Translated from Hindi by Jutta Austin
Behind Panna, a BMW came lurching like an awkward young bride, as if a drunk lost in his own world was making his way heedless of his surroundings, or may be some world-weary driver had chosen on a whim to let go of the steering wheel. His number plate said V14GRA which looked like ‘Viagra’. “Stupid idiot”, said Panna and watched warily in case Mr ‘Viagra’ would prove himself true to its swaying. In order to reduce the risk of an accident, Panna slowed down and drove further away from the other car.
The rustling, impatient leaves blazed like the sunset. The trees stood there, clearly dismayed. Perhaps they knew that they could only move on by letting go. Panna thought that maybe the confused trees had gained consciousness after all; autumn was passing and the lazy leaves were not even thinking of tumbling down. A soft breeze was blowing, a light rain coming down as a fine drizzle. As Panna reached the entrance to Brondsbury along Willesden Lane, she marvelled in amazement. The line of trees had changed colour overnight. Their overhanging branches were touching passers-by and drawing them towards them, ‘Look – look at our showy finery!’
Panna drank in the sight of the red and purple leaves and wished she could park the car at the side of the road and look at this scene to her heart’s content. The church built on the side of Christ Church Avenue always attracted her. About a dozen trees stood in its courtyard. If only somebody would fix up a swing on one of the trees in the middle so she could swing on it until all the leaves had been shed. Then she would climb down, would take a nap on those scattered leaves and rise really refreshed. But if she were to arrive late at the hospital, there would be no knowing when she could get another appointment. A swelling had appeared right in the middle of her forehead, impossible to hide from anybody. Whoever sees it gives his opinion without fail,‘Panna, drop everything and get it looked at. Perhaps it’s nothing, but…’. It was this but which made Panna herself worry. With great difficulty she had persuaded her GP to send her to a specialist.
As Panna moved forward while still gazing at the leaves, she saw that one lane of the road had been closed by orange cones and the traffic was crawling with the speed of a tortoise. There was now only one lane left for the traffic in both directions, controlled by a temporary traffic light. The green light in Panna’s direction seemed to last only a very short time, and while it lasted only three or four cars managed to move on due to some ‘lazy stupid idiot.’
‘If everybody got on with it quickly, at least ten cars could move on as soon as the light turns green. But no. And why not get an automatic car? Men need their toy anyway whether it has a gearbox or not.’ Panna just needs a reason for her muttering. In her opinion, an automatic car is much better than a manual one. To stop one just puts one’s foot on the brake, to move all one has to do is press down the accelerator. Why should we have to bother with slotting the clutch in and keep changing gear? Why on earth do people in the 21st century still want to buy a manual car? Such skinflints, they toil to save up all that money but won’t buy an automatic.
‘It’s not money, Mum, one has more control on manual’, says her son Aditya.
‘Bullshit.’ These days, Panna always seems to be in a bad mood. She never used to resort to such rude words in front of her children.
‘Mum, mayor Ken Livingstone and David Cameron are also travelling by cycle to the parliament. You must care for the environment, too.’ Panna’s daughter-in-law Ashima believes that Panna is always in a bad mood because she is driving in London. Even when she just needs to buy a loaf of bread, she takes the car, and why not, after all, it’s no joke to take the driving test in England, and even pass at first attempt. Both Aditya and Ashima only passed the third time round.
‘Leave me alone. I feel safe in my car.’ Angrily, Panna silences them. In the car she experiences a sense of freedom and safety which she does not find anywhere else. And it’s due to the car that she has made some girlfriends. In return for driving them here and there in her car, they pay her in kind. One may bring chapatis and chivra (rice flak snack), another gives her carrot and green pepper pickle.
Panna thought that taking her neighbour Pushpa along today would have made the time pass more easily, but she talks so much, one can hardly think anymore. She really should have gone by bus or train. It was useless to have brought the car; it cannot escape this jam.
