Anita simply collapsed on the floor, still clutching her shoulder bag. She had the faintest idea about exiting the taxi and paying the driver's fares. How she made it to the seventh floor through the lift? It was like a dream. Had she greeted anyone on the ride up? Any familiar faces there, she could not recall at that instant? Shivering like a wilted leaf on a wintery night, the scene was straight out of a movie sequence. It was near to nine-fifty at night. She was filled with uneasiness. It was difficult to fathom the state of transpiration in her numbed mind. She was even deaf to the external noise or voices circling around her. Moreover, she could not catch a single word from anyone hovering around her.
The awful day may end as the night limped gradually into her life. But who can predict if it is a sinister plot's end or the beginning of a new twist? Was the day a roller-coaster of nightmare or merely a bad dream? What made her slump to the living room floor?
Anita had reached her uncle's house, now her home for six months. She was putting up there for her final year internship. The training had yet to start in the office a week before. In addition, she still needed to embrace the new life and the brand-new city. The city of unlimited dreams and the city that never sleeps, Bombay. It was still Bombay at that time and not named Mumbai. The place still had some pristine beauty left and was not totally covered with pollution. Mobile phones were used rarely, unlike the present time. The only communication link between the office and home was through landlines.
She had eagerly awaited this golden opportunity for months. A reputed Architectural firm where interns were not allowed to join for training without a final degree, it was a big deal those days. Then, finally, she got a chance to enter the firm as an intern through a stroke of luck, or was it by her father's connection? Never mind about that. It was a dream opportunity for her to grab it via the offer letter. Ani had desperately clung to the internship letter with all her strength lest it not slip from her hands the day she got it. It seemed just like yesterday.
Now, back to the present moment. The morning looked like any other morning, neither bright nor dull. The late arrival of the sun does not diminish its burning intensity or soothe one's sensitive skin. On the contrary, the sun had spread its wings impatiently, giving the impression of him running to catch the flight. What else to hope for on a hot, humid day in December? The scenes were enthralling for a newcomer like her. The journey from a small town to a metro could be overwhelming, according to her whirling around her mind from the first day.
Anita had woken up before seven as usual. She rushed to get ready to reach her bus stop before 8-20 am. It was partly dark, as the city always welcomes the late sunrise. She had somewhat skipped breakfast to reach on time. It was not her fault that the twisted events unfolded that day. She had come to her stop around 8-20. Within a minute or two, she ascended a red double-decker moving towards Churchgate station. It usually takes less than 20 minutes to reach the station. After crossing the road, rushing to catch the 8-45 local to Elphinstone Road station. It takes less than 20 minutes on the local train from Churchgate to Elphinstone, which terminates at Borivali. Well, to her bad luck, everything got delayed from Churchgate station. The train arrived late, and the crowd swelled as the train ran late. She walked, almost jogging, to her office. It was hardly a 10/12 minutes walk from the station to the office, yet one had to climb stairs to reach the main road from the platform.
Anita was lucky because she stayed in Colaba. Whereas her office was located in the Prabhadevi area. In addition, the distance between her office and the station was neither too long to take a bus nor too near to walk without soaking in sweat. Moreover, the cab was sporadic and too pricey to afford then. So, walking was the only option in addition to keeping fit. Anyway, the local trains were invariably jammed in the opposite routes of her destination, with people going to Churchgate for work from Dadar and Santacruz. So her locals had less crowd, a place to sit and read a novel. As a result, her daily commute was always a relaxed experience.
Anita reached her office that day, perspiring around 9-45 am. It was good that her Boss had not been in the office. But her seniors at work had arrived by that time. Her two team leaders were hardly 4 years senior by graduation year. Unlike her Boss, the most patient person on earth, the other two threw tantrums most of the time.
