit took a deep breath and dropped his phone on the seat next to him. “It’s Rohit, not Rashid, actually.”
“Oh, you’re Indian, right?”
Rohit could have spotted the gleam in the driver’s eyes from a mile away. He tried to mimic the excitement in the driver’s voice. “Yes, it’s great that you were able to notice that. But I have to plan for this management conference, and it is really important. So, could you give me a few minutes to work on it?”
The driver did not say anything; he seemed to be in deep thought.
Rohit waited for a few seconds for a response, and then got back to his agenda. Maybe this time he would be able to finish what he was trying to do. He opened to the index page.
PMT Product Management – 2016
- Your Market – Ryan Bowter
- All Those Hats – A.B Parker
- Strategy – Shinji Nagatomo
Rohit knew that it would be tough to maintain a conversation with the big dogs who would be present at the conference. They expected a display of passion for the product and for a person to be constantly engaged in thinking about it. They didn’t want to just hear the words from your mouth, but they wanted to see your eyes light up like the dark man’s in the book The Stand. They wanted to see someone work through the strategy right in front of them.
Rohit was not in the same place they were. He did not care about products, or succeeding, or anything, truth be told. His only strategy was to comfortably wade through life with the least effort possible. Rohit was the only product Rohit had any interest in managing.
He was reading about Mr. Nagatomo, the newly hired Senior Product Manager at Qwerty Corporation, when he heard a familiar Indian song from the 1990s.
“Woh Chali, Woh Chali . . .”
This was one of the songs that Rohit had listened to every day when he was in college. He would listen to it whenever he was reminded of the day his girlfriend left him.
She had told him she wasn’t getting enough attention from him.
After a long discussion at 2:00 in the morning, she had asked, “Do you care about anything? Do you really care about me?” Her eyes were looking in his direction, but they were wide and unfocused. Her hair was a mess from rolling around in the bed.
“I would, if you turn off the light,” he had snapped. Then he turned away from her to get back to sleep.
But something wasn’t right. What started as short, rapid breathing noises stretched and stretched till each one was a couple of seconds long.
There was a loud shout from behind him. Then his desk lamp whizzed past him and hit the wall in front of him, shattering into tiny little pieces.
He rolled out of his bed and onto the floor in a quick, defensive move. He started looking around quickly to see what happened. His girlfriend was standing on the bed, scratching her head and looking at him.
“What the fuck is your problem?” he shouted.
She had a hysterical look on her face. “The problem?” She gave a sharp burst of laughter. “There’s no problem.”
His mouth opened for a second, but closed just as quickly. He didn’t know what to say.
She calmed down after a few seconds and said, “I can’t live like this. You know that, right? No sane person can—no sane person can live with you. You . . . you don’t have any emotions, Rohit. You know that, right? And you are driving me mad—”
He was yanked back to reality by the voice of the cab driver.
Rohit had assumed that the song was coming from the radio—he was wrong. The cab driver was singing. He was trying for a high note in the song, and it did not come out so well.
“Hey . . .” Rohit’s voice came out a bit squeaky. He cleared his throat and spoke again, “Hey . . . where did you learn that? You seem to know the song so well.” Rohit was a bit curious, since he had once been as carefree as this driver, till the pressures of day-to-day life had forced him to be a bit more mature and responsible. He secretly wished that he could swap lives with the driver.
“You see, I am from East Africa. I grew up there and lived there throughout my childhood. During those times, we did not have the American cinema. We did not even know about them,” said the driver.
He continued, “We grew up watching Dharmendra, Mithun, and Hema Malini. The Indian actors, they were our heroes.” He turned to Rohit and said, “Kya chal raha hei bhai” or “What’s going on, brother?” He was grinning from ear to ear when saying this, like he was playing a role in a popular Indian movie.
But Rohit was stunned to see someone from another country speak Hindi so fluently. “Wow, that’s brilliant. You are a natural. Where did the theater get the movies from?”
