By Mike Sedgwick
water melon juice
‘Is it just the one bag, Sir?’ The taxi driver wears a khaki Shalwar Kameez and a large black moustache. ‘Indira Gandhi Airport is it?’
The doorman of the hotel, immaculate in his Indian uniform and Dastar, snaps to attention and salutes. ‘I wish you a safe journey, Major, and hope to see you again soon.’
This little saluting game with the doorman, whose name is Dinesh, started when I arrived at the hotel. I was carrying a long postal tube over my shoulder as a soldier carries his rifle. Dinesh saluted in the approved British Army fashion, slowest way up, quickest way down. I returned the salute in the manner of a soldier carrying his rifle at the slope. After that Dinesh and I always salute one another smartly and with broad grins. It is a re-enactment of the old Empire days.
‘On your next visit, you will be Colonel.’
‘I’ll let you into a secret, Havildar Dinesh, I have never served in the army, but I know that you have. I look forward to seeing you again sometime soon.’
I climb into the spacious interior of the slab-sided Hindustan Ambassador. The bodywork displays dents and scratches. There is no tread on the tyres, slicks they would call them in F1 parlance. A wheel nut is missing. The driver manages to close my door on the third attempt by lifting and shoving it with his bum. With a crunch, he engages first gear, and we jerk away, leaving a furrow in the gravel.
‘What your country, Sir?’ asks the driver.
‘You must be good Christian man, from England; Archbishop and Pope.’ He fished around the shelf under the dashboard and retrieved a crucifix which he hung on his rear-view mirror. Also on the shelf I can see a statue of Buddha and one of Krishna. Probably there is a Star of David and a Crescent as well. All options are covered. I decide not to explain about the Pope.
‘You must be ver important man, but my life is misfortune. My wife, she ver sick. Doctor say to take medicine, or she die. Prescription cost ten dollar a bottle. Where can a poor taxi driver find ten dollar for medicine? He stared hard at me in the mirror but seeing no response, he tried another tack.
‘Ver little traffic today. We have time, I take you to my cousin’s emporium. He has many jewels, rings, gold for your wife. He give you best price, plenty discount.’
‘No, we will go to the airport.’
‘You no look happy, Sir. I have young niece, she know how to make a man happy, ver pretty girl, Sir, ver clean. We have plenty time.’
‘No. Please go straight to the airport.’ Do not pass Go, do not collect ten dollars for your wife’s medicine and do not stop at your niece’s brothel. I stare him down in the mirror.
We make a sudden swerve, the taxi lurches and grinds to a halt in a marketplace. I watch a wheel wobbling along the street, heading for a fruit stall manned by a portly Muslim with a black beard. The whites of his startled eyes shining whiter than his Takiyah. He and I know what is about to happen.
The wheel hits the side of his stall which teeters and then collapses, sending an explosion of fruits in a colourful fountain onto the street. Orange mangoes, green limes, yellow bananas, red mangosteen, pineapple, guava, star fruit, papaya, coconut and melons roll between the legs of the people. Dorian and breadfruit roll more slowly.
Within a moment, the driver is out of his taxi and chasing his wheel. The stallholder hitches up his thobe and pursues the driver. They begin to have words and gesticulate wildly, surrounded by ladies who kneel before them, gathering and scooping as much of the fruit as possible into the folds of their saris.
The two men make threatening gestures to one another and then turn to look at me. I do not need language skills to know what is in their minds.
‘It’s his fault, the foreigner, he’s got money. He will pay for the damage.’ They make their way towards me as the fruit-laden women watch. ‘Stop him,’ they cry, as I turn away.
‘Sir, Sir, get in.’ A young man blips the throttle of his tuk-tuk. I shove aside melons and a large comb of bananas. The rear shelf is piled high with mangoes and pineapples.
‘To the airport, quickly.’ We shoot forward and squelch over a water-melon, its sweet-smelling juices spattering nearby legs. This is no time to argue about the fare; this man is a good Samaritan.
‘What religion are you?’ I ask once we are clear of the crowd.
‘What religion would you like me to be? I try to satisfy my fares.’
‘OK. Atheist. Which God do they worship?’