Rushing to the main hall, Anita had already chalked out her day. Unlike previous days, she was ready for a cup of tea that day at the office. It would sound strange to the two peons, but who cares? Anita used to refuse hot beverages like tea and coffee from day one. Yet she would request one cup that morning. Otherwise, how would she survive on an almost empty stomach till lunch break? She had to work until 1 o'clock, the official lunchtime. At least she could enjoy her meal during lunch hour that day. Anita had even requested the office receptionist to get her a plate of Ragda pattice from the nearby local market. They would make mouth-watering dishes, too delicious. Her mouth watered just visualizing it. Before the internship stint, she was unaware of these famous Bombay street foods like Vada-Pav, Pao Bhaji, Sev puri, Bhelpuri, etc. The Ragda Pattice from Kailash Parbat restaurant near her place was to die for, and she was excited to taste it again.
Around 10 am, the office began to fill with other employees. The hustle and bustle were in full swing, and laughter was floating freely in her Boss's absence. So, a typical scenario in an office.
Although it was never a strict and gloomy environment in the office with her Boss, his absence added more fun to the existing atmosphere. Anita was left under the dreaded team leader no-2 that day. The day had begun in the usual way for her, did it? She had entered the office premise late by mere 15 minutes. Team leader-2 was waiting in the lobby for everyone to assign that day's work. Thankfully, many junior designers had yet to reach the office. She was given to do the color rendering of a project that had to be submitted the next day.
Anita got busy with her work. She and Tushar were assigned the same project. She had to complete the rendering and scripting on the presentation sheets. Her calligraphy was beautiful and polished to complete the task on time. The Architectural texts were distinct from the regular writing. She even had a rendering book with her, purchased during a book fair. Tushar was given a simple design to complete on the tracing papers. Thankfully, she was not assigned that design part. Why? First, the forbidding man would find fault in that too. Second, she could only complete the designs after the deadline.
During lunchtime, she got a breather. It was a tradition in their office to have food together in the conference room as it had a massive table with chairs. The office helpers lay the table by 1 pm daily with mats, plates, water-filled glasses, and cutleries. Then, everyone would carry their lunch boxes to that place and enjoy the food. They used to share home-cooked food, talk, laugh, and annoy their office assistants. Only their Boss would have his lunch in his cabin, and the team leader would go home to have his lunch. He would disappear for half an hour as his home was nearby. Anita had never felt out of place from the beginning, even when she had studied in a different city, a small city compared to the Metro. So what? In the first place, she was welcomed to the firm with open arms and warm smiles, a significant relief for her. Secondly, she was never bullied or ragged by any one of the employees.
By the time the lunch break ended, it was near 1-45 pm. Anita rushed to her desk to finish the pending task. She had to complete her work by 6pm. The usual office timings were from 9-30 to 6 pm, Monday to Saturday. Then, she would pack her bag to rush back home. She walked to the station every evening with a few office fellows to board the local train. After the train journey, she would invariably cross the road to catch the bus. Then, another 15-minute bus ride to reach her home. After the bus ride, 5 minute walk to the premise gate. The gate was the entrance to different apartments grouped within the boundary. She sighed, thinking about the travel back home. She was often told in the office that the commute was regular in Bombay standard. People used to come from Nalasopara or Thane to the office daily; So tough were their lives!
The musical atmosphere was created by someone who started to sing. Others joined her after some time. Thankfully, their voices were low. Anita often wondered how anyone could sing and work at the same time! She could not handle loud voices, singing, or dancing at her workplace. Though it was a slight distraction, she loved the cheerful ambiance. The gloomy morning in her mind finally gave way to a sunny afternoon. Hopefully, the day would end with a shining evening and a peaceful night on her cozy bed.
Shahil came to the room around 5 pm to check on her progress. Did anyone mention who Shahil was? Well, he was the devil-incarnated team leader-2, according to Anita. It was a perfect nickname given to him. He was somewhat pleased with their work progress but eager to add further discomfort into their lives. According to him, Anita had finished the assigned task for the day, yet the load was not over. Was it her bad luck or destiny playing twisted games with her? It was just beyond her imagination. Shahil insisted on staying beyond the usual office time after 6 pm that day. Anita was upset beyond her logical thoughts. "What the hell" she muttered under her breath, in her head!