As she reached the corner of Edgware Road, the lights turned red, but Panna was certainly not going to stop. Looking around to make sure there was no policeman standing somewhere, she quickly drove forward. She knows that there is no camera on this corner. She seems to be growing more fearless these days. Instead of watching the traffic light in her direction, she keeps her eyes on the light in the other direction. As soon as it turns red she puts her foot down on the accelerator knowing well that there will be other people beside her who won’t stop for the red light. That is of course how accidents happen, but Panna does not give much thought to such a possibility.
Behind Panna was Kilburn Station. It occurred to her to leave the car at the side of the road and take the train instead, but there are double red lines along Edgware Road, if she leaves the car there she’ll end up paying at least 60 pounds fine. The traffic wardens walk about like hungry lions looking for victims to assail. But what else can they do, their livelihood depends on the commission for these fines. It would take her one and a half to two hours before she would return. In the meantime, she might even have been given two tickets. Her car might even have been towed away and then it would cost at least £100 to £150 to get it released.
Passing Kilburn High Street she saw that some big trucks and transit vans had stopped on the road, blocking more than half of it. They were unloading fruit and vegetables and loading their carts as if the street was their personal property. They could not care less if anybody might be in a hurry. Red-green apples, pears, cherries, water melons, sweet melons. Panna realised that it would certainly take her ten-fifteen minutes to get past them, so why not stop and buy some fruit, but at the moment the cart owners were busy doing their own dealings so would hardly give her the time of day. Stopping one’s car here is prohibited anyway, but there are always small and big vans and carts standing there. Panna has heard that these stupid shop owners bribe the police with apples and oranges.
Twenty minutes have passed standing still in one place. She has heard that one uses more petrol in an automatic car. ‘Mum, whenever you stop, always pull your handbrake. You are not only safer that way but will also save petrol.’ Aditya is always interfering.
Panna pulls the handbrake but having done so knows that when the traffic starts moving she’ll press the accelerator down and forget to release the brake. If anybody found out how bad her memory has become they might seize her driving license. Even after pulling the handbrake she does not take her foot off the brake pedal, so that she can move quickly as soon as the traffic stirs. This method does, however, mean that both her hand and foot are growing increasingly numb. The traffic remained standing where it was. Panna thought that if you were in such a situation in any town in Italy or India the noise from the horns would have split your eardrums by now.
It was only last year that for four months Aditya had to travel with Panna in the mornings because he had no car insurance. His office was next door to Panna’s anyway. Aditya felt that it was ridiculous to pay as much as at least £1300 for his car insurance, but travelling with Panna meant listening to her criticising everything and everybody. Perhaps this habit of Panna’s had troubled Aditya, and that was why he had invented a game where you had to join the letters and numbers on the number plates of the cars around you and make up words. By this method any vowel could be added. The shape of some numbers resembles a letter; those can be used just like letters. For example, the figure 4 looks like an A, 5 like an S and 6 like a G. But in any case, the human brain can create anything. Only yesterday Panna has seen a big Jaguar car with the number plate S7OWD. Her mind had quickly perceived the ‘7’ as an ‘L’ because that produced the word ‘SLOW’, and the last letter ‘D’ could in conjunction with ‘slow’ be understood as ‘down’. Wow, what a number plate, ‘Slow down’. Panna had felt a wave of elation. As soon as she arrived home, she told Ashima about it, who laughed out loud, ‘Mum, aren’t you getting obsessed with those number plates?’
This game was not entirely new to Panna, because in the past she used to add the numbers of cars and analyse the drivers according to numerology. A pastime such as reciting verses was not for Aditya, and Panna could only sing songs from old films, whereas Aditya knew nothing else but new fusion. When Ashima was with them she would arbitrate between them, because she knew both new and old film songs.
Once Panna had acquired a taste for the number plate game, her mind would always race ahead and focus on the number plates. In this game, one is naturally influenced by one’s prejudices. Panna, too, criticises the drivers behind her or in front on the basis of her own prejudices, sometimes even to the point of name-calling. Sometimes she arrogantly stresses her own importance, sometimes seeing someone’s posh car or an impressive number plate makes her tense. Trying to guess the status and state of mind of the drivers around her on the basis of their number plates certainly passes the time pleasantly.
