It is too much of a risk, thought Kate, sliding into the backseat next to her husband. Perhaps they should have heeded the internet chat group and gone with the ridiculously expensive tour group than pick some taxi-wala from the roadside. She felt secretly thrilled that she thought in Hinglish now! Mark caught her smile and put his arm around her shoulders, early morning fight forgotten. Well! and why not? She can’t be that worried if she is getting distracted by her Hinglish thoughts. The taxi was now going its usual breakneck speed, oblivious to traffic and accompanied by the cacophony of blaring horns that was now only marginally less nerve racking than it was two weeks ago when they landed in India. “I am still not entirely convinced, you know”, she said, not willing to let go of her worries all that easily. “But it is a brilliant idea, darling! You know we thought so at the time. Besides I can take this guy anytime with one hand tied behind my back!” Mark said nodding at the driver. Kate looked pointedly at his nascent beer-belly and smirked. “Aww…common babe! I am at least twice his size!” Which was true, of course. Before Kate could say anything. however, the driver turned right around and started to speak, making them instinctively lean back and yell “Road!” while simultaneously stomping on the imaginary brake. The driver, stunned, turned back and then grinned at them at the rear view mirror. “No problem, Sar no problem! I drive 4 years, aahn, not one accident. Don’t worry madame, not even one scratch, madam, don’t worry, don’t worry! Now only you come a? Just Arrived?” He said grinning superciliously at the two of them now. Kate sighed while Mark took this opening to engage the driver in a chat. He did that all the time in India and it never failed to surprise Kate. Not that Mark did it, but that Mark did it. The man who would grunt discouraging monosyllables at the New York cabbies staring pointedly at his iPhone now initiated conversations with everyone from the bell boy at their fancy hotel to taxi drivers. She couldn’t even blame it on the iPhone, because even at the hotel restaurant that had wi-fi, Mark had chatted away at the waiter while she googled TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet reviews. It was so different from their previous trips where Mark was the one planning everything and she just hung back and enjoyed the luxury of it. Now she was the one planning and Mark was the one living it up. It was fine, she was liking the planning, but she wished Mark was just a bit more involved. He just made on the spot decisions these days, no research no discussions, just…snap! and off we go. Like this taxi thing last night. They were having a great time at this out of the way restaurant that came highly recommended by people who “travel like a local” at TripAdvisor. Mark was so happy to be out of their comfort zone, eating with his hands and his happiness was so infectious she even washed her hands with the bar soap provided in the “Hand Wash” area! They were giggling like teenagers on their way back to the cozy, safe five star rated hotel room when Mark had said, “look, darling, a taxi stand. Let’s just ask one of these guys if they will take us out tomorrow! We had great fun today, it will be awesome tomorrow too!” and she had said yes, without thinking it through and let Mark talk to the driver and fix it all up. But then in the bright sunlight of the morning she had started having second thoughts. She just couldn’t resist checking for advice online and now she was too tensed for any adventure. There are so many ways this could go bad! But Mark and the driver were getting on like a house on fire. Maybe it will all work out, maybe.
The taxi turned off the main road onto a bumpy lane. The driver started to pay more attention to the road and Mark to the hutments on either side. Kate’s stomach plummeted at each bump and her temper sky rocketed at each click of Mark’s camera. After about half an hour of this, Kate couldn’t take it anymore and nudged Mark, “where is he taking us? Does he even know?” Mark looked surprised at her, ” To the rock temple, darling!” he said, like there could actually be a doubt! “But do you know this is the route? What if he takes us some place else?” “Oh! he’ll ask for directions, Sweets. Don’t you worry. These guys are not like the Chennai drivers, they stop for directions. The new age man, eh?!” he said nudging and winking at her. The driver had by now rolled down the window and called out. She turned to look at the porch of a house where she could see the U-shaped bend of a girl stirring something on the floor. “Paapa!” called out the driver. No response. “Mo!” he said raising his voice and the girl jerked up like a jack-in-the box with the most comical expression of bewilderment on her face. Despite everything, Kate burst out laughing.
Amala breathed a sigh of relief! The house looked liked the wreckage after a flood, but at least there was no constant yelling and hustle bustle. The last week was a nightmare. First the kid had got a tooth ache and cried all night. Then just when the doctor’s narcotic had started to work, her brother got stung by the scorpion and literally brought the roof of the cowshed down. By the time her dad and uncle had fixed the roof, the tailor had brought the blouses for her sister’s wedding sarees and NONE of them fit! Oh, the pandemonium! The kid woke up, the dressing came off as the brother tripped on the ladder in his hurry to see what the shouting was all about, bringing his uncle down with him, her mother was shouting at the tailor, her sister was crying unconsolably and her father was yelling at everyone! Needless to say, they had all turned to her as the calm one to fix all their problems. She had sent the tailor off with alterations, reminded her mother she could use this as a bargaining chip to lower the prices or even get it free, dressed her brother’s foot again, and sang to the kid to get him to go back to sleep. If that was a bad start to the week, it only got worse from there. The Mandap decorator dropped by to say he ran out of cloth for the wedding dias, the patched roof started to leak, one of the calves decided this was a good time to make a bid for escape** and the dentist decided to pull the kid’s teeth out. She just wanted some quiet! Peace was not important, if only she could get quiet! If they would all just go crazy silently she could still deal with it. But being called every five minutes in tones ranging from mere panic to abject terror was driving her insane! Why does her family have to be so loud? Fear, tension, worry, fun, happiness all had the same reaction. Loud! Finally, after a lot of behind the scenes fixing by her, she had packed them all off to the wedding hall a day before. She can get the house ready now for the visitors arriving after the wedding, she said. This was the best time to do it, or there would be too much hurry burry later. We need to look our best for the groom’s people. She really didn’t need to see the hall again before the wedding. Yes, of course she will be there bright and early on the wedding day! It is only a 10 min walk, no need to worry. Yes, she will remember to feed the cows before she leaves. And finally! almost like a miracle they had all left and the blissful quiet settled around her! All she had to do, she could do by herself. She picked up the broom and had cleared out the entire house before noon. And no one called to her, not one peep! Not even the cows. It was blissful.She was at the porch, the last of the clean ups. She was so engrossed in the silence she didn’t hear the car draw up. She vaguely registered a shout until, someone yelled out the dreaded word. “Mo!” they said and she jerked up stunned that her quiet could be broken so soon.
* Short for Amma, a term of endearment used for young women and girls in south Tamil Nadu
** He had the right idea.