Sunday, Jul 03, 2022
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Short Story: Once Upon A Road

For Hasan, a man seemingly in his mid-thirties, roads often lead to more roads. An encounter with Vikram near a temple on an October night ends with a strange homecoming.

Short story: Once upon a road
Short story: Once upon a road Shutterstock

Despite the cool October breeze, a drop of sweat came slowly down the driver’s forehead. His eyes were not blinking, his body had become stiff, and the bike seemed to be moving on its own. Hasan, who was sitting behind him, was humming an old romantic song. The motorbike, which is not the safest or the most respected street creature, found a way to keep going, over sidewalks, between stuck cars and even despite the red signal. But then the trance-like rhythm of it all came to an abrupt climax. The driver applied the screeching breaks and stopped in the middle of the road. 

“Get off the bike,” the driver murmured to Hasan.

“Will you not drive me home?”

“No, I am not going that way,” he said in a low but stern voice. 

Hasan got down politely and without saying anything further, the biker vanished into the busy street, as if he never was. Hasan knew that these drivers are fickle-minded. He recollected himself by throwing his hair back from his forehead, put his hands in his pockets and started walking slowly in the other direction. Hasan was lean, had a receding hairline, but managed to look younger than he was. One could take him to be in his early thirties.
 
Hasan loved the roads. He would usually walk for miles, sometimes looking to hitchhike. His eyes scanned and screened people wherever he went. There was neither a particular direction nor any specific destination to his travel. He would often get into a bus or an overcrowded metro and then randomly get out at any station. He loved public places. His favourite ones were interstate bus stops, railway stations, parks, and popular food stalls. Perhaps people watching was his thing. 
 
He would see people rush past each other to reach their homes, work or wherever else they wanted to be. He knew that people despised the roads. Except for low-budget lovers, street vendors and those like Hasan, who took it as their home, the roads were a nuisance to everyone else. Thus, Hasan found his joy in traffic jams, delays caused by constructions, street fights and vehicles breaking down. Such moments would prolong people’s stay on the roads, and in such moments, Hasan would try to make small talk with strangers. 

His favourite way to start a conversation was to pretend that he is new to the place and has lost his way. He would often ask for random addresses and routes. Sometimes with some people for a very short duration his path would converge, and he would have rare moments of company. But most conversations would not go anywhere. So mostly he would be sitting all by himself. But restless as he was, he would start walking. Roads would lead to more roads.
 

On the roads...
On the roads... Shutterstock


 
On one of those nights, Hasan was walking on a street that was slowly becoming empty. Most people had safely returned home from their work. Street stalls were dealing with their last customers, traffic lights were free, and the dogs were gathering below the streetlights. Some men were trying to sleep on the divider, and some struggled to rest on a few bulldozers that stood there. The road was left to its original inhabitants. A few motorbikes passed by Hasan, and he waved his hand reluctantly for a lift. No one stopped. Eventually, he decided to rest for a while and sat under a tree that hosted a small temple. This was not one of the places he would usually stop, but he was tired. He sat down. As he was lost in his usual game of diverting, distracting, and slowing down the fast-moving ants, a car came and slowed down, eventually stopping in front of him. The person in the car honked, lowered the car window, and signalled Hasan to come near. Hasan hesitantly approached the man.

The man in the car looked at Hasan, up and down, and then asked in a heavy investigative tone:

“Do you live here?”

“No,” Hasan replied sheepishly.

“Then what are you doing here at this time? This is a residential area.”

Hasan could now smell the alcohol off this man and looked around to find some reasonable answer.

“I was just praying,” he stuttered. 

“Do you have any identification on you?”

“I live nearby, I will just go—”

“I asked for your ID card.”

Hasan had some experience of running into these upper-middle-class vigilante men, but on this occasion, things got a little tenser than he anticipated. Hasan avoided eye contact with the man and as a result, his eyes went to a board above the number plate of the car that read “Army.” His heart sank and he wanted to run, but he knew he wouldn’t be successful. To break the silence, which was actively working against him, he said with a tone of surrender:  

“I don’t have my ID with me, it’s at my house.”

“What is your address?”

Hasan shared an address which was not very far from where they were. And after sharing that, Hasan apologised and requested to leave. The man did not take his eyes off Hasan, even for a moment. 

“Get in the car. I will drop you to your home.”

Hasan, who was in no position to do otherwise, quietly sat in the back seat.  

“Am I your driver? Come sit here in front.” 

Hasan, who was not used to sitting in cars, had some trouble opening the door. The driver helped him get out and Hasan sat next to the driver. Hasan had almost given in to the situation, considering this to be one of those ruthless turns that his roads sometimes take. The car moved gently as if it was in no rush. Inside the car, an old romantic song was playing. A half-filled whiskey glass was kept in the middle of the two seats. The car had a mild fragrance, and the windows were half-open. Despite the cool October breeze, a drop of sweat came slowly down Hasan’s forehead, and his eyes were fixed on the rear window of the car. The person driving the car started whistling to the rhythm of the song. He looked relaxed and had dropped all aggression from his face. Gently, he turned to Hasan and asked:

“I am Vikram. What’s your name?” 

“Hasan.”

“Hasan?”

Vikram had some visible confusion on his face.

“Hasan praying in a temple?” 

Just as Hasan was sinking in regret about the blunder he has made, Vikram said:  

“That’s very brave of you,” and started laughing. In the middle of his laughter, Vikram suddenly opened the cabinet in front of Hasan. Hasan immediately moved his legs back. As the moment was suspended in anticipation, Vikram took out a whiskey bottle from the cabinet, and continued laughing. 

“So, Hasan, would you like a drink?”

The sudden hospitality and histrionics of this man confused and terrified Hasan even more.

“It’s expensive whiskey. Very smooth!” Vikram emphasized. 

“No. I am okay.” 

“But you don’t look okay. Why are you so tense? Are you a thief?” Vikram laughed again as he said that. 

“Okay, so what do you do?” 

“Nothing. I mean I don’t have a job these days,” Hasan said in a tone of embarrassment. 

“You are a young haseen man Hasan; you can get a lot of work.”

Hasan remained silent and Vikram tried to break the ice by cracking some more mean jokes. After every joke, Vikram would give him a high five and Hasan would reluctantly reciprocate. 

“So, do you have a girlfriend? Wife?”

Hasan just shook his head. 

“What? So, what do you do? Just masturbate and sleep?”

Vikram started laughing and this time instead of a high five, he placed his hand on his thigh of Hasan. Hasan was shocked. Vikram did not remove his hand and kept driving looking straight ahead, with a smile on his face. The silence was filled with the old romantic song in the background. Hasan turned to Vikram and looked straight at him for the first time. Of the many things Hasan could do in this moment, he first went for the half-filled whiskey glass and gulped it down.
 

On the roads...
On the roads... Shutterstock


 
Vikram cheered at this move. In Vikram’s shining eyes, Hasan saw one of the surprising rewards that his roads would sometimes wander into. Hasan placed his hand firmly over Vikram’s hand and smiled with relief. The tension in his body transformed into something else. He cleared his throat and said in his husky voice:  

“Thanks for taking me home.” 

“My pleasure.”

The car moved gently as if it was in no rush and had nowhere particular to go.

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