Madam 'Maddy' Sen returns to India from the US, hoping to jumpstart her life by offering an exclusive women's-only taxi service in grimy, chaotic New Delhi.
Then a brutal eviction turns her life inside out. A stranger makes a tantalizing offer. A new home with new friends and an excellent salary can all be hers. The catch? She must pretend, now and then, to be a male chauffeur to a powerful older man.
Taxi takes the reader on a twisty romp as Maddy struggles with gender, social class, race and a flash of wild romance.
Release date: November 24, 2023
Publisher: Hachette India
Print pages: 344
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
There are jinxes,
Big and small
They are nasty,
One and all.
–JINXES, BIG & SMALL
The girl’s nose was bleeding as she settled into the back seat. It was 3 a.m. Maddy could see her in the rear-view mirror, attempting to pinch off the flow with her bare fingers. Not succeeding.
Their eyes met in the mirror.
‘Tissue?’ suggested Maddy, tapping the box that lay on the divider between the two front seats. She started the car, shattering the sleepy silence of the colony.
‘Ogay,’ said the young woman through her blocked nose, taking a tissue.
‘Lean your head back,’ advised Maddy. She remembered from when she used to have nose bleeds. In school. More than thirty years ago now. Switching to Hindi, she said, ‘When you get home, wrap an ice cube in a hankie and hold it against your nose.’
‘Ogay,’ said the girl. She held the tissue to her nose.
As the car passed under a street lamp, Maddy saw the light glisten on the girl’s wet cheeks. She may have been as young as seventeen, passing for twenty with her make-up, her glittering shoes, her beaded silk dress.
As they approached the colony’s gates, Maddy slowed down, giving the security guard a chance to look in. Maddy was tall and light-skinned with strong features: straight nose, clear brow, full mouth. Combined with her close-cropped hair and grey jacket, her appearance convinced the guard that there was nothing to see here. He suppressed a yawn as he waved her out.
The girl hadn’t said a word on the outbound journey. In this, she was unlike the majority of Maddy’s clients. Most of them preferred to sit in front and talk.
This girl had entered the back seat without speaking. Maddy knew her from previous rides. A night-shifter.
The first time she’d ferried a night-shifter, Maddy hadn’t recognized the implications of the flashy clothes, the time of night. Two years later, now, she knew without question. She asked for double the amount of a normal full-day fare. Three thousand rupees for the first four hours and five hundred for every extra hour thereafter. The girls never protested. They always sat in the back, always in silence.
From the back seat, there came the sound of soft sobs. Maddy glanced in the mirror and realized that the girl’s face was swollen. Her hair was disordered. This was a first. No passenger so far had returned to the car visibly damaged. Maddy struggled to maintain the barrier that curtained her professional self off from her regular self.
Maddy allowed the silence to last through four traffic intersections before drawing in a breath and asking, in a careful voice, ‘What happened? Did he… hit you?’
In the mirror, the girl jerked upright.
Maddy was about to ask again when the girl forestalled her. ‘Mind your own business!’ she snapped. Her accent had a nasal twang. Perhaps she’d grown up in one of the many small towns that clung like ticks on a lean-legged dog along the highways leading into and out of the capital city.
Nothing more was said for the rest of the journey.
The girl was returning to an address across the river, far to the east. Maddy had collected her from and dropped her back at other addresses before this. But tonight, she was going to a colony called Sunshine Housing Estate. Maddy suspected that this was her actual home whereas the other places were temporary rentals. This colony had gated entrances too, but within its low-slung walls was a jumble of three- and four-storey flats. They were stacked tight as egg crates on either side of the narrow lanes.
The girl directed Maddy with terse commands: ‘Third gate to the right. Right again. Next left, next—’ Street lamps were in short supply. Maddy could sense her Hyundai flinching in the narrow alleys, as if it could sense the threat to its glossy black exterior.
‘Corner building,’ said the girl.
In the early days, Maddy had felt a shrinking distaste as the time neared for her passengers to count out their notes for her. If they sat in front, she used to look away. If they sat behind her, she faced forward, waiting for them to make the first move.
