Eight-thirty AM. The sparkling hands on her wristwatch were becoming a cause of worry. Since when did these tiny things start running like a speeding train? Surely time couldn’t go that fast. Pratichi raised her arm to her ear, trying to make sure the mechanism was still working. Then something made her peer, through the dressing table mirror, at the wall clock in her bedroom.
Eight-thirty-one AM. A chill passed through her. The felt tip eyeliner she was holding smudged the fine line she had so deftly applied over her left eye. Wiping it with a finger, she called out, “Mom, I’m late!”
In less than a minute she was at the dining table, shoving various items in assorted bags. Her mother, having just finished packing her lunch, was sipping a cup of tea at the other end of the table. Pratichi grabbed everything she needed - handbag, workbag, lunch, mobile phone, keys, and ran to the car. Her mother followed, carrying a foil wrapped sandwich and a travel mug of coffee.
Dumping her bags on the back seat, Pratichi placed the sandwich on her lap and switched on the car’s ignition. With one hand on the gear shift, and the other hand somehow managing to hold a hot mug of liquid while steering the wheel, she pulled out of the driveway. The last thing she heard, before rolling up her window, was her mother screaming, “Don’t drop your breakfast and don’t break any traffic rules.”
Pratichi shook her head in wry amusement. Since when do I break traffic rules? Couldn’t she have just said ‘Drive carefully’? But there was no time to dwell on that. There were more pressing matters to deal with at the moment. Number one being getting to office on time.
Today was not the day Pratichi could afford to be late. Today was target setting day and she was the first name on the list for the morning session. Her boss would probably be calling any minute now, to ask of her whereabouts.
She decided to forego her regular route via BRT and Nehru Place in order to cut down her driving time. On a normal day, they would be a breeze to drive through. That was the reason she normally reached office half an hour before official start time. But 35 minutes late? – The entire stretch would be jammed.
Doing a quick run through of her options, Pratichi chose to drive via Ring Road to Lajpat Nagar and cut across behind East of Kailash to get to Mathura Road. Easy. Other than maybe one traffic-stop at Lajpat Nagar, the drive would be jam-free. Plus, it would save her a priceless 20 minutes. This was perfect, she thought.
Getting out from the Moolchand underpass, she un-wrapped her sandwich and took a generous bite. Her mother always warned her against eating in the car. Other than the crumbs it left behind, along with a lingering smell of stale food trapped in a car sitting under the sun all day, it took her attention off the road. Then again, when did Pratichi ever listen to her mother?
Thinking back to last night, she wondered, if only she hadn’t stayed out late for Aakriti’s 30th birthday party, it may have saved her from this delay. Thankfully, Pratichi had prepared herself for today’s meeting a week in advance. This had been a great year, her team being the only one in the entire company to exceed last year’s team targets. It had finally won her a much deserved promotion and a big jump in pay. She was excited to present her plans for this year to the management today.
Stopping at the Lajpat Nagar traffic light, she unscrewed the lid of her mug, inhaling the aroma of strong coffee before taking a sip.
A few minutes later, her phone rang. “I hope you have reached. The Director and CEO will be arriving any minute.” Indira was just short of screaming down the line. “I’m looking outside and I can’t see your car in your usual spot.”
“I. . . Uhh. . . Indira, I’m stuck in a traffic jam.” Balancing the phone and coffee between driving, Pratichi rolled her eyes and pressed down on the accelerator. “Seems like a car has broken down ahead. I should be there in another five-to-seven minutes.” She winced at her own lie. The only way she could reach that fast, was if her car suddenly grew wings. Not happening anytime soon!
“Seven minutes? Are you out of your mind, Pratichi? Seven minutes? They are probably walking up the stairs as we speak. You know how they hate to be kept waiting.” Indira was frantic with worry.
A car screeched behind Pratichi, making her realise she wasn’t paying attention to the road. “I’m sorry, Indira. You will have to stall, or maybe start with Raksha. I will be there before her team is done.”
“Oh God! This is a nightmare. Why couldn’t you be on time today, Pratichi?”
Pratichi imagined Indira pacing around her desk, as she often did in stressful situations. “Look, I’m trying my best,” she said.
“Well, try a little better than that.” Indira’s reply was curt. “Oh! By the way, it seems there is a protest near Faridabad and villagers are stopping traffic along Mathura Road. It may start clogging up so you better get here soon.” With that, the line went dead.
Fear gripped at Pratichi’s heart as she took a sharp turn on the exit to Mathura Road. Glancing about to make sure there weren’t any traffic cops, she picked up speed and was soon driving well over the limit.
She crossed the traffic signal at Apollo Hospital and was on the flyover. Just a few more minutes, she thought, and everything will be fine.
