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Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The 12-rupee Uber ride

On Deepavali day, Uber had graciously granted me a promo offer on a pooled ride; so a distance of about 10 kms showed a fare estimate of Rs. 12/- only for 2 riders – me and my son. Like any other sane person receiving this insane offer, I quickly booked the ride. I wasn’t in a hurry to get back and so, was quite okay with the delay to be expected when you pool a ride.

The cab arrived on time, and there was a guy (Let’s call him Y) with whom we were sharing the ride. Little did I anticipate then, the bizarre turn of events that would follow.

On reaching Y’s destination, the cab driver (let’s call him R) stopped and told him how much to pay. Instead of doing that, Y pulled out his phone and called a friend, telling him where we were. The friend said that was not where he was supposed to get down, but somewhere much further. An argument ensued between Y and R and what finally emerged was that Y had fed the wrong location as the drop off point. Now, he was making a fuss insisting he be dropped at the point his friend specified.

Because Y was bossing over R although it wasn’t the latter’s fault, I too joined in and told Y that verifying the location is the rider’s responsibility, not the cab driver’s. Y ignored me. Finally, there was a compromise – R agreed to take Y to where he wanted, although he wasn’t going to be paid for the additional distance. By now, 10 minutes had passed since we’d stopped and I assumed it was just a few more minutes before we went our way. But obviously, I hadn’t accounted for Murphy’s “If anything can go wrong, it will” Law….

Since Y’s friend’s instructions had not been very clear, R just kept driving ahead and finally, to avoid blocking traffic, pulled to a stop in the parking space besides a police station. Y called his friend again. Both R and I told him to pay up and let us go, and wait for his friend to pick him up from there. Guess what was Y’s reply? He didn’t have the money !! A guy who had travelled a distance worth some 78 rupees had done so without a pie in his pocket!! So now, we had to wait for the friend to come and pay!!

Had it been any other day when I was on a tight schedule, I’d have quit by now and taken an auto. But that day wasn’t a busy one, and so, I didn’t want the hassle of doing that. Besides, there was something R told us that made me root for him.

Just the previous day, R had been blocked by Uber from plying rides because a customer had raised a complaint. R explained that he’d dropped someone at their specified destination but that person claimed that he had meant a place that was a further 2 kilometres away. R did go and drop him there, but the guy didn’t pay for the extra distance because the pre-programmed fare based on the drop off point had been deducted from PayTm. Not only did he not pay, the customer had also picked a quarrel with R and raised a complaint with Uber. R had just got back from a two-hour dressing down by Uber.

R also narrated how a few days ago, he had dropped a lady to an apartment complex. She’d also chosen to pay by cash, but didn’t have the 375 rupees with her. So, R had to wait for almost 20 minutes for her to go to her apartment, get the money, and come back; in the process, he’d missed out on 2 or 3 other rides.

Poor R seemed to be having the worst of luck, attracting such cantankerous customers. I didn’t want to add to his count.

After 10 minutes of waiting outside the police station, in exasperation, I wondered aloud about how people could be so irresponsible as to travel without the fare, and then act like it’s the cab driver’s fault and also have no qualms about delaying their co-travellers. Again, Y didn’t say anything although his face did darken. My son prodded me and whispered, “Be quiet, Amma, why you want to make a big issue? Anyway, we’re not in a hurry and its only 12 rupees we’re paying!” I tried to explain to him about how sticking up for what is right is more important.

Another 10 minutes later, the friend finally arrived. He paid R and tried to explain where he’d wanted Y to be dropped. As R prepared to leave, Y, in a scornful voice, said, “Madam asked how I travelled without money. Because she is a lady, I didn’t argue with her. It’s not that I don’t have money…I do…just that right now I didn’t have cash because just now, I got released from the station and was coming to meet my friend.” !!! For a minute, I was stunned at the implication – the only ‘station’ one gets ‘released’ from is the police station….God alone knows for what offence he had been held there – and here I was, arguing with him, risking some unpredictable response. But even with that scary thought, I admired the fact that he hadn’t lost his cool and respected that ‘she is a lady’ and hadn’t argued !

Finally, we got going and reached home. What should have taken us about 30 minutes on a holiday, took 75 minutes. While dropping us, R rued that he seemed to be getting only such problematic customers. He was quite upset that Uber only asks customers for feedback but not the drivers, who have to face such difficult circumstances.

Feeling sorry for R, I handed over a piece of paper with the mantra “Shri Gurudeva Datta” written on it. I’d gotten my son to write it out in Kannada. I explained to R how sometimes, problems arise from a spiritual cause and these cannot be solved without some divine remedy. That mantra is one I’ve often advised to many, many people, and most of them come back to tell me it’s worked wonders for them.

When I told him this, R was close to tears and muttered, “Madam, thank you so much. You can’t imagine what all problems I have and how hopeless and helpless I feel. My father fell ill last month and I had to spend a few thousands for his treatment. I haven’t yet been able to pay two months EMI for this cab….thank you very much for this mantra. I will definitely chant it.”