The discomfort vanished quickly. The majority of her clients paid at the outset, often in an envelope. They had become regulars, most of them. If a first-timer asked Maddy how she preferred payment, she told them what the others did.
Tonight, however, the girl slid out, slammed the door and clip-clopped away.
Maddy was too startled to react.
She called after the young woman’s retreating back.
‘Hey! Miss…’ Her voice boomed in the night.
The girl plunged into the unlit entrance of her building without a backward glance.
Maddy sat still.
This had only happened once before. A passenger had spent her entire trip, both coming and going, giggling and snuffling, with her cell phone held so close to her mouth she was practically chewing on it. In the end, it had seemed entirely in character when she jumped out and sprinted away without a backward glance.
On that occasion, Maddy had waited a few minutes, then shrugged and gone her way.
She gazed at her mirror ornament swinging gently back and forth in the air stream from the air conditioner vent. It was a jaunty little thing, a metallic green-gold version of the nimbu mirchi evil-eye deflector favoured by taxi drivers.
Tonight, she couldn’t afford to shrug.
She angled her head to look up at the building through her windscreen. A light came on in a window on the third floor.
Turning the engine off and opening her door, she stepped into the dense heat of the night.
She had the key fob in one hand, a slender torch attached to its ring. Up three floors she went, with only the finger of light to guide her. Each narrow landing had two doors on it. On the third floor, a line of brightness showed under one of the doors. Turning towards it and finding no doorbell, Maddy banged directly on the painted plywood.
Immediately, a shadow obscured the line of brightness.
The door was flung open, and there stood the girl. ‘Stob noise,’ she mumbled in English. In the harsh light of a naked bulb directly over the door, the young face looked misshapen. A purple brinjal had bloomed under the left eye. Both nostrils were plugged with thick screws of tissue paper, looking like tusks.
She caught Maddy’s wrist, pulled her in and shut the door. ‘I can’t bay,’ she said. Fresh tears were now streaking down her cheeks. She jerked the paper tusks out of her nose and repeated, clearly now, ‘He don’t pay me. I have no money. Nothing.’
Maddy took in a deep breath.
The girl was standing like a stray dog on the pavement outside a restaurant. Ears lowered, back rounded, trembling.
Maddy wanted to slap her.
Reaching with both her hands for the younger woman’s shoulders, she said, ‘Stand straight! Come on. Straighten up. Now look me in the face.’
The girl raised her head, startled.
‘You want me to say that I understand? But I don’t. All right? I need the money too. Come on.’ She turned the girl around so that she was facing away, towards the other room in the apartment. ‘You can do it—’
But the girl swung around.
Her face was transformed into a demon mask of rage. It was almost comical. Her eyelids flared, her eyes became two angry, bulging orbs, the corners of her mouth were bent downwards into ugly hooks as she struggled to form words.
‘You… you…’ Words failed her. Two bright gouts of blood flushed from her nose.
She switched to Hindi. ‘You dare touch me! Miserable filth! Cunt-dirt.’ Even in full flood, she remembered to pitch her voice low. ‘You fuck off now, FUCK OFF!’
Maddy stood her ground. She towered over the girl. ‘Give me even one rupee of what you owe me, and I’ll go,’ she said. Her voice was calm.
The girl was panting.
She was still wearing her beaded dress and heels. Whirling around now, she grabbed her small black pocketbook from where it lay on the table and emptied its contents. Coins and make-up and a single crisp blue note flew out of it. She snatched up the hundred-rupee note, crumpled it and threw it in Maddy’s face.
Then she spat a thick gob of blood and snot onto the bare cement floor between them. In a low voice, as if reciting verses from memory, she began to intone a litany of filthy terms. ‘Whore-shit, mother-cunt, pig-turd…’
Maddy had caught the note before it fell. She turned and walked out.
She got to her car with the girl’s ugly words still rattling inside her mind. She pressed the ignition switch and waited for the plush comfort of her seat and the stream of chilled air to steady her.
She felt sorry for that young woman struggling to survive in a harsh world, using the only resource she had, her body. But she felt sorry for herself, too. She needed the cash. Not having it was going to be a problem.
It was 4.30 a.m. by the time she got home.
