It was Riya’s first day in the night shift. Her training was over and she had hit the floor. Her team was scheduled to work in the 6pm to 3am shift. This call center had six different shifts. The earliest was at 7am to 4pm. The latest shift that Riya was in was the most sought after shift because customer service executives in this work window got an extra Rs 2000 as night shift allowance on a monthly basis. Another reason for this timing’s popularity was the two way transport the company provided for its employees. Most married women preferred the day shifts while the young part time college going crowd wished for the last shift. For Riya however, it was the first time working in a night shift.
This 24 year old woman, just out of college, was quite apprehensive about working at night. Taboos attached to working in a call center at night bothered her. But she was enjoying the work and the people around her in office, so tried to break free of the taboo. But more than the work, travelling at 3am in the morning was indeed a scary feeling. To add to her fear were news articles about various crimes committed against women by cab drivers. Nevertheless the job was dear to her and she had to abide by the rules.
Her shift was over and she along with her team members walked to the transport area. Lists with employee name and cab numbers were hung on the notice board. Riya checked hers and started looking for the designated cab. From a distance she spotted the cab and studied the driver.
He was not a monstrous chap. In fact his face was quite pleasant and gentle. He did not wear the unshaven rugged look of the cab driver stereotype. His uniform was pristine white and his shoes were clean and polished. He wore his hair short and it was neatly brushed. Suddenly, like thunder disrupting a calm ambience, a woman ran towards the cab and opened the passenger door in front. She said something to the driver, who smiled and went over to her side and took her ‘Signoraware’ lunch box bag and carefully put it in the section between the two seats in front. The two exchanged some words and their body language put Riya on alert immediately.
Riya was quite shocked. Either the woman is too friendly, or the driver is a flirt. The fear that was subdued thanks to the driver’s demeanor was back again with increased intensity.
I hope I am not the last drop. I don’t want to be stuck with this driver alone in the cab.
Slowly she reached the cab. There was one other employee who would board the same cab. Riya and this guy sat in the back seat, while the over friendly women took the passenger seat in front. Still scared by the prospect of being stuck with the driver alone, she asked for the roster sheet to check if she was the last drop. And Holy Mother! She was.
She pretended to call home and spoke as if someone was waiting for her.
“Hi Papa, I have taken the cab. The number is KA 05 MA 1669. I am the last drop so I will reach in another thirty minutes I guess. You stand near the gate okay?” Riya faked the conversation to make sure that the driver could hear her clearly.
The male employee got off at the first point. Now it was just the three of them in the cab. Riya had her headphones plugged to her ears, and did not hear the first time the over friendly woman called her. She realized that she was being called after the third time.
“Oh I am sorry, were you telling me something?” Riya asked.
“Hey I know you are the last drop, but do you want to be dropped before me? I have no problem being the last drop. Your father must be waiting for you, right?” the woman said.
Riya breathed a sigh of relief.
“Oh that will be great. But I hope it will not be a problem for you.” She said politely.
“No not at all.” She said and turned to the driver and told him something in Tamil. What Riya could understand was that she instructed him to drop her first and then go to her point.
Riya quite did not understand this behavior. By the color of her tag, Riya knew that the woman worked in the IT department. The IT guys had red tags as opposed to the blue tags worn by the operations department. So she must be an engineer. Word was that the IT people got paid really well in this company. So what was an IT professional doing with a driver? It was clear that they shared more than professional camaraderie.
Her thought was interrupted as she reached her drop point. Relieved that she was not the last drop Riya got off the cab and without a look back, headed straight for her apartment.
The next few days were a repetition of the first day. After the third day, there was no asking. She would be dropped before the over friendly woman, whose name, Riya found out was Mrinalini.
“You know something Shreya, I think the IT lady in my cab is having an affair with the cab driver.” Riya told her teammate over dinner.
“Oh my god, what are you saying; an affair with a driver? The woman must have real low taste. I mean, please, which decent working woman would be swooned over by a cab driver?” Shreya replied, with a look of disgust on her face.