Anita knew she would be late if she stayed back after 6. Tushar used his motorbike for daily commuting and was not dependent on the local train or bus. The office men shuttled on their bikes. They sometimes used their cars to travel between the office and their homes. But, the girls mainly depended upon the local transport systems. The bus that would take her towards her home was erratic after 8 pm, she had heard from her cousins. How would she know? She was new and had stayed until 6 pm. She had only one concern that hour. How would she reach unaccompanied so late at night? More than one week was needed to get acquainted with the city. She was happy that at least she could get a cab that time. She would take a yellow-black painted taxi from the Churchgate station to her South- Mumbai home and no walking that day.
It felt alien even to herself when Anita settled to stay back for a few hours. She worked on the extra assignment more vigorously without food or tea. Never been a tea or coffee lover, so what else to expect? She had eaten sev puri or vada-pav a few times before taking the train, famished by then. Ani would get scolded for not eating well at dinner time. How would she eat after that yummy food session? She knew she had to forego her Sev puri for that hateful man that evening.
Moreover, she had yet to learn when she would leave the office. Anita thought she had no option regarding that assignment, or had she the chance to leave it mid-way? Her mind refused to answer it as she was blind with rage, obstinacy, and, on the other hand, laced with feminist iota. Anita realized the time when others began to leave the room. It was relatively late when she glanced at her watch, which indicated quarter to nine. Suddenly, she felt like crying, but who would console her there? Anita was still unfamiliar with the place, city, routes, and people's psyche. She began to shiver. It prompted Tushar to drop her at the nearby station on his bike so she could catch the local as soon as possible. It saved her time to reach the station. Without delay, Anita ran through the steps to get into the platform. She had utterly forgotten to inform her uncle or aunt in her hurry about her late arrival. The biggest mistake in her life was not to tell them before leaving the office. What a fool she was?
After a few minutes, Anita rushed to the ladies' compartment even though she had made the monthly pass for the first class in locals. She sat down for a minute and looked around. There was absolutely nobody in that area. She quivered further with worry. Then, she entered the men's compartment in the next station as the first class was far away. At least a few people were sitting there in that area. She heaved a sigh after her eyes scanned the whole place. Finally, around 9-15 at night, she arrived at the Churchgate station. Anita ran towards the entrance in no time. To her dismay, she had run to another exit that night, adding more woes to her already pathetic state. After crossing the road, she had to walk extra 15 minutes to get into the taxi from the main entrance. What a day! The thought was going on like a loop in her stupid mind.
Anita told the taxi driver to drop her at the Colaba area giving him the name of her apartment and the nearest landmark she had memorized like a parrot. She wanted to reach home, eat dinner and sleep peacefully that night. Her only thought was to go home at the earliest. Even though she was shaking within, it did not show on her face. Unexpectedly, the driver turned back to ask for directions. He had taken a right turn going on a road that seemed unfamiliar to her. Was it the worry or the darkness, or the empty stomach, or the tiredness? She could not place it. Her vision blurred, and she felt literally abandoned on the road.
At that exact moment, her whole life flashed before her eyes. It moved slowly, like a movie highlighting significant events. Noooo, nothing would happen to her, she thought in her mind. She was sure about that. Yet, she and her family might die thousands in the coming days or years if some untoward incident transpired. Would her friends shun her or support her if something happened to her? She would never know how much her family cared for her? Ani was on the verge of breaking down. Her only thought was about her miserable situation at that time.
She had not even confessed her inner feelings to her friend, who had grown special. Can she stay put to tell him? It was that hour, or never in her life. She could gather the courage to tell him about her eagerness to spend the rest of her life with him if she came out unscathed from the crossroads where she was standing. What was she supposed to do? She felt like a child separated from her mother at a fair. Why was she so unfortunate and foolish simultaneously? Anita chanted the Mantras in her mind to stay in control. No deity was spared with lucrative bribes if she outlived the crisis.
