Amrit moodily threw pebbles, trying to make them skim and bounce on the surface of the gurgling river. He had been sitting there for over two hours, yet could see no silver lining to the dense cloud that his life had become. The buoyancy of the pebbles was in keeping with the buoyancy of his spirit. Both were sinking no matter how hard he tried to keep them afloat.

He visited the ghat on a regular basis and attended the evening aarti as often as he could. There were many men and women- derelict and homeless- who lived on the steps leading down to the river. Some lived there voluntarily having abandoned their homes and families. Together, they formed a new family on the steps. Amrit knew them all by name. They knew his family. All of them had attended the wedding of his eldest sister recently. He was a friendly soul and his descent was punctuated by frequent stopovers for chatting with this human debris.

Today though, he had rapidly run down the high stone steps. He had no desire to be caught by any of them… for he had no desire to talk. He was sure they would be surprised to see him on the ghats at six in the evening and would ask him why he was not at work. He had heaved a sigh of relief when he managed to escape them all. He took off his slippers, hitched up his jeans and dropped down into the hollow carved into his favourite boulder.

The moment he was out of the sight of the ghat and its inhabitants, he couldn’t control himself. He broke down and cried. Dry racking sobs which started in his belly and closed his throat until it was rasping and raw.

Amrit’s family had lived by the river for three generations. He came from a family of fishermen for whom the Narbada was not only the source of livelihood but also their good-luck charm. They would never begin anything new until her blessings had been obtained. That she would bless them unreservedly, was a given. After all, she was their mother.

As was common among the river-folk, Amrit too felt the river knew every ache of his heart. He too believed that when faced with insurmountable difficulties, all he had to do was to sit by her bank and let her throw her loving arms around him in sympathy and solace. He had always found that sitting close to the water would make him feel comforted enough to be able to think his challenges through. The river had given him insights and solutions he had never found anywhere else.

It was dark already. He checked his watch to find it was after ten. He looked around in surprise. The ghat was deserted except for those who made a home on the broad stone steps. He could hear them talking to each other… some already asleep. To his surprise, he saw one old man sitting ramrod straight in front of Siva’s statue. He seemed deep in samadhi. Amrit was sure he hadn’t been at the ghat when he had run down the steps earlier. He was surely a new face. For an instant, Amrit wondered who the man was, then shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t spare attention for inconsequential piques of curiosity. He had plenty of his own issues to ponder upon.

Amrit had abandoned his studies when he was fourteen. He took up small jobs to supplement the income of his father, who was a fisherman and completely devoted to his bottle. Matters were not helped when he frequently claimed to have seen Ma Narbada in his dreams. She was his guide in his gambling efforts it seemed. She always told him that today was his lucky day and the cards would favour him. Of course, the tips always fell flat on their face. But Amrit’s father was never deterred… nor disappointed. In this at least, he believed that tomorrow is another day.

They were poorer than poor. With five siblings, all of them younger to him, it was almost a foregone conclusion that his parents could not afford the luxury of educating him.

By the time Amrit had turned seventeen, he had managed to hide enough money from his family to attend a 15-day driving course. The driving school promised him not only a job but a driver’s license if he completed the course. Suddenly, his life took a turn for the better. He got a job as a driver to the local politician.

Life became easier. The working hours were terrible but Amrit was young and hard-working. Moreover, driving the movers and shakers around gave him an immense high. Then of course, there was the never ending flow of baksheesh. He was paid to keep his mouth shut… or to open it. His salary of 3,000/ was just cherry the on top. He was wallowing in gravy so rich, he floated. Naturally, he acquired an attitude. From a poor hard-working lad, for whom a tenner was an exquisite joy lasting for days, he became a swaggering show-off throwing his money around. His community fed his ego and grovelled before him.  He became the hero and benefactor of his people. Yes, he became the KING.

The King had unlimited wealth. His family spent money like there was no tomorrow. His two brothers stopped studying and acquired a taste for booze and gambling. His sisters acquired a taste for fashionable clothes. The King’s father acquired a retinue of fawning men whose bellies were too full of free liquor to want to work. His mother stopped making agarbattis and began living like queen mother. She acquired an interfering, belligerent manner towards all of her subjects. There was not a single household in the small close knit community that did not hear the tinkle of Amrit’s money or did not feel the heat emanating from the glow of their collective aura. Amrit’s family outgrew its only close neighbour who had stood with them through thick and thin, and acquired worthier friends. In short, they came up in the world. In the process, they became insufferable although they didn’t know it.

Meanwhile, Ma Narbada flowed on quietly… waiting.

Amrit had been working with the politician for almost three years. He had become a part of his master’s household. He was trusted even to carry large amounts of cash from the various ‘businesses’ his master had. Businesses that dealt in cash and came to life as the city slept. Amrit did what he was told and kept his mouth shut.

The date 12th May 1999 was branded on Amrit’s memory with a hot iron. At one o’clock in the night, his master’s right-hand man came to the car-park where Amrit was taking a nap and told him to come inside. On reaching inside, his master told him to take the car and go to his most flourishing bar and help with shutting the place down for the night. He was also told that the cashier would give him a large bag which he was to bring home. He was told to be careful and on no account to stop anywhere after he left the bar.

Amrit listened to everything wondering why he was being told- very insistently- that he was not to stop anywhere no matter what. He had brought cash home from that bar many times, but never in a large bag. The agitated manner of his master and the nervousness of the right-hand man convinced Amrit that there was big game afoot. But he had no clue what it was. He decided to open the bag once he got it in his possession.

He reached the bar in twenty minutes; got the place padlocked and bolted securely. He picked up the bag the cashier had brought outside and almost fell down. It was very heavy. Cash was heavy, but not this much surely. He was impatient to open the bag and check out the contents. He waited until he was midway between the bar and his master’s house. Only then he slowed the car down and unzipped the bag he had kept on the front seat. What he saw, made him slam his brakes in shock. The bag contained bars of gold.

Feverishly, he dug them out. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He counted them, there were 137 of them. Still, the bag was not empty. In the bottom half of the bag there were 1/2 kg packets of salt. SALT..? Why would they be dealing in salt…? And why had the packets no markings…? Then it dawned on him… they were DRUGS…!

He began putting everything back in the bag. He forgot time. He forgot he was to return immediately. Time stood still for him. It is hardly surprising, he was almost delirious. He opened the bag again and lovingly fingered the gold. His eyes shone. One, he’ll keep one. They won’t know. How will they…? They’ll think there was one less delivered. He would leave the job. Disappear… go to another town… make a new life. No, no. To make a new life he will need ten gold bars. No, his mind scolded… not ten. Ok ok… he mumbled… bargaining with his own greed. I’ll take five. He finally settled on two and tucked them in his briefs. They nestled close together.

By the time he had driven a few more kilometres, he lost his nerve. With trembling hands he took the gold bars and replaced them in the bag. There was good in the boy after all. He might be stupid and arrogant and flashy, but he still couldn’t steal. He asked Ma Narbada to forgive him, started the car and moved off full speed.

Out of the blue, he saw the glaring headlights of a truck bearing down on him full speed… horn blaring.

The impact was something he had never imagined. The steering hit his chest. The car turned over and over and came to a stop finally… its wheels spinning lazily. From under the car, a trickle of blood oozed out.

The truck disappeared as quickly as it had come. There was just the empty road, a life bleeding away drop by drop, a car smashed to pulp and a bag full of gold.

A man standing on the terrace of a house 200 meters away lowered his binoculars.

The Driver- Part I