“I know, right? And I think this woman is married as well. She wears toe rings and also has a long ‘mangalsutra’ around her neck. It is generally not visible and she hides it under her ‘kurta’ but I did see it once.” Riya added more ingredients to the gossip.
“So whose mangalsutra are we discussing here?” Adithya butted in.
As Shreya began to elaborate Mrinalini and the cab driver’s affair, more people joined in. Soon her entire team was gossiping about it. Several other secret affairs were disclosed. But none were as juicy as this one. Opinion flew from one desk to another; her husband must be really bad for her to fall for a driver; she must have a real loose character; married women these days are so desperate; night shift is the cause for all this non sense; women these days cannot be happy with one guy…the allegations, judgments and character slaughter were like waves on a bed of gossip.
At the end of the shift, Riya was eager to show her friends the source of the gossip, Mrinalini. They had already checked her on the employee database.
“Oh boy, this woman is quite beautiful. Why did she have to go for a driver? Had she not seen me?” One of the boys had joked.
“Seriously man, she is beautiful; must be in her late twenties. Who could guess that such an angelic face could belong to such a characterless woman?” someone had commented.
But Mrinalini was not to be seen anywhere today. This is karma Riya. You gossiped about her, and now you will be stuck with the driver till you reach home. It other male employee had also decided to get his own transport today.
Damn! Dreading the drive back home, Riya got inside the cab. After her fake phone conversation with her father, stating the cab number and stuff, Riya’s curiosity got the better of her. Mustering all the courage she could, she called the driver.
“Excuse me, do you know if Mrinalini is on leave today?” she asked.
“Oh she had to leave early today. Our son has suddenly fallen ill and is running a high temperature. We have a very generous neighbor who generally takes care of him at night. But today she was scared when the fever refused to subside. So Mrinalini had to rush home.”
That woman from IT was his wife? Riya could not believe the blunder she had done. She tarnished the character of a perfectly good lady. She was so dumbfounded that she could not even give a proper reply to the driver.
“Oh ok” is all she could say.
Watching her reaction, the driver decided to dispel her doubts.
“Actually, you see I am an upper caste Tamil Brahmin. My family never approved of our relationship. Both of us studied in the same college. I was her senior. I was pursuing my B.Com, while she was in engineering. During my final exam, I had typhoid, and could not write my papers. She, on the other hand did exceptionally well. But when she came to see me, my family blamed her for my illness and my lost year. She was shattered and decided to break all ties with me. But she is the only woman I have ever loved. So I convinced her to elope and marry. We came to this city and she immediately bagged this job. I had not completed my education, so I did odd jobs here and there. After we had our son, eight months ago, I decided to take care of him, while she continued working. Recently she suggested that I buy a vehicle and start working for call centers which needed cabs at night. She spoke to the transport department here and got me this job.” He narrated his story and cleared Riya’s confused mind.
“Mrinalini was, in fact, planning to tell you our story herself; we know the whole ‘calling your father’ thing you do is because you are scared to be alone in the cab. But we thought that it will be weird to suddenly start talking about lives. So we were looking for an opportunity to speak to you and dismiss your fears.” He smiled warmly as he said this. There was reassurance in his voice.
The next day, Riya decided to do right the damage she had done. Over dinner, she told her friends about the truth behind the ‘affair gossip’.
“It is incredible. To think that such love still exists.” Shreya replied.
“It is like a movie script. I respect the man for standing up for the love of his life.” Vidya said admiringly.
“He must be an adorable man to take care of his baby, when his wife is working.” Aditya said.
Again, opinions began to flow like a flood.
And Riya successfully managed to lift Mrinalini from a desperate loose woman to the heroine of an inspiring love story.
But was she able to free herself from the guilt? Did she speak to Mrinalini after that? Will Mrinalini ever come to know about this whole episode? Well I leave that bit to your imagination!