Short Story 2019: Full Stop Over Comma…

A casual conversation with a passenger takes the cab driver on a journey of unfulfilled responsibilities in this First Prize winning story by Srinivasa Gopala P K

Full Stop Over Comma

The phone buzzed. At the centre of the screen, some details were shown. Manju did not bother to look at them. His right forefinger ran over the red band at the bottom of the screen, from right to left: ‘Rejected’.

The phone buzzed again. Once more, his eyes stayed off the centre of the screen and the finger slid across the red band, ‘Rejected’. This succession of events repeated a few times in the quarter of an hour or so.

Then, he stroked the green band instead: ‘Accepted; 2 min away’. He seemed to suddenly recall a lesson from the past. He dabbed the screen a few times and a call was placed. Having confirmed the pick-up point, he put the car in first gear and began to pull away from the curb, reassuring the rider of his imminent arrival: “Yes, Sir… coming, Sir… I’m just outside the Tech Park, Sir.” As he put the phone down, the rider seemed to be chatting with someone in the local language, making Manju look forward to the ride all the more.

It was a Tuesday evening; while Rahu Kaalam would typically last from 3 pm to 4.30 pm, he had learned from the Alamac App that due to the time of year, the inauspicious hour-and-a-half would draw to a close at 4.42 pm that day. As a rule, he didn’t accept rides during Rahu Kaalam. He wasn’t averse to continuing a ride through Rahu Kaalam, though; how could he inconvenience his rider? Unknown to Manju, the rider he was about to pick up too had waited for Rahu Kaalam to end before he booked his cab.

On his way, Manju counted that he was about to pick up Rider 7; he would have to ferry Riders 8, 9 and 10 in the next four hours to earn his bonus.

At the said pick-up point, the rider waved the car to a halt and quickly got into the rear passenger seat. Manju fastened his seat belt, started the ride, and waited for the screen to show him the rider’s destination; “Kannambadi Cafe, Sir”, announced the voice from behind him. Manju swerved the car to the central lane and they set off for the cafe.

Rider 7, trusting that Manju would figure out the route aided by the GPS, bent down to gaze intently at his phone screen. He seemed to thumb the phone every few seconds. Manju noticed him from the corner of his eye; he combined observation with experience to deduct that Rider 7 must be reading something important; he did not turn on the radio.

About thirty-five minutes later, with an hour’s journey still pending — yes, distance had to be measured in units of time — Manju took a brief look at Rider 7 again. He seemed to be thumbing the screen more often, as Manju did when he tried to catch up on a cloud-burst of messages on his Instant Messaging group. Could Rider 7 also be checking messages or be viewing random stuff on Social Media? Manju decided to wait for more signs.

Soon enough, Rider 7 went through a series of videos, switching from one video to the next, seemingly not watching any of them to the end. Manju was now certain. He turned on the radio, tuned to a local station, and set the volume loud enough for the song to be heard at the back. Would Rider 7 notice?

One couldn’t say whether the song was riveting or his social media activity was boring, but Rider 7 was soon snapping his fingers and humming along. Manju patiently waited for the advertisements so that he could try talking to his passenger.

Screech! Thud! The car lurched to a stop; this stoppage gave Manju the chance he had been awaiting.

“Sorry, Sir. A dog strayed on to the street out of nowhere. I always keep an eye out for these mongrels. Back home, our dog too has this habit of absent-mindedly scampering on to the highway that splits our village. I worry for him. I tell myself that if I am cautious around dogs here, my dog will probably enjoy the same benefit from the drivers that zoom through my village.”

He looked back and smiled sheepishly, conscious that he had meant to start a dialogue but had indulged in a monologue instead!

Rider 7 smiled back. “That’s all right. I like your theory.”

They rode quietly for the next hundred metres or so, and as if he had been waiting to cross an invisible mark, Manju spoke again: “Sir, do you work at SoftWhere?”

“Yes…” Rider 7 seemed to hesitate, before adding, “…I have worked there for about 10 years now.”

“10 years? You must be a senior fellow, right, Sir?”

“Somewhat…,” Rider 7 smiled, recalling the promotion that hadn’t come through during the past cycle.

“You also get many foreigners coming here, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Was Rider 7 waving a Stop sign? If yes, Manju took no notice of it!

“I pick up people from your office almost every day, Sir. I have seen some foreigners getting into a bus or car outside your building.”

Rider 7 smiled, “You seem to have met more of our foreign employees than I have.” Manju smiled too.