Panna threw a glance at her left wing mirror and saw that the driver behind her had managed to pass her by going via a petrol station. He was now in front. A ‘fuck’ escaped her lips inadvertently. The number on his slate-coloured Rover was L6JI8 (Legit).
‘Legit my foot. He’s bound to be involved with some illegal business for sure.’ She was still engaged in her conjectures about the ‘legit’ driver’s shady activities when a car pulled up on her left side and stopped at the point where vehicles could turn left. As soon as the light turned green he shot out in front of Panna’s car. ‘Stupid idiot,’ said Panna and sounded her horn. The number of that ford Focus was ‘P4GLA’ (Pagla).
‘Hey, that stupid driver is really crazy.’ If Panna had not been able to stop there would have been an accident. The man’s shirt was dirty and crumpled. Panna decided that he might have a greengrocer’s shop in Wembley. Gujaratis don’t usually take such risks, so he must have some really urgent business going on, the poor man. The police may have raided his shop, or maybe the illegal extension in front of his shop was removed. In a gesture of ‘sorry’ he was waving his hand and shaking his head.
‘If he had so much as touched my car I would have dealt with the stupid idiot.’ Surrounded by ‘Legit’ and ‘Pagla’, Panna took both car numbers down in the diary she kept on the passenger seat. It makes no difference whose fault it was, the innocent driver suffers the outcome just as much. It’s true that the insurance premium would only rise for the guilty party and it’s him who would lose his no claim bonus, but Panna’s time would also be wasted with wrangling with the insurance company, there would be a stream of correspondence with them, and maybe ‘Pagla’ would claim himself to be innocent.
As she reached Marylebone Bridge, the traffic was completely jammed like solid cement. As soon as the lights turned green, people would start to change gear so that they could move forward when the traffic moved, but not even one car was able to get away. It’s no use. She won’t now reach the hospital. God knows how much her cancer will spread before she can get another appointment, or she may even be mourned by then. According to her friends the reason for not getting appointments for months is that they wait for the patients to die so that the GPs save money. Here the hospitals give priority to children and young people. Anyway, why should they prolong the sufferance of the old people?
Panna thought that she now needed to turn left and take Abbey Road. Emerging in front of the Beatles’ studio she would be able to reach the hospital directly, but it was completely impossible to turn left from under Marylebone Bridge. Perhaps the whole problem with Edgware Road was because of the traffic on Marylebone Road.
The driver in front of Panna seemed to be lost in God knows what absorbing thoughts, because despite the lights turning green he did not move; by the time he had come to his senses the light was red again. The drivers behind Panna made their anger known by forcefully tooting their horns.
‘If this stupid idiot had been quick I’d have got out of this mess a long time ago.’ Panna had grown so impatient that she began to worry in case she would simply drive forward and give the car in front a shove. ‘You may not be in a hurry, mate, but others need to get there in time.’
The car behind Panna was a Volkswagen Polo with the number plate B14RLA (Birla). Its driver was about to lose his temper. As he sounded his horn twice, the white driver of the car in front of Panna climbed out of his Hyundai Ethos (number plate P6NIS) and approached her, throwing both his arms into the air in anger. When Panna saw his number plate she blushed in embarrassment. How could anyone accept such a number plate? He must really be a crazy person. She quickly shut her door and windows, put her mobile phone to her ear and started talking in pretence as if she was calling someone.
‘You stupid idiot, I was not the one who honked, it was the driver behind me,’ Panna wanted to say to him, but turning a deaf ear he continued to shout abuse. When he lifted his middle finger in the air to indicate ‘up your arse’, Panna felt her blood boil. Her brain had now reached the state one would expect the head of a sacrificial lamb to be in when burning in the fire. She was returning every abuse, ‘crazy son of a bitch, heel, stupid idiot, I’ll give you one so your teeth fall out, blasted monkey, go back to your tree!’
