Our office vehicle is a Toyota minibus that can seat sixteen people. We call it “Cattle Class Mercedes”. There can be no better name for this vehicle. It is practically a bullock cart. Although it looks good from the outside, the inside is a different story. The air conditioning doesn’t work unless it is a good day for your zodiac. But astrology or not, it is out of commission for a couple of days every week.
Yunus, our driver, was a sweet man. “Madam, it’s a new vehicle. But the engine seems to be acting up...” He always had excuses.
Yunus would give me a missed call from the street outside my house at sharp six-fifty in the morning so that I could get in for the live show at eight. He would wait for a minute more and give me another missed call. If I didn’t get into the car by then, he would leave. I couldn’t blame him. By the time he did the rounds of hundreds of streets and gave missed calls to all the RJs and survived the traffic jams and waited at every signal in the city at least twice over, it would often be past eight. Kapil bhai or Asif bhai, whoever was at the switchboard, would cover for us with a song or an ad till we ran in and got on air. Being yelled at by Imthiaz sir had become a daily ritual.
Then we did it all over again in the afternoon. By the time I got home after the morning show and touring the city, it would be four or five. I would get dropped off at the very end, being the furthest along the route, with only one other person remaining, a Sri Lankan man who worked in IT. Several times I had proposed, very reasonably, that since I was the first to get picked up, I should be the first to get dropped off.
But the Malayalam Mafia stood as one against my appeal. Once or twice a month, as a favour, they would let me get dropped off first. But in return, I had to buy them juice or samosas along the way.
Around the time I had joined, Cattle Class was completely dominated by the Malayalam Mafia. As soon as I got into the minibus, I could hear their annoying chatter, their voices like stones in a tin can. They were experts in speaking exclusively in Malayalam, without using even a single word from Hindi or English, so that the rest of us might not even guess what they were saying. Later they even started a radio programme based on this. I would plead with them, “Aren’t you tired of blabbing in your own language all day? Why not give it a rest now?” And they would retort, “That was for the public, this is just for us.”
We had a staff member from Morocco who complained that the Malayalam Mafia was talking about him constantly. Eventually that made him quit the job. This was how the Malayalam Mafia operated, I realised later, when they wanted to smoke out someone they didn’t like. They had sent three others packing since my arrival, but their pranks did not work on me.
Also in the bus were two Filipinas, Joanna and Irene, who worked on the admin side. The Malayalam Mafia referred to them as Sasikala and Pushpalatha. The women had no idea. As soon as Irene and Joanna got on the bus, they would put on their headphones and lose themselves in music. After that, even if the Malayalam Mafia turned the bus upside down, they wouldn’t care.
Whereas I couldn’t just sit and listen to music amidst all that cacophony. My ears would tune into the conversations, even without my knowledge. At first I tried reasoning with them that all Cattle Class conversations should take place in a common language and that I too had a right to enjoy their jokes. But the Malayalam Mafia did not listen to me. Once in a while when they broke off to speak in Hindi or English, they would sneak in some taunts, aimed deliberately at me and Shahbaz. Hot-headed Shahbaz wouldn’t let it slide. He would lash back, completely out of proportion, and Hasan, our translator, would join him. Then it would become a free for all.
At first I simply listened to these quarrels but slowly I joined the Shahbaz-Hasan faction. Not so much because I agreed with them, but because I wanted to disagree with the Malayalam Mafia.
Maybe Pakistan had lost a match to India that day, or maybe our border forces had fired some shots into the air, or maybe one of the two countries had sent up a missile. Or there was a terrorist attack somewhere in India. Or one of the foreign ministers had made a controversial statement. I had to take responsibility for whatever it was. You know me, Javed. Would I take something like that lying down? Each day’s travels in Cattle Class would end in our own war. Some days I would try to ignore them. But you know how some kids will stick their hands down a dog’s throat so they can get themselves bitten? The Malayalam Mafia was like that. They would drop some controversial topic into the conversation to get a rise out of me. Viju Prasad, news coordinator of the Malayalam department, was especially good at this. Ya Allah, he was something else. He was convinced that India was the most amazing country in the whole world. India had invented rockets, airplanes, the Internet, mobile phones, test tube babies! Poor Shahbaz and Hasan would gape numbly as he boasted. But not me. I know my history. I did not have to listen open-mouthed to this crap.
The most annoying of Viju Prasad’s many brags was that India was the only country that had never attacked any other country in the last five thousand years. At first, I pretended I didn’t hear this. Then one day, I got back at him. “Yes, it’s true that India has not invaded anyone in the last five thousand years. You know why?” I asked. “Because India didn’t have the time. You Indians are too busy attacking other Indians. Kill everyone inside before killing those outside, that is your clever strategy.” That shut him up. Grudgingly they acknowledged that I could hold my own. Those days were such fun, with our silly arguments and debates. The hours in the car passed so quickly.
But yesterday when I got into the bus after the show, Cattle Class felt melancholic. The happy, heated conversations had subsided.
The arguments and counterarguments were gone. Everyone was silent. Instead of Yunus, there was a new driver. Apparently one day Yunus had quarrelled with someone and simply walked out, never to return. No one knows where he is. The front seat, where Hasan used to sit and support me in my battle against the Malayalam Mafia, lay vacant. Shahbaz lost his zest for life. Joanna had taken leave and left the country during the revolution and she did not return. And without anyone to fight them, the Malayalam Mafia too lost its gusto. They spoke in soft voices, perhaps out of sympathy for me, perhaps in mourning for Hasan, perhaps worried about Yunus. Or maybe they were wondering about their own place in this country. Javed, the City has lost its happy face. Today it is a city of fear.
Excerpted with permission from Jasmine Days, Benyamin, translated by Shahnaz Habib, Juggernaut.