“C’mon, Sir, don’t joke. I am sure you’re a big-shot who has many meetings with those folks.”

“Not a big-shot or anything, Sir, but we are forced to meet them sometimes.”

A gentle laughter followed.

The car filled with a sweet scent; Manju saw that his passenger was rubbing something on his hands. When swine flu killed people across many countries, Rider 7’s office had provided employees hand sanitisers for use after hand-shakes, especially with those who had travelled from abroad, largely as a precautionary and confidence-building measure. Rider 7, though, had since become an alcohol addict without ever having sipped a drop of it!

Manju resumed, “Sir, in fact, I picked one of them from outside your building yesterday and dropped her at her hotel.”

“Yesterday?” Rider 7 sounded agitated, “…really?” Manju turned around and noticed that he also looked agitated.

“Yes, Sir, around 2 PM.”

Rider 7 unlocked his phone, swished his finger on the screen a few times, “Hello!.. Good evening, Manali… I need an urgent piece of information from you… Where are these suspected patients quarantined? … Uh huh, on Arogya Marga?… Okay, thanks… And who do I call to report new suspected cases?… Thanks a lot, thanks, bye…”

“Sir, I have updated the destination. We need to go to the Infectious Diseases Center on Arogya Marga.”

Before Manju could respond, Rider 7 was on call again.

“Hi Deep… I need to report a couple of suspected cases… Yes, I’m on my way to IDC… Also, we need to go over the sched of the delegates to see if they might have gone out by themselves… Yes, they were to use the company vehicle, but I have a case with me now… Does he get a waiver?… The company will foot the bill? Great… Please do check the scheds for any other similar cases… Thanks, Deep… Yes, looks like I may be forced to rest!… Thanks, thank you very much.”

Manju had the foreboding sense that Rider 7 was talking about him on the call. Did he say case?

“Sir,” Rider 7 paused, “one of the foreigners who visited our office had a strange infection. Suddenly he developed fever and chills and is now in coma.”

“Coma?” Manju didn’t know why he was interested, but just that he felt he must be interested.

“Yes… everyone who had been in the same room, lift, or vehicle as this fellow is being checked for signs of infection and is being kept under observation.”

“Oh… at IDC, Sir? Are you visiting them?” He knew he had taken too much liberty, but it was one of those inevitable thought bumps that happen when too many thoughts are trying squeeze through the small funnel of attention.

“Yes… We don’t know if those people who had met him are infected or not. Seems like they may show signs only after a couple of weeks or so. We also don’t know if they might have infected others they met.”

Manju indicated a switch to the left lane, pulled up and turned on the hazard lights. When he looked back, he had asked his question without quite voicing it.

“Yes, you may also be infected… And, now, I may be infected, too…”

“Sir, could I die?” the query came quickly, after both of them had been silent for a while, each submitting themselves to inner Q&A; Manju now had a Q without an A.

“I don’t know,” there was no mistaking the honesty of the response.

“Sir, I have loans to pay. I can’t afford costly treatment. Let me drop you at IDC and be on my way.”

“No, Sir. The ward charges, treatment, and medicines are free. And you can’t go on infecting others, can you?”

“If I might go into coma or die shortly, I will have to earn all I can and repay my loans as best as I can… It’s not just this car that is at stake; the family may lose lands in the village.”

“You can’t become a serial killer, knowing you may be carrying the infection. Don’t you have some savings or deposits?”

“That amount won’t solve my problem, Sir. Even if I come to IDC and get admitted for treatment, I probably will kill others. I will still become a serial killer…”

More silence.

“Sir, can I take life insurance?”

“Yes, you could, but I’m not sure if you’ll get the insured amount if you die a couple of weeks or months after you buy the insurance…” The words were immediately regretted for they raised the stature of death from a possibility to a plausibility.

“…I can check with agents I know.” Rider 7’s calm and factual tone seemed a habitual response to crisis, though, in his daily work, he’d hardly had to factor in death among all that could go wrong.

“Sir, what if we… I mean I hold people to ransom? Couldn’t I get people to pay for telling them they need to get treated at IDC to have any hope of living or they would surely die? I’m sure I can gather enough money this way in whatever time I have left.” Manju’s eyes were widening and his voice gaining in enthusiasm; the idea of death had made him crazed and compelled at once.