She finished the last morsels of her sandwich while mentally patting herself on the back for making such good time today.
Looking ahead, Pratichi noticed a jumble of cars, haphazardly spread over the entire width of road, only a few hundred feet from her.
“No. No. NO! This can’t be happening to me.” She spoke aloud to herself. Her foot instinctively eased pressure on the accelerator and she slowed her car to a crawl, inching further towards the jam. If this is what Indira had mentioned, then this road was going to be blocked till a long way ahead.
She glanced at her watch, wondering how she was going to get out of this mess. The next turn was at least two kilometres away. By the looks of it, it would be a good hour before she’d reach there.
Pratichi quickly opened the Maps app on her phone and was shocked to find a never-ending line of deep red marking her route. She closed her eyes and prayed for a miracle, anything to get her out of here.
Eyeing her surroundings, she saw a car discreetly backing up on her right. At first she wondered what he could possibly be doing. There was no turn on the left or U-turn along the median.
Her jaw dropped as she followed the car’s movements. The resourceful driver reversed the car a few feet behind her, drove against traffic for about a hundred yards, and climbed over the raised concrete median on the flyover, to cross over to the other side. He was gone within minutes.
Pratichi shook her head at the blatant disregard of traffic rules. Ridiculous! People will do anything to get out of a jam.
However, her disgust was short-lived.
Soon, other cars started to follow suit. Incoming traffic behind them was sparse and the few that drove up were already preparing themselves to cross over. Pratichi was now able to move a few feet forward due to the cars that had turned around.
Nevertheless, she kept looking in the rear view mirror, wondering if she should do it. No way. I am a responsible driver, not a rule breaker, she convinced herself.
And yet, she found herself putting the car in reverse and releasing the brakes. The car drove back a few feet and she was able to turn it around, despite the slight increase in oncoming traffic.
Pratichi was now standing at about a 50-degree angle to the median. All she had to do was drive over the shoulder and get on to the other side.
She pushed down on the accelerator and felt the front wheel on the passenger side roll over the concrete. She gave it a little more power for the other wheel to pull up. Something stopped the car from surging ahead as it should have. She reversed and tried once again. The car stopped before letting the 2nd wheel over.
This wasn’t right. Maybe she hadn’t thought this through. More cars were driving up now and most of the drivers were giving her curious looks.
One driver pulled up by her side and knocked on her window. Pratichi lowered her window a fraction of an inch. The man scoffed at her, “Madam, when you learnt to drive, did you forget to check which direction the car is supposed to go?” She ignored him.
Her car was now occupying one lane and she was stuck in an awkward position, both literally and figuratively. Another driver tried to point out something at the front of her car. She was unable to understand.
Traffic had now built up around her and people were visibly abusing her. Thank god for the safe confines of her locked car.
All this while, she continued trying to get the car to climb over the median, moving back and forth, this way and that. Being the only car facing the wrong direction, she was feeling terribly nervous.
Oh, what would she give to just be able to turn back around. All sorts of people were now knocking on her window, as they drove past, to get her attention and hurl abuses at her for her obvious stupidity.
Interestingly, the traffic that had caused her to take this rash decision, had begun to loosen up and the cars were now moving along, albeit slowly.
She heard her phone ring, as it had been doing so continuously. Just as she was about to take the call, a huge bus drove into her lane and stopped bumper to bumper with her car. Now she was well and truly stuck.
The driver blew his horn and amused faces peeked out of the window. Two men got off the bus and asked her to roll down her window.
“Hello Madam, what are you trying to do here?” the taller one asked in a mix of Hindi and some regional dialect.
“I was just trying to get over to the other side,” Pratichi answered.
“That’s what U-turns are for. There is one just a little further. Or you couldn’t wait?” The second man remarked with a laugh.
That angered Pratichi. She glared at him and replied, “The entire road was jammed. There was nowhere to go. So I thought I’d reverse.”
“What jam?” asked the tall man. “The traffic is heavy but there is no jam. The only jam is what you have created. Look at the traffic behind us.”
Pratichi looked through her side-view mirror and sure enough, the traffic had almost cleared up. Looking behind the bus she realised she had somehow managed to slow traffic on the two lane road to a crawl, till as far as she could see. She gulped.
The tall man continued, his tone bordering on the rude, “In any case, how exactly were you thinking of crossing over the median?” Pratichi scowled at him. This man had no business talking to her like that.
“There is plenty of space to drive through,” she pointed out.
“For a small car, maybe. While you are driving a mini truck. At least assess the space you need. You women folk sit in huge cars and want to weave them through traffic like a two-wheeler.”