All sorts of obscene revilements directed at the ‘stupid idiot’ are now pouring out of Panna’s mouth in quick succession. Such indecent abuse is part and parcel of life in England. First of all there is the dusty atmosphere, and then there are all these people fighting the traffic morning and evening while working 14 to 16 hours a day just to earn enough to eat. So why should they not succumb to road rage?
In Panna’s view nobody cares about anyone these days, gone are the days when people exchanged potatoes with wheat. Everybody counts for the same in the super bazaar now; each to his own. Every week Panna sees plenty of accounts of road rage incidents on the television. Rather than taking her frustration out on the children it’s surely better that she also spits on the roads before returning home.
By now a few more people had left their cars in order to intervene; one does not often get the chance to experience such a spectacle. Even the shopkeepers had stepped outside their shops along the side of the road. It is mostly Arabs who live along Edgware Road. Seeing an Asian woman, they immediately took to support her.
Like a numb, rolled-up cat in the cold will revive and purr in the sunshine so Panna livened up. When the white man saw how many people were taking Panna’s side, he quickly went back to his car and sat in it. By the time he had strapped himself in and started the car, the lights had turned red again. This time Panna’s horn joined all the other ones honking.
Sounding the horn made Panna feel as good as if someone had scratched her back or dressed a wound she had. Venting her anger calmed her down. She now noticed the yellow box drawn on the road in front of the white driver, and according to traffic rules he was not allowed to drive forward until the road was clear. The poor white man was innocent. If he had stopped inside the yellow box he could have been fined, but people don’t really care about the rules, especially foreign people. Panna believes that this could be the reason why they and the English are clashing. Anyway, she was now worried about how she could tell Aditya and Ashima the whole matter of the ‘penis’ man. Nobody would believe her. Aditya can do a google search and find all the number plates one can buy. If ‘penis’ is not among them then surely that must mean that somebody has that number. Then Panna wondered why she should wrack her brains over this. Some things one just has to keep to oneself, maybe just to entertain her and her closest friends.
‘Oh no!’ In the middle of a roundabout one wheel of her car had plumped into a hole in the road and began to rattle. These holes are the excuses for lots of money being squeezed out of the council. She, too, is going to write to the council asking them to pay for the repair of her wheel damaged in the hole. The wheel somehow emerged from the hole, but Panna continued her grumbling, ‘If the government can’t look after the traffic in London, how will they be able to deal with the traffic for the Olympics? Wherever one goes the roads are dug up and no workmen in sight. To get into London one even has to pay £8, and rumours have it that mayor Ken Livingstone is about to raise this fee to £12.’
‘Sister, those contractors and the council are in collusion, having dug up the roads they have intentionally left them,’ Panna’s neighbour Chaman Lal said when washing his beloved Honda Civic. With great care he had had ‘Chaman’ written on his number plate (C-11MAN). A dot had been put between the two numbers ‘1’ after the ‘C’, so that it looked like ‘H’ from a distance.
‘God almighty, road tax, insurance, MOT, breakdown cover, congestion charge, residents’ permit and on top of that the daily fines, we pay them so much money, and for what? These broken roads?’ said Panna in a troubled voice.
‘Sister, you just tell me then where that money goes to?’
‘Who can tell, brother, they don’t even keep the signposts in order, they confuse people and only want to extort money from them.’
‘My son has registered his car in France so that he won’t have to pay the fines he is given here. You should also register your car abroad, you could save a lot of money.’
‘No, no, brother, if somebody found out, then who would deal with the courts?’
‘Come on, you’re just too scared, nothing would happen. The chairmen and presidents of the big companies filch millions of pounds quite openly, and nobody says anything. They’re the ones who should be dealt with, they hold open discussions, but there’s zero action’.
‘Brother, those people make deals with the politicians, don’t they? The government knows full well that what is going on is not all right, but they still hand out titles and ranks to them, ‘Melord’, ‘Sir this’, ‘Sir that’,’ agreed Panna keenly.
‘Well, sister, just take Wembley Stadium. Even after spending five times the money it remains unfinished.’
‘Our British people are a laughing stock all over the world!’
