It was around the Monsoons of 1978. He had given up smoking on the 15th of August after the loss of a relative. The days were cloudy and gloomy and the mood stormy. The withdrawal was tougher than he had imagined but he held fast. And then there was also Imtiaz.
He was his boss’s driver. Young, energetic, talkative, with a cheeky grin and a severe lack of discipline he said was part of that religion. Most days, the boss left Imtiaz and his car with him to be sent on errands to collect overdue payments from the petrol pump customers. Most of the time he came back with a smaller amount saying that’s all he managed. All the time, he lambasted him for the obvious pilfering, for not turning up on time, for not talking properly, for not doing as he was told. “Get out! Don’t stand in front of me!” he would scream. An hour or two later, he’d cool down and look for Imtiaz. And he’d be there at the door with a “salaam saab” and a cheeky smile. He asked him his age, like he would of all Muslim workers in their employ and would get a “gothilla saab” with a smile. “They never know their age” he’d laugh and order coffee for himself and tea for Imtiaz.
This time the withdrawal had been getting onto his nerves. All he wanted was to light one up and feel the smoke in his lungs. The weather was gloomy, but he was breaking into a sweat all the time, his mind distracted. Things had been rough at home and the stress at work wasn’t helping him much. Imtiaz turned up late as usual. The boss had called up more than an hour back saying that he had sent him along. The assignment was told, bills given and it helped that he left immediately. He was back in an hour, with a lesser amount than was required and then it broke.
The dam was breached and the river flowed. The usual barrage followed as he had never held anything back earlier either, but the intensity was higher. The adrenaline coursed through and he felt himself egged on. He called him a wastrel without an ounce of honesty or sincerity and promised him that he’d never get up to anything good in life. “Get out! Don’t stand in front of me!” he finished and sat down exhausted, and relieved. No one else came in and they let him be. They knew his normal tantrums, knew the smoking story and were doubly wary.
He called for Imtiaz an hour later. He wasn’t there this time. They looked for him nearby, at the tea shop and the next-door restaurant. He had just disappeared. A week on, and there was still no sign of Imtiaz. The boss found a new driver and he eventually broke his withdrawal, never to go back again.
10 years on, an empty BTS bus passing by stopped on the side of the road. The driver alighted and ran to the petrol pump. “Salaam saab” he greeted him. The years had not had any effect and Imtiaz still looked the same. After that incident he had decided to quit that job and had gone on to join KSRTC as a driver and had now started driving BTS buses. He had married and his family had grown. He hadn’t forgotten that incident and thanked him for it. “I would still be driving an odd car without a secure job”, he said. He chatted for a while with the other workers there and left after a while.
10 years on, he had shifted his residence farther and had started trying out buses to get to work instead of autos. He got into a Pushpak, the conductor known and chatty the way conductors are with daily commuters who take the same bus at the same time everyday over years. The driver was new. He looked around and greeted him with a “Salaam Saab”. It was Imtiaz. He had grown older and so had he. He said he had been assigned to this route today as the usual driver was out. They talked for a while as the bus started and sped along an empty 50 ft road through peak hour traffic.
That was the last he saw of him. A few years on, the petrol pump closed down after a prolonged litigation with the plot owners. He no longer had his work to travel to and retired home.