She rented an apartment in South Delhi. It was a luxury, this modest two-storey unit in the calm, well-ordered housing complex of the Asiad Village. A luxury she could not afford.
She entered the darkened interior, poured herself a glass of cold water from the fridge, then went upstairs to her bedroom, turned on the air conditioner and changed into a caftan.
She lit a cigarette, sitting cross-legged on her bed in the darkness.
A cock crowed in the distance.
She lay down and soon fell asleep.
A faint hope
And hemp rope.
–JINXES, BIG & SMALL
The front door boomed open. Maddy shot upright in bed, tangled in the sheets. From downstairs came the thump of a walking stick.
‘Hooooo!’ A cracked voice called from inside the house. ‘O-hOOOO!’
Maddy got to her feet but was disorientated. What time is it… She bent to squint at the clock by her bedside. Not quite eight. No time to get dressed. She’d have to go down as she was – unwashed, unbrushed, in her caftan.
‘Where are you, madame?’ the voice continued. ‘Get up, get up—’ Then, as an aside, ‘Sleeps all day! Huh. Lazy bitch. No wonder she can’t pay!’
Maddy called down as she hurried out onto the landing. ‘Yes,’ she said, her voice bull-frogged, clotted with sleep. Clearing her throat, she tried again. ‘I’m here, Mrs Bansal.’
‘What is here?’ croaked the landlady, turning arthritically, trying to crane her neck back. ‘I am here – but you? Stuck in bed! Lazy sow!’
The woman wore a stiff organza sari that swaddled her diminutive body like the twigs of a bird’s nest. From above, her head, poking up from the centre of the nest looked absurdly like an angry fledgling, with its bare skin, sharp beak and two tiny black eyes contained within swollen, purple eye-sockets.
Maddy hurried down the single flight of stairs barefoot. ‘Mrs Bansal,’ she said, clearing her throat again, ‘Ten o’clock is what you said.’
The older woman, no longer angling her head to look up, looked around now for a chair to sit on. With both hands, she held on to the rounded handle of a thick, black cane. ‘Stupid little cunt,’ she muttered to herself, ‘that’s all they are these days. Young women. Filthy whores. Making me wait.’
The apartment, tiny and compact, had been designed to house the international athletes of the 1982 Asiad. The central well of the unit rose high, with two small bedrooms tucked into the mezzanine. There was a bathroom on that level with the kitchen right beneath. Generous windows let in light and air.
Mrs Bansal had lowered herself into one of the three chairs by the round table that occupied the middle of the ground floor.
Maddy said, as she towered over the shrivelled figure, ‘It’s not yet eight.’
‘Eight or eighty – who cares! Where’s my money?’ cawed the old lady. ‘That’s all I care about.’
‘I was going to get it this morning—’
The landlady’s beak jerked up. The glittering black pinpoints stabbed out of their mauve pouches. ‘Too late, too late!’ the cracked voice cawed in triumph. ‘I gave you all the chances! Three months, three months!’
Maddy looked down at the woman, expressionless. The need to pee was occupying front and centre of her thoughts.
‘I told you to have it ready for me today,’ continued the crone-fledgling. ‘I warned you! But you? Coming home at all hours! Snoring in your filthy bed. Oh, yes…’ The fleshless lips drew back now in a snarl that might have been a smile, exposing a barricade of grey teeth, too uniform to be her own. ‘You think I don’t know your secrets, huh! But I do! I know. I found out. Filthy business. Whoever heard of a woman private taxi driver! Huh. A whore with a car.’
There was a crash from the front door as Lata, the maid, came in. She held a packet of milk in one hand. A polythene bag containing bread and eggs dangled from the wrist of the other hand, which also held the front door key.
Her eyes flared with alarm at the sight of the landlady.
Mrs Bansal swivelled her beak towards the newcomer. ‘Ho! You. Girl. Where’s the tea? Bring water first. Lazy bitch! Is this the time to show up for work? Quickly now.’ She turned back to her tenant. ‘Okay. Where was I? Yes – whoring…’
The niggling doubt
With long black tail
And hairy snout.
–JINXES, BIG & SMALL
Traffic was jammed solid at the intersection of Ring Road and the Mehrauli turn-off. Bystanders had gathered like flies, drawn to the site of an accident.