“Manju,” Rider 7 leaned forward, “what are you saying? Stop getting paranoid. Come to your senses, man!” Rider 7’s eyes also widened as he spoke, his words were assertive; the idea of death had made him clinical and compassionate at once.

One more brilliant idea: “Sir, how about selling my organs? I am perfectly healthy. Won’t someone pay for my kidneys, liver, or heart? Do you have any contacts in the field, Sir? Probably not, you’re an office big-shot. Who might be able to tell me?”

“Manju!” the word had the tinge of a threat till the words that followed brought with them brighter colours of hope: “Okay, Manju, this is what we’ll do. I will arrange for my insurance money from the company to be given to you or your family. If you die, it is unlikely I will survive. I can’t immediately tell you how much it will be, but it is quite a sum of money.”

More silence, again. They weren’t sitting in a vacuum, but had certainly died to the noises from the street.

Manju seemed more willing to go to IDC now, as he looked at the road ahead. He strapped the seat belt back on, turned the radio on at a low volume, and resumed the drive. He didn’t know if he had accepted the offer, for he felt no urge to thank the stranger now bound to him by disease and plausible death.

On the way, he called home and let them know that he would have to be admitted for a couple of weeks; he spoke of the infection and how he may have got it, only the plausibility of death lay in coma and would not be verbally expressed. By the time Manju ended the call, Rider 7 was busily reading again.

At a junction on the way, ‘3… 2… 1… Red’ — the traffic signal seemed ominous, triggering so many honks in Manju’s head that he was not inclined to speak or listen. Among the many thoughts, one reasoned ‘it’s probably better to die than to go into coma; what if the family is asked to pay the medical bills at some stage? I shouldn’t push them deeper into debt… who knows how they may respond to the crisis… No, Lord, if I am to die, may it not be a long trial for me or my family.’ ‘3… 2… 1… Green’ — could he hope that the Lord had granted him his wish?

For his part, Rider 7 had been trying to piece together a sentence with many involved clauses; he was usually not puzzled by the many commas, but now he suddenly recalled his English teacher’s advice: ‘A full stop is like a bullet fired at point-blank range, a black hole that leaves the reader with only one possibility. A comma is a long-tailed spiralling eddy that forces the reader to contend with so many swirling strains at once. Full stop over comma.‘ Briefly his eyes closed, ‘Lord, full stop over comma.’ He returned to twirl of thoughts on screen.

When they reached IDC and were about to enter the lobby of the quarantine facility, Manju instinctively asked, “Sir, won’t your family need the insurance money?”

The silence was on the cusp of awkwardness when Rider 7’s phone rang, and he certainly seemed relieved as he answered the call.

“Hi Deep… Yes, we have just reached IDC… Dr Shyamala, is it?… Sure, thanks. U’hm… U’hm… That’s a great idea… The photos are already being shown on the news channels? Brilliant!… Do you want to share the details with the cab companies as well, in case they can tell us who operated in the areas where the delegates stayed?… Yes, that too, yes, the passengers they ferried will also have to be alerted and screened… True! Let’s hope infections don’t spread as fast in the real world as in the cyber world… Yes, keeping the fingers crossed… Thanks, Deep, thanks again.”

Full Stop Over Comma
Full Stop Over Comma

By the time Rider 7 finished his call, pacing up and down the parking area, Manju had entered the lobby and sat himself down in a corner, watching TV.

When Rider 7 walked in, he asked, “Sir, looks like it has been a bad day for many people. Look at those photos, Sir. I think they may all have died. Maybe a plane crash, or worse, a terror attack somewhere…” The TV had been muted and the text on the screen was in a language Manju evidently could not read.

Rider 7 sat down and started looking at the faces. Then he strode a few feet ahead, wishing to read the text on the fast-moving ticker. One word stood out for him, ‘SoftWhere’; these people were the foreign delegates. He turned around to tell Manju, who was blankly staring at the photos, as before, his hands folded as if in prayer and in respect to the supposedly departed.

“Manju Sir, these people are not dead, at least not yet. They are the foreigners from SoftWhere who are being treated here.”

Manju seemed relieved. He closed his eyes for a jiffy, probably in homage to God, the Guardian of all beings.

“Manju,” the words were urgent, like the raucous honks that still punctuated the drone of traffic round the IDC, “don’t you recognise any of them?”

Manju looked at the cycle of faces on screen, and then once more, and again, and a fourth time, before he could no longer see them clearly through the tears — tears that washed away the worry from his face and induced similar cleansing streams on the face a few feet away.

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