And suddenly Pratichi figured out the problem. She had missed to account for the fact that her car was too wide to fit through the concrete blocks placed over the median, for the new light poles. She had seen that first driver drive across in his tiny little hatchback and, in her hurry, assumed her car would do so too.
The tall man interrupted her thoughts. “So madam, unless you are planning to drive in reverse all the way to your destination, I suggest you turn around.”
Pratichi looked about, thinking there was no way she could drive in reverse, and realising at the same time that she couldn’t possibly turn her car around.
The two men noted her lost expression and exchanged a look. Were they laughing at her? Oh well! She couldn’t really do much about anything at this point.
She watched as the two men called out for volunteers from the bus and began to stop the traffic, in order to create some maneuvering room around her. They directed her to get off the median, back on to the road, and turn her car around.
After moving the car forward and backward a few times, Pratichi was finally able to face the direction of moving traffic.
The men got back on the bus, which was now inching along behind her.
Ashamed of her stupidity, she struggled to avoid the rude and amused onlookers driving alongside. She checked her phone and found 11 missed calls from Indira. Ignoring them, she continued on her way to work.
It was almost Ten-thirty when Pratichi entered the office. Indira was pacing. Seeing Pratichi, she shrieked, “Where have you been? And why haven’t you picked up your phone? I called you numerous times!”
Pratichi made a show of being tired and hurt. She flopped on her chair, and took large gulps of water from the bottle on her desk before replying, “Indira, let me just take a breath. I have had the worst morning.”
“The traffic was terrible and I had an accident, of sorts. . .”
“Accident? What accident? What happened? Are you hurt?” Indira bombarded her with a volley of questions.
“Not hurt, a little shaken though,” Pratichi groaned.
Suddenly, Randhir popped out of nowhere and slapped a hand on her desk. “Hey you! When did you get in? I thought you must be busy holding up traffic near the metro station.”
“What?” Pratichi gave him an accusing stare.
“Go away Randhir, leave her alone. She’s had an accident.” Indira told him off.
“Oh! Hey, I hope you’re okay. A friend was driving by on this road and he mentioned some idiot was driving in the wrong direction and held up all the traffic till Ashram Chowk. I just thought I’d brighten my morning by having some fun at your expense. I’m sorry. Besides, that crazy driver was in a bright coloured SUV, while you drive a battered old silver sedan.” Randhir gave a sheepish smile as he walked away.
Pratichi’s ears turned red. She turned around in her chair to avoid Indira’s gaze. Just then, the peon walked in and announced that the bosses had finally arrived and wanted to begin in ten minutes.
“They’ve arrived now? What happened?” asked Pratichi.
“Well, they’ve been held up in traffic like everyone else driving on this road. Apparently, the villagers didn’t hold up as much traffic as the car driving in reverse did,” answered Indira as she gathered her folders and stood up.
Walking by the window, something caught her attention and she turned back to look outside. “Pratichi, didn’t you mention a few days ago that you’d bought a new car?” She pointed out, “Is it that Orange SUV parked in your spot?”
Pratichi smiled as she held out a box of sweets. “Yes, it is!”
Indira’s hand flew to her mouth. “Please don’t tell me you are the reason the traffic on Mathura Road has been blocked all the way from Sarita Vihar up to Ashram.”
Pratichi’s face fell.
Reading her expression as an affirmation, Indira gasped, “Do you know, fifty percent of the staff has still not come in because they have been stuck on that road? The Director and CEO are furious since they’ve lost 2 hours from the morning and are now way off schedule.”
Pratichi was speechless. How could she, in her one silly little move, have been responsible for such a major breakdown. What had she done?
“So much for you continuously pointing out that women drivers were unnecessarily given a bad name for their driving.” Pratichi wasn’t sure if Indira was being angry or sarcastic.
“I suggest you don’t mention your ‘accident’ in the meeting, unless you want an extra zero added to your target set today. And let’s keep your new car purchase on the down low, at least for today. You wouldn’t want people to put two and two together.” With that, Indira strode towards the conference room, indicating Pratichi to follow.
They had just made it to the door, when the peon returned and said to Indira, “The big boss wants to know who the owner of the orange SUV parked outside is. For some reason, he seemed a little angry and amused seeing it here. Please check if it is someone from your team. If yes, send them to the meeting room.”
Pratichi looked at Indira. “I think I want to call a cab and go home. Do you think you could cover for me in the meeting? I will come back and collect my car at night.”
Indira nodded with a grin. “Sure Ms. I-Am-Not-A-Rule-Breaker. Just as soon as you tell them all about your exciting adventure that they were unwittingly a part of.”
Pratichi winced as Indira pulled her along with her to the meeting room. So much for hoping for another good year. Her little fiasco today was probably going to cost her this job.