‘Exactly, these white people sweep the corruption and dishonesty in their own country under the carpet and keep themselves busy exposing the secrets of other countries.’
‘It’s white collar corruption.’
‘They are quite incapable of managing a smallish England but keep slandering a country as vast as ours.’
The two neighbours had only just begun to enjoy their gossip, when they heard Aditya and Ashima laugh inside the house. God knows why these children dislike hearing anybody criticised. After all, criticism should be seen as the basis for improvement.
Somehow the traffic unravelled and Panna turned left. She was trying to go into the right lane at the next traffic light, when a Lamborghini P8WR (Power) pulled up to her from behind. The digit ‘8’ had been written like an ‘O’. Did a car like a Lamborghini really need such a powerful number plate?
There were cars parked in the lane in front of Panna, so she was a little worried that ‘Power’ would overtake her. Panna had right of way, so why should she let him go first? Only because he is white and has a posh car? Then she wondered why he would want to screw her, but as soon as the lights turned green, she pushed down the accelerator and moved forward with a vroom. Indicating to his left, he stuck close to Panna’s boot and took to tail her, as if wanting to challenge her about daring not to let him pass. Panna thought that maybe she ought to have let the stupid idiot overtake, but how can it be right to let some boorish person break the rules just because one is scared of him?
It is obvious that he’ll be the son of some rich parents, who would have spent his entire life so far looking after his own interests and trampling on those beneath him. Maybe this Lamborghini is a present for his 25th birthday. Born into the upper classes, educated in private schools, grown-up together with the children of people of rank, connected with all sorts of important people, opening and closing businesses according to his fancy and today when he is flying high on his wild horses, how dare Panna with her second class Fiat tried to stand up to him! Panna, a middle-class middle-aged retired teacher, who married a middle-class civil servant and bore him two children; who believe that they were born out of their parents’ lust, a husband who had by now taken to living openly with his young neighbour and she had to provide his children with all those conveniences and comforts which she herself had never been able to experience; she, who lives in a 2-bedroom house, who now after retiring receives not only her pension but also a free travel pass and health care, whose children do not need her anymore, who works for a charity in order to make time pass and who is wondering what the relevance of life is?
These days Panna has become cautious but there was a time when she herself could act very foolishly or become unwittingly caught up in stupidities which seemed to prove her of murderous intent. This happened in those days when Panna had just passed her driving test. It was the first time she had mustered the courage to take the car on a motorway. She had heard that if one can master the Hangar Lane crossroads one could drive anywhere in the world. Why they call them crossroads was beyond Panna. Tens of roads pour out from these crossroads. In the days when they were not controlled by traffic lights there were many accidents every day. Unfortunately, these crossroads are close to Panna’s house, and wherever she might need to go she will have to negotiate them. Once she had to go to Slough to the birthday party of the son of one of her friends, Chandni, and the A40 emerges from these cross roads.
Panna spent the whole night thinking the manoeuvres through, but the next morning she felt like leaving it and not going at all. Why should she take on all this hassle? But Chandni had involved her too much. She had taken on the responsibility for the sweet dish, and she would not be able to take such a big pot plus two boxes of sweets without the car. She managed to reach the crossroads all right, but to join the A40 from there seemed very difficult. The fast moving cars did not make way for her. When people see the green ‘L’ plate at the back of the car they keep quiet and tolerate the new driver, but for how long would they remain calm? Panna had been driving a car for tens of years, but she had never taken the ‘L’ plate down, so people endured her mistakes because they believed her to be an inexperienced driver. Behind her a long line of cars had now formed. Taking her life into her hands she stuck her head fully out of the window looking for a gap in the traffic. The fast driving cars and trucks could easily have knocked her head off. God knows how her wedge-like Fiat escaped all those elephants.
She was too worried about the trip back to enjoy the party, and before she knew it her fear came true and it was time to drive home from Slough. And then it did not even happen at the Hangar Lane crossroads but as she joined the A40 leaving Slough. Coming from the right, her car collided with the car of another woman. Panna’s heart left her chest and stood on the street. Her car door had been bashed in somewhat. Thanks to God’s mercy nobody had been hurt. Panna accepted straight away that it had been her fault. The woman remained civilised and neither screamed nor shouted, as Panna had expected. The two of them calmly exchanged details of their cars and insurance companies and each went on her way.