Scorched air jittered above the hot metal skins of the stalled vehicles. The machines parped, snorted and bellowed. Men stood up from their two-wheelers, and passengers inside a DTC bus lengthened their necks in the direction of the scene.
Urchins darted from car to car holding up polythene-wrapped copies of Elle and Cosmopolitan. ‘Muddum! Muddum!’ they called to any women they saw. ‘Ellie-Cojum? Ellie-Cojum?’ Sweat from the children’s matchstick limbs dripped down the plastic-wrapped covers on which dewy-skinned models exposed their perfect teeth and swelling cleavages to the world.
Maddy gestured towards the clamour. ‘This is my landlady’s tribe,’ she said to her passenger. ‘Her blood relatives. I’m the one that’s different! Just by noticing it, just by hating it, I’m the one out of place.’ She was dressed in an oversized men’s T-shirt, dark blue with an all-over print of green alligators. She wore black slacks and black sneakers of the kind that had a high ankle cuff and elaborate laces. ‘Some day in the future, when I’ve morphed into her, I’ll be stuck in traffic and won’t notice a thing.’
‘Huh,’ snorted her passenger, Malli, short for Mallika. She had straight, thick white hair that she wore short. She was dressed in a pleated white skirt with a fitted black chiffon blouse, and red shoes. ‘Morphed into her! You wish!’
Maddy looked puzzled. ‘What d’you mean?’
Malli was a dear friend. She employed Maddy whenever her own driver was on leave. Today she was en route to the airport. She was as petite as her friend was tall, as carefully groomed and overtly feminine as the other was not.
‘Your landlady will suck you dry long before you can morph!’ said Malli.
Maddy’s lips twitched in a wry smile. ‘Oh. Ha.’
‘How much does she want now?’
Maddy shrugged. ‘I’ve been sending her my rent money but not the so-called “maintenance charge”. Three K extra. I told her that I’ll pay it, sure, okay, okay – but it’s been tight. I’ve been paying the rent but not the extra.’
She paused, as they both watched the buzzing gawkers. ‘A month goes by. Two months. Then the other day, the phone rings. I pick it up, and it’s her on the line—’ imitating her landlady’s harsh squawk “—I’ll have you arrested, Mrs Ma-DAME! Yes! I’ll throw you out! Yes!” I say, “Mrs Bansal, I’ll have twelve thousand for you next week.” She doesn’t miss a beat. “Twenty thousand!” she shrieks. “For making me wait! In cash! June first!”’
Maddy sighed. ‘That was two weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been getting daily phone calls. Threats. Curses. Reminders that I have nothing in writing. No legal rights.’
She looked out towards the clotted cars. The police had arrived with an ambulance. They were shoving the audience back, making space.
‘I tell her that I’ll have it for her today, this morning. Yesterday, I went to the bank, broke one of my FDs. But I was still short by two thou’. I thought I’d be still okay because I had a night-shift passenger. I should’ve got around five K, cash in hand. Except I didn’t. Shitty little—’ she suppressed the word ‘—night-shifter makes me wait four hours then runs out on me without paying. I even went up to her flat to demand the money. She calls me filthy names and throws a C-note in my face.’
Maddy frowned at the memory. ‘Okay, I tell myself, okay; there’s still time to get to the bank in the morning, break another FD and be back in time for Mrs Dung Beetle.’
The knot of traffic had begun to dissolve.
‘But no. That’s too easy. Instead, what happens? Dung Beetle comes to the house early. Two hours early. I tell her I’m going to the bank but no-o-o. She won’t listen.’ Maddy shook her head. ‘She’s done, she tells me. I’ve had my chances—’
The car directly in front of Maddy’s jerked forward. She immediately shifted into gear and jerked forward too, only to stop again, having moved a couple of inches.
‘She wants me out. Tells me that she knows about my taxi business. Calls me a…’ she broke off to shriek, ‘AHH! Idiot wants to DIE!’ She jammed the heel of her palm down on the horn, hard. ‘AAARRHhhh! KANGAROO!’ She yelled, thumping the windshield with the flat of her palm as a pedestrian, having dashed across the road between her car and the one in front, hopped up onto her front bumper before speeding off to the left.
