Thursday, October 24, 2013

Gold Chains and Mesh Undershirts

There I was, walking down the streets of Pettah at 10.30 pm, all alone on a Thursday night. Pettah, as some of you may know, is the Sri Lankan equivalent of the “inner city area,” and despite its many charms, is not the most suitable place for a young woman to be wandering around by herself in the dead of night.

Many would already be shaking their heads, questioning my sanity. Intrepid traveller though I am, I too was beginning to curse myself for such poor logistical arrangements that left me stranded virtually in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by potential rapists, murderers, prostitutes and druggies.
I did not have much time however, to be mulling over these thoughts. I had a bus to catch! The question was, how do I get to the bus stop? At any other time of day, I would have undertaken the one kilometre walk without the least hesitation. Under the circumstances, it was out of the question. Yet, I seemed to have no alternative. There was no cab, no trishaw in sight. 

Inaction frightens me more than anything else. I started walking. As I turned the corner, I saw –
A lone trishaw!!

Now this might look like salvation to those of you unfamiliar with the territory, yet the sheer statistical indications of crimes committed by trishaw drivers would be enough to make the bravest human a little wary.
Needless to say, I was a little wary. But I still felt it was the lesser of the two evils. Walking up to the vehicle however, my heart sank.

The driver stood next to it.
He was dressed in a sarong and mesh undershirt, considered normal attire among certain segments of society. He had thick chains of gold around his neck and wrists, several large rings, tattoos covering his biceps and an overgrown beard. He put out his cigarette as I approached, but the smell of tobacco seemed to emanate from all over his person as he towered above me like some Neanderthal being.

Definitely for me, a nightmare come to life. I make it a point to avoid such drivers during the day; what hope did I have at night? It was not like I was spoilt for choice though, and the sooner I got to the bus stop, the better.
“Where to? Get in Miss,” he addressed me in Sinhala.

“Near the SLT building,” I replied, deliberately being as vague as possible (I am paranoid that one day one of these drivers would discover my home, and begin stalking me, or worse).
“Head office?” he inquired.

“No, no, their office near the Kottan tree” (yes, that wild almond tree is a famous landmark in the city).
“Oh miss ,you want to catch the bus? To go where?”

Now he was just being smart, and I didn’t like it in the least.
“Kadawata,” I replied reluctantly.

“Miss, going to the Kottan tree bus stop at this time is not safe. The place is deserted, and you might have to wait for God knows how long for a bus to come…
“Let me drop you at the station, the bus passes that way, and there are more people there.”

So now he was trying to take me further in his vehicle. Which gave him more time to...
What?? My head was giving…screaming, rather – all the wrong signals, but like the proverbial lamb to the slaughter, I nodded my assent.

Five minutes later (what seemed like an eternity) we reached the station. I resumed breathing. Rs. 92, the meter said. I was just about to pay him, take my bags and get the hell away but he stopped me.
“Don’t get out of the trishaw, Miss. I will stop the next bus that passes.”

And so he stood there, outside the trishaw while I sat inside, waiting for the next bus to pass. After about ten minutes one did come, and my hero in the mesh undershirt put out his hand to stop it and then signalled me to get out of the trishaw. As I reached for my traveling bag he outdid me, waiting for me to get in to the bus before handing it in.
He stood outside until I was seated and gave me a small wave of acknowledgement. I smiled, albeit a little shakily, and then settled in and closed my eyes with a sigh of relief.

It was not till much later that I realized with a start –
Not once had he requested his fare. I still had the hundred rupee note crumpled in my hand.