The next morning, when Panna arrived at the garage to have her car repaired, the mechanic reviled her right there in front of her son, because she ought not under any circumstances have accepted that she had been at fault. It had given her son the much wished for opportunity to ridicule her. ‘When Mum drives, all that one can do is to hold on and pray for life.’ Panna considers herself a ‘safe driver’, and does not understand why the children make fun of her.
Fortunately, she does not have to use a motorway to travel between home and the office in the West End, but the slow moving town traffic can drive people crazy. At a high speed, a car emerged from the right. It was a Mercedes SLR with a very amusing number plate, 5IR. The digit ‘5’ had been written like an ‘S’ and at a glance the number could look as if it said ‘SIR’. Maybe this person worked for the government or he had been titled by the queen. She had heard that the eldest son of a Lord are is a Lord too, may be the sons of ‘Sirs’ are themselves sirs. So why should their cars lag behind? Perhaps he was an official in the Indian government, where bureaucracy is far more entrenched than in England. Panna had once had the opportunity to go to a festivity at India House, where everyone kept saying ‘yes sir’, no sir’. When she had spoken to an official in Hindi, he insisted on answering her questions in English and not forgetting plenty of ‘yes ma’m’, ‘no ma’m’ either.
“You stupid bitch” shouted someone in passing and drew Panna’s attention back to the road. She was driving along the motorway with the speed of an ox cart. What would people do other than shout abuse? The superior number of that superior car was ‘D-4NTE’. A nail had been hammered into the plate under the body of the ‘4’ and given it the shape of an ‘A’. Panna felt like applauding the imaginative powers of the driver. Only a man would be reckless enough to spend so much money on his number plate. A woman would deliberate ten times, thinking about better things she could spend with her money on instead. Mumbling to herself, Panna crossed into the right lane in order to throw a glance at the driver. As she had expected, it was a young man. God knows how many pounds he would have spent on that number plate. For her last birthday Panna had hoped that Aditya would buy her a number plate with ‘Panna’ on it. When she had not received the present she craved, she had felt very dejected. She had always fulfilled all the small dreams of her children. If she can’t look to them for her hopes and wishes now, then who else is there? Anyway, a new number plate would probably not look right on such an old car.
As Panna accelerated and drove past ‘Dante’, she relaxed a little. But then the young man, looking angry, shot past her again. Panna had only just got away with it. God knows how many times she has to curb herself in order to remain cautious from now on. Aditya has explained to her several times, “why hustle someone, Mum, if something happens, you will suffer for life.” The main reasons for accidents and road rage are only pride and arrogance. If only she could keep herself under control.
A major part of Edgware Road has now been closed to traffic for two weeks. To avoid delay while returning home, Panna decided to drive to the A40 via Bayswater Road to go through the centre of Harlesden, emerging on the other side. This way does add two miles to the journey but it’s fast.
Panna thought that it is an art in itself to sit in a crowded railway carriage and apply make-up in front of everybody, but this was the first time she had seen someone doing it in her car while waiting at a red light. The driver behind her sounded his horn fiercely to make the white young woman realise that the lights had changed to green. The princess was in the middle of applying her lipstick so she remained where she was. After all, she still needed to use her eyebrow pencil. ‘People just never have peace, the poor thing is hardly going to find time in the office.’ Panna has heard though that people do not only brush their teeth and take a bath after arriving in the office but also eat their breakfast there. They start receiving their salary from the minute they have registered themselves as present. If only things were like that in Panna’s office, but there they don’t even pay for overtime.
Just then a motorcyclist came to stop beside the white woman’s window and took to purposely staring at her. She stuck her head out of the window and railed at him, but the motorcyclist was wearing a helmet and did not understand anything. Mumbling, the young woman quit doing her make-up and took her mobile phone up to her ear.