‘Ahh,’ said Maddy, shutting her eyes tight. ‘Ahh. Sorry. I shouldn’t—’
Now the traffic really was moving.
For several minutes, neither of them spoke as they sped forward.
Then, ‘That’s the sort of thing that really gets me going,’ said Maddy, meaning the pedestrian. ‘I feel angry. All the time. Maddened. There’s this kind of boiling just under my skin. The rubbish on the streets, the beggars at the traffic intersections. There’s a pregnant mother now, just at the turn-off towards the Asiad Village. She’s not in her senses. She’ll have her baby on the street, and everyone will probably just hurry on past her, hurry, hurry, hurry… don’t look, don’t think. The water shortages, the power cuts. The rudeness. I can’t shut any of it off! And all the time, I feel this fury, I want to kick! I want to kick my landlady, kick that stupid little… whatever… last night – I want to kick and kick and kick—’
She broke off, shaking her head.
Malli said, ‘Maybe you need a break?’
‘Heh!’ said Maddy, smiling. ‘A break? No. I need a reset. Brain reset. I’m finding it harder and harder to hold it in. The problem is me. I don’t suit the world I’m in. I feel like a balloon filled with tiny glass splinters. Ready to burst in the face of anyone who dares cross my path.’ She gave a ragged laugh. ‘Listen to me! I sound dangerous.’
‘These are dangerous times,’ murmured Malli. ‘You’re just reflecting what’s out there.’
‘Like Mrs Bansal,’ said Maddy. ‘See what I mean? I’ve become her already! Every second word she says is a curse.’
They were still on the Outer Ring Road, now passing by the Munirka Furniture Market.
Malli gestured to the side of the road. ‘See – there? A parking spot. Why don’t we stop? Come on. I forgot to tell you that the flight’s delayed. We have time for a smoke.’
‘Okay,’ said Maddy, acting on the impulse. She pulled into the space.
Malli brought out a packet of Silk Cut, still wrapped in cellophane.
‘I have my own,’ said Maddy. She reached into the glove compartment as she lowered her window. Instantly, the roar of the traffic, like a bull’s thick head stinking of heat and grime, thrust itself in.
Directly in front of the car’s well-polished nose, on the raised pavement, a labourer covered in grey dust was hauling a sack of cement onto a handcart.
Maddy lit her cigarette and inhaled sharply. ‘Wah. That feels so good.’ She breathed out slowly, the smoke curling in languid tendrils around her face. ‘Hoo! Thank god for tobacco! Hoo.’
She closed her eyes, pausing a moment before returning to the topic of her anger. ‘Mind you, it’s not that I’m complaining. About the anger, I mean. It’s like eating a green chilli on an empty stomach. It keeps me bright and hot. All day long.’
Malli clicked her tongue. ‘Come on. You are complaining.’ From her handbag, she brought out a round silver container as plump and smooth as a ball of dough. It had a lid that fit tight. A narrow flange extended forward, offering a means of lifting the lid. Malli flipped it up, revealing that it was a tiny purse ashtray. Beneath the flange was a shallow depression that functioned as a support for the cigarette. She tapped the ash into the receptacle.
‘No! Why? I’m enjoying it. It’s been some months now. Coming on slowly. I never used to curse. Never. But now? I wake up cursing. It’s like some people wake up and take a dump. That’s what my brain does! Wakes me up and takes a dump at the world,’ said the older of the two friends, laughing.
‘Real cursing or the “kangaroo” type?’
Maddy shrugged, saying, ‘How does it matter?’
‘I read somewhere that real cursing releases stress. But kangaroo-wallah curses do nothing at all—’ Malli gave a sympathetic smile. ‘Sorry!’
Maddy frowned, then shook her head. ‘I dunno. Kangaroo-wallah, I suppose. I mean, I wake up angry. Like I’ve become this muscular predator. This panther, stalking the placidly grazing herds of antelope…’
She chuckled at herself.
