Thursday, July 13, 2006

Half-smile

His half-smile was unforgettable. That was the only memory of Mujawar I carried back to Mumbai. He was the driver on rolls for the sugar factory that I visited as a consultant. The Mahindra Commander jeep was at the guesthouse promptly at three in the morning. He was dressed in khaki; probably his uniform, and a bright red woolen monkey-cap hid most of his face. The front door was left ajar for me. I hopped in, wearing an over-done grin that you usually reserve for chauffeurs, especially when they see you off at odd hours. It was December and I didn’t mind his strong odor in the chill of the wee hours. There was a certain warmth in it.

“So, are you happy with your job” I asked him on our way to the station.

“No”, was his matter-of-fact reply.

“It must be hard work, driving all night “.

Again the terse response “I sleep most of the time”

I had no idea what to ask further. It was the typical situation we often face in life – when you strike a conversation for the heck of it …the journey is short, you don’t know the guy, you want to keep mum, he wants to keep mum, and yet you end up opening your mouth.

“Do you grow sugar cane” “I made another feeble attempt

“I don’t own any field” pat came the reply. His answers were bundled with huge full stops, bringing further questions to a grinding halt… Suddenly, I remembered his very first reply.

“Why don’t you try some other job? “Like?”

He croaked with a cold look. “Er, like..”

I just could not come up with anything. This time, I was glad that he didn’t care. He was so close to me but his nonchalance made him invisible. “Station”, he announced precisely. I jumped out of the jeep and waved my hands in the universal gesture of a good-bye. As expected, no reaction echoed from the other side. As I walked up the stone-strewn path of the tiny railway station, I heard his voice.

“Hello, over here” Now what’s wrong with him?

I wondered even as I turned back. “Your... Look below, down there” he said pointing his rough, scarred middle finger.

Now, he had a half-smile on his face.Goodness, my fly was undone. I had left in a hurry, more worried about missing the 4.45 morning train. In the effort to pull myself out of the guesthouse, did I forget to pull up the zip…. Phew…a scene flashed in my mind instantly…several years back, my classmate, a cute girl I much fancied, had caught me with my zip down. How embarrassed I was. I never imagined this iceberg, of all people, would remind me of my childhood crush at the end of our sojourn.“Thanks, what’s your name,” I asked, my fingers on the zipper just to reconfirm.

“Mujawar”, he said softly. This was followed by the loud roar of the jeep that left behind an ugly cloud of dust and smoke for company. As it cleared, like a dream sequence from a Hindi film, only one image danced before my eyes – his half smile.