The traffic light turns red, and a taxi-cab screeches to a halt right in front of us. My mother grabs my hand and pulls, hoisting me to my feet before I know what’s happening

We rush the taxi-cab together. As we draw up to the window, I see, all alone in the backseat, a woman passenger. She looks rich and pretty, and she’s busy typing something on her mobile phone. In earnest, my mother launches into her supplication, pulling the woman’s eyes away from her phone. In a split second, we have her watching us with rapt attention.

My mother begins by telling the woman about how desperate we are and how badly we need any help we can get. She says that the baby cradled in her arms is too weak to live another day, how we need to buy it medication that is just too expensive, and how painful it will be for us to lose the baby altogether.

Next, in a big show, my mother pulls aside the spare fabric of her torn blouse to reveal the hard bones of her rib-cage that strain eerily against her skin, like they want to break out of her chest. We are deathly weak, she means to say to the woman passenger, and judging by the look on her face, we have struck a chord with her on that.

My mother then throws me a sour look, and I take that as my cue. I put on the neediest face I can muster as my mother introduces me as her only son, who may not live long enough to see his tenth birthday, and who is missing his right arm. It was lost in an accident caused by some reckless fool’s drunk driving. The woman in the taxi gazes at me with a look of naked sympathy in her glistening eyes. It is a look that I have seen far too many times, so I know it is deep and genuine. However, suddenly, her phone makes a beep, and we lose her attention momentarily as she checks her latest notification. But my mother does not stop pleading. There can be no intermission for this act, lest we lose the sell.

Hearing someone sob, I look down the road to my right, and spot Sunny and his mother at work on a young couple in another taxi. She is vehement and shrill, while he is crying at the top of his lungs, complaining about the daily hunger and heat, and the fever that sets in every night. I know for a fact it was only last night that he ate a bowl of special rice from the kitchen down the road. What an actor he is. I wish I could be more like him, lie better, but I have never liked doing that. In a matter of moments, Sunny and his mother have milked the couple of a few notes and moved on to the next car, a shiny white Toyota. I am sure if they give another heartfelt performance, they will get lucky again. I have to admit, they know how to do it. They will eat well tonight as well. But I am not sure I can be that convincing to be rewarded so well for my meagre efforts.

I turn back to the window in front of me to find the woman in the process of opening her purse. It looks like my mother has once again found another person to believe her story. I don’t know if I am disappointed or proud. Tucked discreetly inside my shirt, my right hand starts to itch. It’s bad timing, but I try not to shift or squirm, lest I give myself away. I also fear that my mother’s passionate performance is making her squeeze the doll too tightly to her chest. If she isn’t careful, it is going to make that squeaking sound. It is one of those toys that make noises. And I am also scared because of my breath. It smells of garlic from last night’s naan. I hope I am not breathing so hard that the woman can smell it through the window. But even if she can, she could easily mistake it for a beggar’s bad breath. I guess that’s the last of my worries.

The woman passenger in the backseat nods frantically to my mother, having agreed to part with some of her money, rifling around in her purse. I hear the clink of coins, and greedily watch her extend her arm through the window to hand over some shiny coins.

That’s when our eyes meet.

Her gaze locks with mine. I go still, and at the same time her arm freezes, half-way out the window. Her expression goes blank.

I can’t tell what she’s thinking, but I can tell that she is thinking something. She looks hesitant. She’s questioning something. Herself? Me? Who? What? What is going on? She is holding back, so she is clearly not sure about what she is doing. Something is stopping her. My eyes widen involuntarily at the realisation, and hers flare open simultaneously, but just barely. Her mouth, which was set in a hard line, start to wilt in a frown.

My heart thuds. She knows. She sees it.

But how did she? I tried my best not to give anything away. Then how did it happen? I didn’t say anything. But then, maybe I didn’t need to. Something in my face or my eyes said it her. My nervousness, anxiety, apprehension, doubt, or guilt. Something in the air gave voice to my thoughts, and she sensed all she needs to know. That’s what ruined everything.

She has actually seen through the act. I cannot believe it. She is the first one ever. She has done it. She is new. She is different.

I think I see her smile a little. My mother bristles next to me.

Don’t give it to us, I say in my head, even though I should be hoping for the opposite. I pray for whatever magical force gave me away to help these new thoughts reach her now. Her arm still hovers out the window. If you can really hear me, please, don’t fall for it. Not you. Don’t be like the others. Be smarter. Be different. Be new.

The traffic light turns green, the taxi zooms forward, and the woman in the passenger seat doesn’t disappoint me.

———-

© Amaan Khan, November 1, 2018.

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