The driver smiled again, looking like a kid who was being praised for a good deed. He mumbled something about the East-India Company and the 1800s, and then waved it away. He then continued ecstatically, “ This is nothing, Rohit. The people who worked at the cinema, they were better than us. They would enact scenes from the movies and talk to us in Indian.”
Rohit was amused. The language was Hindi, not Indian, but Rohit did not want to spoil the fun by saying so. “Were the people who worked at the theater, the cinema people, Indian?”
The driver said, “No, they no Indian, man. They East-African and they speak Indian!”
The driver’s enthusiasm transferred from his speech to his right foot, and the cab accelerated suddenly.
Rohit clutched onto the seat, while bracing his right hand on the inner roof. “Jesus, slow down, man.”
The driver was unfazed by this. “They call us when we walk by and say, ʻHei andhar aa jao bhai,samay ho gaya! Picture dekenge’—ʻHey, come inside, brother, it’s time! Let’s watch the movie.’ In school, we used to collect pictures of these actors from the movie posters when no one was looking, and we would trade with each other for money. Five cents compared to the current money. It was a lot of money then.”
Rohit did not know how much of what the man was saying to believe, but it was really interesting to listen to. “So what about your family? Are they still there?”
The cab slowed down.
“My parents are still there. But my brother . . . he is no more. He died in a shooting incident in our movie theater.” There was a serious note in the driver’s voice now that hadn’t been there before. “My brother—” His voice started shaking, and he suddenly stopped talking.
Rohit felt bad for the driver. “I am sorry to hear that.”
The driver was lost in thought and did not respond.
Rohit did not want to disturb him. He somehow felt small compared to the driver and as if he had lost the right to be angry with people; he felt guilty.
After a few minutes, the cab slowed down, and came to a halt in front of the AT&T center.
Rohit was feeling a weird mix of emotions. Like he was being pulled from each side by two different extremes. On one side was the need to say something to the man in front of him. On the other side was the part of him that told him to distrust and hate people.
Of course, he is just making this up to get a better tip. Well, guess again, buddy, you can try this again with another customer.
Rohit checked the meter reading and paid the driver the exact amount.
The driver did not look at the amount that Rohit gave, taking it without saying anything.
Rohit got out and sneaked a peek at the driver while closing the door.
He had his head down. He was looking at something inside his wallet, and his eyes were wide and unfocused again, like he was replaying a memory in his mind.
Yeah, keep acting, buddy, Rohit thought bitterly, and started walking away. When he reached the glass door at the building entrance, he heard that jolly tone again.
“Rohit, call me when you leave, and I’ll come pick you up.”
Rohit turned around and said, “Yeah . . . yeah, sure. My flight is at seven in the evening. I’ll call you.” Then he turned and walked into the building.
So that’s your agenda. I guess everyone has one; time to get back to mine, Rohit thought.
Rohit soon forgot about the cab ride to the conference. His dislike for people had returned, and he started shrewdly planning his interactions so that he could finagle a job.
He tried to approach a few executives and talk about his passion for their product. But he was having a hard time judging what these people really cared about, and the conversations did not continue for more than a couple of minutes. His frustration grew to a point where he could take it no more.
He excused himself from the classroom, sauntered down the staircase, and exited the building. He stood outside with his hands on his hips, holding his suit jacket back.
Thoughts started cascading through his mind like objects caught in a whirlwind. His mind danced around, focusing on a new thought every time he tried to comprehend the present one. I cannot lose it now. I need to focus on this event. This is my last chance.
He started breathing heavily.
After a few minutes of trying to calm down, he lost hope and started searching for somewhere to sit. He found a stone bench in front of the building and walked towards it. There was a girl sitting on it. She had short hair, and her face was turned away from him. It looked like she was searching for something in her bag.
Maybe she would have a cigarette I can borrow, Rohit thought desperately.
“Excuse me, ma’am, do you happen to have a cigarette?”
She turned towards him. “Yeah, sure, they’re in my bag—”
She stopped and stared. “Rohit?” she said.
It took Rohit a moment to recognize her face. His mind was still swimming with his racing thoughts.