‘It’s funny to hear myself say this out loud. I’ve not mentioned it to anyone before. Who would I tell? My brothers? No! My parents? Forget it. They’d never understand. My other customers? My landlady? Hah! She’d evict me for sure then! I never hear other people talking like this - no one I meet. My regular customers are like… I don’t know what word to use—’
Malli sat forward. ‘Wait, wait. Back up. Your Mrs Bansal… did you say she knows? About the taxi business? And she wants you out because of it?’
Maddy paused, inhaling.
At that moment, glancing up, she noticed for the first time the labourer bent over directly in front of the car.
He had the angular build of a goat. He wore a threadbare vest over striped shorts with a red rag tied around his temples. His deep bronze skin was obscured by pale grey powder except where rivulets of sweat had formed dark lines, as if deliberately pencilled in. He straightened up, and his gaze came to rest upon the two women in their car.
There he had remained, standing beside his handcart, staring at the women.
Through the glass of her windshield, Maddy looked up directly into the man’s face. She caught his eye and saw his expression. But he did not look away. He seemed to be in a trance. She held his gaze for a full minute before snapping the contact. She realized there was no meaning to it. It was not a communication.
Turning to Malli, she said, ‘See that man over there, that labourer? I want to go and kick him too.’
‘Tch!’ said Malli, shaking her head reflexively. ‘Stop it.’
‘But just look at him! Look at him staring at us! As if the difference between him and us is so great that we’re just things to him. Not people. He wouldn’t even stare at animals in that way.’
Malli shook her head.
‘I know, I know,’ continued Maddy. ‘You and I are not allowed to talk like this. It’s considered tasteless. But why? That’s my point. Aren’t we ignoring the fact that he’s also a man? If he were the same class as us and one of us said that we wanted to go beat him up because he’s ogling us, that would be fine, wouldn’t it?’
Malli flexed the corners of her mouth. ‘Let it go. It’s not our fight. Not today.’
‘Just agree with me that it’s a class issue,’ said Maddy. ‘If a labourer looks at us with hot eyes, our response is different than if a rich man does the same thing – yes or no?’
‘If a rich man does it, we take him to court and paint his face as black as we can. If the labourer does it, we tell ourselves that he’s a migrant far from his family and deserving of our deepest sympathy,’ said Malli. She stubbed her cigarette out inside her ashtray and snapped the lid shut. ‘We don’t throw him under the same bus as a man who should know better.’
‘But my question is about the nature of the heat,’ persisted Maddy. ‘Is that the same?’
‘How can we ever know? What scale is there with which we can compare one man’s heat against another’s?’
They both looked outside once more. The labourer was sitting on one of his loaded sacks now, oblivious of them. Smoking a bidi.
Maddy nodded thoughtfully. ‘Now that’s a good question,’ she said. ‘I bet no one has an answer to it.’ She pressed the window switch, tossed her cigarette stub out and adjusted herself in her seat.
‘There are times when I think that just to think such questions is to stray from the straight and narrow path,’ she said as she pressed the ignition. ‘I wonder if there’s something wrong with me for wanting to explore the dark alleys of speculation.’
‘Never!’ said Malli. ‘I never believe that I’m the one who is at fault.’
‘And I always do,’ said Maddy, smiling.
The fighting chance
Came from France
Broke a leg
And couldn’t dance.
–JINXES, BIG & SMALL
Maddy did not go home directly from the airport. She liked to buy fruit from a small stall in Greater Kailash II’s M-Block Market. She had just picked out some oranges, apples and a bunch of bananas when she felt her phone buzzing in the pocket of her jeans.
An unfamiliar number. A client? She had a hundred-rupee note ready in her hand for the fruit vendor and held the phone to her ear with the other hand.
‘Hello?’ she said.
‘Ms Sen?’ It was a man’s voice. ‘Thank you for taking my call. My name’s Chetak… Chetak Mehta. Do you have a moment?’ His accent was clipped at the edges like a well-trimmed British hedge.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Maddy, watching as the fruit seller counted out change. He had already bagged the fruit, using the nylon tote that she’d handed to him. ‘Do I know you?’
‘No,’ said the man. ‘Just hear me out, okay? I’m on your side—’
‘Please listen carefully,’ said the man. ‘Your landlady, Mrs Bansal, has sent a bailiff to your house. T. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...