Our ride gave him a mere 12 rupees; I only hope the remedy I suggested proves more valuable and gives R an anchor to weather through his storms.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Short Story: Question Hour

This month's prompt for the short story writing challenge was "Cut the strings." I thought and thought of different ideas (involving strings) to weave into a story - a veena vidwan, or a young adult cutting free from the apron strings of his mother, or a tennis player, or even an athlete suffering a hamstring injury! Somehow, nothing seemed quite right and waiting for the muse to show up, time sped by and suddenly, today, the 4th of October was the day to submit the story that I hadn't yet written.

Desperate, my mind cast about for ideas and seemingly out of nowhere, came the inspiration for this story. Wait...I can't actually say out of to the end of the story, and you'll realize - like I just did - where the inspiration came from 😇😇


An expectant hush settled over the crowd as Shivu Bhat walked into the temple. The minute he threw open the doors to the sanctum sanctorum, the temple bells pealed and the ceremonial drums struck up the traditional beat. After hours of waiting, hundreds of thirsty eyes feasted on the divine sight of the Goddess Renukamba. 

Decked in a bright red sari, adorned with ornaments of gold and precious stones, covered with layers of garlands of yellow and orange marigold flowers, She waited patiently to receive the worship, and fulfill the prayers of Her devotees.

Shivu, the young temple priest, got busy reciting the mantras and swinging the lamps as he performed the rituals. The devotees watched silently, muttering their own prayers and mentally beseeching the goddess to grant this or that wish.

Finally, it was time for the special rite that drew people from villages far and near. Question Hour with the Goddess. Anyone who wanted Renukamba’s guidance stood in front of Her and mentally asked if a particular course of action should be undertaken or not. It was believed that She would answer by causing one of the garlands draped across the idol, to fall. Her wish would cut the strings holding the garland, causing it to fall. If the garland dropped down on the left side, the answer was taken as a “no” and if it fell on the right, the answer was considered a “yes.”

Shivu had been performing this particular rite since the past few years as part of his priestly duties, although he didn’t really have a strong belief in it. An educated young man, he had initially been dubious, arguing with the senior priest saying, “How do you know it’s Renukamba speaking? If the garland had not been secured firmly on one side, it’s bound to fall from there. Or maybe the string is weak at one point and that’s where it snaps. ”

The senior priest had refused to be drawn into the argument, merely saying, “I don’t know all these things, Shivu. It’s the faith of the people, and Renukamba responds. So far, I have never heard anyone complaining that Her decision brought them trouble.”

After the senior priest had quit, the rite had become part of Shivu’s duties and he went about it like any other part of the worship. Today though, he was a little apprehensive. The young Aaryaa was going to be participating, wanting to know if she should take up the job offer she had received at an office in the nearby town. Over the past few months, Shivu and Aaryaa had grown into good friends and given time, the relationship was likely to flower into something deeper.

Shivu had already told Aaryaa that she should take the offer. But Aaryaa was not so sure, and wanted to ask Renukamba. It hurt Shivu to think that an otherwise intelligent girl would trust the supernatural over an educated human’s opinion. He’d tossed and turned in bed the previous night, hoping the answer would turn out to be a yes for Aaryaa’s sake, stubbornly ignoring the sadness that gripped him to think of life in her absence. How he wished he could hold her in his arms and transmit his confidence to her, and calm her fears!

Now, standing in front of Renukamba, scanning the crowd to locate Aaryaa, Shivu sighed. Momentarily distracted from his priestly duties, he wished he could gather up the courage to ask her how she felt about him.

By late evening, the festivities were over and the crowds were gone. Aaryaa hadn’t turned up to ask her question. Shivu was alone in the temple, putting things in order and clearing up. He looked towards Renukamba, and the few garlands that still hung across Her, and She seemed to be smiling at him.

On an impulse, Shivu went and stood in front of Renukamba, closed his eyes, put his palms together in prayer, and said, “Ma Renukamba, I have served you diligently and think of you as my Mother. You know what my feelings are about this question-and-answer thing. But now, I really don’t know what to do and am asking for Your help. Should I tell Aaryaa about how much I love her and how I want to spend the rest of my life with her?”

“Oh, Mr. Temple Priest, asking our own private questions to Ma Renukamba, are we?” A sweet voice, followed by a mocking laugh, broke into his reverie.

Shivu turned to find Aaryaa smiling playfully. Blushing, he averted his eyes and moved away, wondering when she had entered.

“Why didn’t you come for your answer?” he asked.

“I thought about your advice and decided you were right. There’s no harm in giving the job a try.”

As Aaryaa continued looking at Renukamba, there was a sudden movement. With awe in her voice, she said, “A garland just fell on the right side. Whatever the question you just asked, the answer is a yes. Or wait…was that an answer to my saying I will take the job?”

Shivu stood transfixed. For a while, he didn’t know what to say or do. Then, slowly, he turned and walked to stand in front of Aaryaa. Looking deep into her eyes, he said, “There’s something I want to tell you….”

“I know…..and I feel the same….”

“But….how could you know what it is? I haven’t said anything yet…”

“You were asking your question loudly to Renukamba, Mr. Temple Priest! That’s how I know.”

“Oh, Renukamba…. ….Aaryaa, are you sure? Do you really feel that way? And …and…what about your job? And...your parents…what will they say?”

“Don’t you think you’re burdening Renukamba with too many questions?” Aaryaa teased.

Had anyone looked into the sanctum sanctorum then, it would have seemed like Renukamba was smiling with the satisfaction of a mother who’s found the perfect match for her child……