“H-Hi, Lea, what are you doing here?” The last time Rohit had seen Lea was when she had come to his place to return his things, after the mid-night fight and the eventual break-up.
“I am good, thanks for asking,” she mocked. “I am doing my PhD here.”
“On Probabilistic Graph—never mind. How are you? It has been a long time.”
Rohit rubbed the back of his neck. “Hey, listen, I am sorry about how things ended.”
“Oh . . . don’t worry about it, Rohit. I have moved on. Anyways, I am late for class. Have you moved here permanently?”
“No, I am just here for a conference. I’ll be flying back tonight.”
“Oh, okay. Hope we meet again some other time, then. Take care, Rohit.” Then she handed him the cigarette and hurried off to her class.
Rohit felt unwanted and lonely.
At least she gave me a cigarette to keep me company. Rohit lit the cigarette and started taking short puffs from it.
The rest of the day continued the same way. There were a few more failed conversations. The class ended early, and Rohit had completely forgotten about the driver. He dialed the number to the Yellow Cab Company and requested a cab to get to the airport. He had lost hope in connecting with the executives and in getting a job through them; he just wanted to get to the airport and back home as quickly as possible.
A cab arrived, and he got in, his mind still whirling from the day’s events.
“To the airport, please. The terminal for Southwest Airlines,” Rohit said.
Rohit leaned against the door and stared outside, watching the buildings pass by the window.
Why is this so tough? he thought.
After twenty minutes, the cab stopped in front of the airport terminal. Rohit was still lost in his thoughts and did not notice.
“Sir, we are here. I’ll help you with the bags.”
Rohit looked up. “What?”
“We are at the airport.
“Oh, okay.” Rohit paid the driver and got out of the cab. He slowly walked over to the trunk, feeling dejected.
“Sir, let me help you with the bags.”
“Yeah, sure, just be—” Rohit was trying to move away from the trunk so that he could let the cabbie get the bags. But something was different . . . the driver’s voice.
Rohit quickly turned around to see a familiar lanky guy standing behind him. He had a familiar loose-fitting shirt and short, curly hair.
“Why you no call me, Rashid?” said the East-African cab driver.
Rohit’s eyes shimmered with tears. He had a smile on his face. “I g-guess . . . I forgot?”
After a moment’s pause, the driver replied, “Oh, it’s all right. I just wanted to see you off at the airport.”
Why would he drive so far to do that? Is he mad? Rohit thought. But he also felt elated for some reason that he could not comprehend. Someone wanted to meet him, to see him off, and he didn’t want anything from Rohit.
The confusion kindled emotions in him that he had thought were permanently buried, and his eyes filled up again.
The driver seemed to notice it and spoke, “All right, man, have a good flight.” Then he reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. “Here, take my card. Call me if you need anything, or if you are ever back in Austin.”
When the driver opened his wallet, Rohit noticed that there was a picture of a little boy in it. It was a black-and-white photo and was flaky around the edges. Right next to it was a small paper stub; a movie ticket. The stub was torn around the edges too, and had yellowed with age. There was a reddish-brown stain on it that looked like dried blood.
Rohit looked up at the driver’s face and noticed that he was staring at the stub.
The driver saw that Rohit was also looking at the stub. He pulled out his card, closed the wallet, and said, “It was my brother’s . . . H-he had it on him when he was . . . shot.” He was unable to maintain eye contact with Rohit, and he shifted his gaze to the floor.
“I understand,” Rohit said.
The driver rubbed his eyes with one hand and handed over his card with the other. “Call me anytime, man; let me know.”
Then he turned around and started walking back to his cab, which was parked a few feet behind the one Rohit had arrived in.
Rohit wanted to say something.
At least this time, Rohit thought. But he could not remember the driver’s name; he had not asked for it. After thinking for a few seconds, he shouted out, “Hey, Rashid, I will be in Austin again next month. Please pick me up from the airport.”
The driver turned around in a dramatic way, like in the old Indian movies and said, “We’ll meet again, brother—take care. And my name, it’s on the card.” He smiled again, and got back into the cab.
Rohit stood there till the cab started moving and disappeared around the curb.