In front of Panna was a car with one of those broad behinds reminiscent of African women. Instead of reading its make and number plate, Panna looked at the driver, a woman who was holding a colourful mobile to her ear and talking emphatically into it. Her fat and coarse shoulders were completely naked.
‘What’s your problem, bitch?’ shouted the black woman, spotting Panna looking at her.
‘I have no problem whatsoever, what’s yours?’ shouted Panna back in the same manner.
‘Why are you staring at me?’
‘Because I have never seen anything like you before’, said Panna with a grin and drove on quickly, leaving the annoyed woman behind. She was so taken in by the doe eye Turbo that she had lost interest in other drivers or their number plates
Panna was waiting to turn right from Bayswater Road when she saw a bright blue Volkswagen Golf ‘K4FIR’ (Kafir, meaning infidel) stopping in the lane on her right. Three African youths and a young woman sat in it, grinning meaninglessly as if they had no control over it. Perhaps they had all been drinking. Panna had to turn left here. Besides Brondsbury, she loves this place. The houses lining it on both sides look like ivory castles. She feels as if in a dream. She wonders if the people who live there do appreciate it, but they probably don’t even have time to think about it, they’ll be far too busy keeping track of their millions. Panna usually goes through Hyde Park in the morning, where people go for a run or to sit on benches with their hot tea or coffee and read newspapers. It should really be forbidden to drive through it.
Panna was in the correct lane, but as soon as she turned, ’Kafir’ switched from her right side to her left and emerged in front of her. The African passengers were laughing loudly and nastily, the odious sound reminding Panna of Shiva’s hideous followers; she sensed some unknown danger. She had turned in vain, and even though it would have taken a little longer to go via Edgware Road she would certainly have reached home safely.
From the A40 Panna had to go towards White City and then turn left towards Harlesden. There were plenty of exits before then where Kafir could have turned off, but they kept pursuing Panna doggedly. For them this ‘race’ was just a big joke. Avoiding a collision with the speeding Kafir, Panna kept changing lane so that she could take a different route at the first opportunity, but Kafir remained stuck to her rear like a magnet. Panna is always more afraid of Africans than of white people, although Aditya and Ashima are of the opinion that white people are more cruel than the other races, especially the members of the British National Party who are renowned for their racism. She glanced at the petrol indicator and her heart sank. The warning light was on. Angrily she thought of Aditya who always uses up the petrol when he takes the car. What now? Her ears began to ring. She thought that it would be safe to stay on the main road, among other cars. When she stopped at a red light after the Stubbs Road crossroads, she took out her mobile phone and dialled 999 to call the police.
“Which service please?” a voice asked.
“Police please”, she said.
“Yes, what seems to be the problem?”
“I am on the Stubbs Road near Harlesden, a Volkswagen Golf K4FIR has been following me for a long time.”
“Don’t worry, madam, we will find you in no time. Could you please give us your registration number, and what is the colour of your car?”
“Shit!” Before Panna could reply, the battery of her mobile phone went dead. Aditya had explained time and time again that she must always keep the battery charged, but she keeps forgetting.
In the meantime, the lights had turned green. Instead of continuing straight on, Panna quickly turned off into a small lane on her right. She looked in vain on both sides for its name sign and flared up in a rage. ‘Those stupid idiots haven’t even put up a name sign for the street. How would one find it in the A to Z? They rob us of all this money but the roads are broken and have neither proper lighting nor name signs.’
The ‘Kaffirs’ were standing in the left lane and had no opportunity to change their direction and follow Panna, because behind and beside them were other cars. They were forced to keep going straight on. Ahead was a T-junction, and Panna was guessing that they would perhaps turn let towards Harlesden. She thought that if she kept going along this road and then turned left somewhere, she should reach Harrow Road, but she was quite lost. She had no idea where she was. On top of that her tank was just about empty. There was noone around – not a soul in sight. If she were to fall into the hands of the ‘Kafirs’ in this street, then God help her. They would have all the peace and comfort in the world to prey on her. Her heart was in her mouth. Sweat stuck her hair to her head.