Then, Anita feigned boldness in her voice. And rudely asked the taxi driver about his ignorance of the roads of South Bombay. She even lectured him that he was responsible for being unfamiliar with the routes and dropping the passengers safely to their respective destinations. She murmured the word safely. Her voice did not tremble for a second, as if she was giving instructions like a politician. She tried her best to cover up her unfamiliarity with the roads and pretended to be tired to reach home fast. The street lights could not disguise the vulnerability splashed on her face as the newcomer to the city. The city of unlimited dreams was hailed as one of the safest places for women in the mid-90s. Is it, or was it?
The driver Bhau alighted to ask for directions from the nearby shop. But, only after telling her he was unfamiliar with those roads as he rode his taxi mainly in the Dadar area. He came back within five minutes to start the engine of the vehicle. The five minutes passed like five hours for Ani. Though Bombay Air had no winter conception, she began to shiver on December night. Was the tremble in her body due to her nervousness or the darkness? Only she knew it in her heart. Why was she so dumb not to listen to others at the office? Her tiny mistake might cost her heavily for her entire life.
The taxi ran smoothly for approximately 500 meters when the car stopped abruptly. "What happened now" was the only question that hovered over Ani's mind? She felt dizzy due to the combined effect of thirst and stress taking a toll on her body. The driver got down to check the engine taking hasty and long steps. Even he was bothered by that time as he mumbled to himself in Marathi. Ani thought he was throwing some choicest expletives towards her though it was more like a soft whisper to her ears. Thankfully she could not comprehend Marathi at that time as if she could have understood the hurls in her mother tongue.
Ani could not even consider calling her uncle's home at that critical hour. Her elder cousin could come to get her in his scooter. These thoughts never strike when one faces nervousness and unease in an unknown place. She could have easily found a PCO nearby, yet it never happened. Nobody could imagine the scene with the uncontrolled use of cell phones in the present day. She began to flutter like a leaf soaked in her self-created anguish. Ani did not step from her rear seat to check whether Bhau was still there or had run away somewhere, leaving her alone to die. She closed her eyes to recite Hanuman Chalisa as a last resort to end her nightmare. Could she even succeed?
The driver, Bhau, came back and started the engine. It roared like a wounded lion, and the car moved after 15 minutes of further delay. The street had shops lined with a row of branded companies, yet the crowd had thinned down by then. It showed nearly nine-forty-five on her wristwatch, pushing her to the pit of restlessness. What next?
Then, out of her tired eyes, like the flickering light at the end of the tunnel, Anita spotted the fire brigade station. At last, some familiar landmarks she could relate with. Yipee, she was on cloud nine. Anita recalled the road at that time. It was a shortcut through the back lane of the main road, her usual route. But she was too nervous to notice any landmarks in those dreaded times. Who would not have been? One week old in a big city like Bombay, around 10 at night, not a joke. She knew she was safe when she saw the rows of buildings leading to her apartment's boundary. The three high-rise apartments were separated by inner roads and playing areas. She alighted with a sore body, aching from head to toe, shivering like a wilted leaf, and eventually dragged her feet towards the lift. Ani could not recall the conversation with the driver. Had she even thanked the Bhau?
Riding to the seventh floor, she pressed the house bell hard. Then, after what seemed like an eternity in her mind, her uncle finally opened the door. Entering the house, she collapsed, still hugging her shoulder bag. Everyone complained about her foolish and stupid behavior, including her elder cousins. They were men, after all. How could they relate to her situation? Anita wondered in her immature mind. The night whispered sweet nothings in her ear on the deserted road while she bravely fought her inner demons. The silence was eerie to her rather than a soft whisper. Was she fearless or a gullible fool through her action?