Well, so much for the melodramatist in me. Before we start off, let’s get the voice straight here. This is me – not the T-man narrating. This tale isn’t strictly a T-man adventure, though it does involve him in a big way. Why the narrative should be so, you will understand later, once you’ve read the whole thing.
The weather had been miserable for a few days – well, miserable by English standards at any rate. By our own Chennai standards, they were pretty good – cloudy weather with incessant pesky drizzle that made roads slushy or slick, depending on how loose your definition of the word "road" was. The sun chose to hide itself all day, but the heat never seemed to let up. The slow rain had really upped the humidity, and the stickiness was beginning to get seriously annoying.
It was on one such day that the T-man suddenly popped in to borrow my car. He was in town for the day, and possibly the night, for some business discussion or the other, and needed a car as he was taking some clients to meet some other of his clients. I don’t enquire too deep into his business or his clientele, and so have no idea what he was doing. He was a responsible and careful driver and that’s I needed to know.
The day passed as usual, the confrontations with the auto drivers getting to and from office notwithstanding. The evening started out drizzly, and the rain steadily increased until by about eight in the evening, it was really chucking it down in buckets. The temperature dropped and the city heaved a sigh of relief. The rain continued till late in the night, and there was no sign of the T-man returning. At about half past eleven the doorbell rang. Tearing myself away from Marquez telling me about his melancholy whores, I went to open the door for the T-man.
When I opened the door, I was startled by the T-man’s appearance. He was dripping wet and his shoes were muddy. He was as white as a ghost, and I could see pure terror and confusion in his eyes. He responded in incoherent monosyllables to my questions, and went straight to the guest bathroom. He came out a few minutes later, cleaned up and
changed into his t-shirt and shorts, and made a beeline for the guest bedroom. He sat down on the bed, staring vacantly at nothing. After a while he curled up on the bed, pulling the sheets about him. I left him and returned to the study and Marquez.
A couple of hours later, I rose from my study to go to bed. As I passed his door, the T-man called out to me. I went into the room and he sat up.
"I had the most frightening experience in my life," he said.
"Hmm…" was all I could manage before he launched into his tale.
"I was coming back after a good day’s work, and I was very hungry. So I went to that food shop near the petrol bunk to have some barota and beef. After a hearty meal, I stepped out, and the rain had gotten worse than ever. Add to that, the street lights were out, and I took a couple of wrong turns and found myself in a blind alley. The alley was
too narrow to take a u-turn in and so I had to go forwards and backwards a few times. As I was doing this, I saw a hand in the rear-view mirror motioning me to keep reversing. Once I got too close to the pavement, it signalled me to stop, and then made a circular
motion, indicating the direction I should turn the steering wheel in. The signals were clear and precise, and I was quickly turned around. I looked in my rear-view mirror, and could see no one. This was okay, as in the light of the rear lamps and the reverse lights, you can seldom see more than the hand of a person standing behind you and directing you.
"I rolled down the window to shout out a thanks to the good Samaritan who had helped me turn around the car so expertly, and looked back. I couldn’t see anyone behind the car. Thinking that perhaps it was someone who was stuck because of the rain and needed a lift somewhere, I called out. I got no reply, and this piqued my curiosity. Who was this fellow, who would step behind me in the pouring rain and guide me expertly to turn around, yet would not acknowledge a word of thanks? I got the flashlight from the car and stepped out into the rain, looking for the person. Perhaps he had ducked into a doorway. Perhaps he was from one of the houses on the alley. As I flashed the beam of light around I could see that the three sides of the alley were actually high compound walls enclosing a factory or some such. There were no doorways or gates into which a person might have slipped. And I was sure no one had gone past me. As I was looking around, I came across a small rude shelter put together with old crates and a tattered tarpaulin at the end of the alley. It looked like a homeless guy’s shelter, and perhaps it was he who had helped me. I flashed the light around the shelter, and could still find no one.
"Finally, I gave up and returned to the car. Chucking the torch into the forward passenger seat, I got into the driver’s seat, and leaned out of the window to take one last look. The alley was as empty as ever, and I put the car into gear. As I looked up to adjust the rear-view mirror, there was the hand, waving goodbye to me. I was stunned and let go of my grip on the steering wheel and lifted my foot off the clutch. The car sprang forward a bit and stalled, and the engine died. I sprang out of the car, grabbed the flashlight, and dashed to the rear of the car. But there was nothing – no person, no animal, no tree branch that could have been waving – absolutely nothing. Once again I looked around, and there was nothing and nobody to be found.
“Again, I got back into the car and started the engine. I switched on the lights, and warily looked at the rear view mirror. There the hand was, waving in a friendly way to me. This time I quietly took the flashlight in my hand, not taking my eyes off the waving hand in the rear-view mirror. I slowly opened the door out fully. I leapt out, flashing the light around – I was behind the car within a second, but all I could find was nothing. It was then that the fear hit me. I think I would not have been so frightened even if I had found a disembodied had behind the car. I got back into the car and made my way out of that alley as steadily as I could, without looking at the mirror, for I knew the hand was there, waving at me…”
And that was the T-man’s tale. Well, he is a tough guy, and has been in worse places than in a dark alley on a rainy day, and was cheerful enough by the next morning, when he took the early train back.
A couple of evenings ago, I was at a loose end with nothing to do. So I walked down to the food shop the T-man had told me about, and wandering around, easily found the alley he was talking about. On one side was a high compound wall, while on the other, it rose a full five or six storeys high. It was the side of a building, and not a compound wall at all. It was still light and there was nothing sinister or mysterious about the alley. I walked down it to the end, and could see the rough shelter the T-man had described. It seemed to have been pulled down, and looked as if no one was occupying it. As I stood there, a lorry reversed into the alley. A stripling young fellow wearing a vest and a lungi leapt down from it and ran to the back of the lorry from where he shouted directions to the driver. The lorry was backed in carefully and very close to the wall of the alley. Once the lorry was in position, the fellow swarmed up to the top of the lorry and shouted out. A large window high on the wall on one side of the alley was thrown open and the arm of a crane slowly came into view. A hook was lowered, and the fellow attached box after box to it, slowly unloading the lorry.
As I stood watching it, the lorry driver came and stood by me. He was a wizened old man of indeterminate age. He drew a beedi from behind his ear, lit it and proceeded to draw solemnly on it. I nodded to him, and asked him if he unloaded here often.
“Every week for the past fifteen years,” he said, “Not a single box damaged nor a single accident. One day, just one day, I let my nephew drive and he crashes into the back wall. Poor Marimuthu – when he was there, all I needed were three shouts and the lorry would be in position. He was totally crushed against the wall. Only his hand remained undamaged…”