Just then she saw the main road ahead and a telephone box on the corner. She drove in to the side and stopped the car, then looked for coins in her purset. Then she remembered that it is free to dial 999. She worried about the police detaining her for wasting their time. In the meantime, a car had appeared in the distance and was coming nearer. So Panna positioned herself in the middle of the road. She knew that just waving her hand would not make anyone stop. These days one can’t stop anyone, those villains get someone to stop and then rob them.
‘Please, help me, some people are following me. Could you please call 999 and give them my details?’ Agitated, Panna approached the car window and implored the driver. The white driver stared at Panna from a face void of all emotion and all interest in Panna’s predicament.
‘My mobile is not working. I could give you money for the call. Please, please.’ Panna took a £10 note out of her purse and offered it to him but he only shrugged his shoulders and drove like one making his getaway.
Panna took off her black shawl, put it on the seat and also removed the bindi from her forehead. She had heard that African and white hooligans consider Asian women very easy prey, especially Indian women. And now even the leader of the BNP had been released. The members of his party strut about arrogantly, terrorising, tormenting and killing people at will. Well, what good will come from being afraid? Just look at the Muslim girls, how fearless they are. Since people have begun to object to the burqa, more and more of them go out wearing it.
Panna slipped into the phone box on the corner and was just about to dial 999 when she heard the laughter of the Kafirs, a laughter which she would remember all her life. At least they were on the other side of the main road. She ran back to her car and sat in it. ‘How can I be so stupid?’ She had left her key behind in the phone box. As she was about to dial the number, she had put the bunch of keys on the bracket.
‘Dear God! Help me!’ Panna would have to go back to the phone box. Every second counted. Cruising around, the Kafirs had by now reached this side of the road. There was no other road. Panna could now only turn left, thus baiting the Kaffirs. To turn right was prohibited. She could have gone into reverse and backed the car, but if she went back into this dark street the police would certainly not be able to find her, she needed to go into the main street. If only she had a navigation system, she could get from anywhere to anywhere and the police would find her easily. Only last week Ashima had said to Panna, ‘Mum, why don’t you buy a tom-tom? You don’t have to worry about finding your way then!’ But Panna can’t bear spending even small amounts of money. ‘After all, I am a true gujerati.’
Just as the kafir car turned into Panna’s road, she drove quickly into the main road. Before they had reversed, Panna had moved well ahead, but what with her old Fiat and their Volkswagen Golf it would take them less than a minute to catch her. The black girl whose black worm-like curls were covering her face was holding a thick, baton-like cane in her hands and brandishing it out of the back window.
Panna has several times in TV films seen hooligans and baddies assault people with batons. ‘Oh God! Is this how I’m going to die?’ She thought, terrified.
Just then a Rolls Royce overtook her. Its number was V61MPT (very important). Panna thought that this car must surely belong to someone important. If she could attract his attention she would be able to escape, but to play a prank with the owner of this car would also come expensive.
Panna flashed her headlights to indicate to the man in the next car that she was in trouble, but he did not react. The kafirs were now directly behind her. Panna no longer had any way out. The tank would be empty any moment. The police were nowhere in sight.
Panna had not expected the driver of the Rolls Royce to be another African. He stopped his car on the hard shoulder, climbed out and set to examine it. Flashing one’s headlights means that the other person needs to check his or her car, a door may be open or the brake lights may not be working. Before he would return into his car and disappear, Panna, full of fear, also stopped and disembarked. The Kafir car passed her very closely, and from it someone threw a spinning cane at Panna. The African man was standing nearby, and if he had not pulled Panna towards him and pushed her on the ground she could have been seriously hurt. The cane went straight onto Panna’s car and smashed a window.
‘Bloody idiots! Do you know them?’ ‘Very important’ asked Panna. She was terrified and could only shake her head in negative answer. ‘Very private’ put a hand on Panna’s shoulder, trying to comfort her.
‘Hey lady, are you all right?’ He asked. And then just as he was dialling the police on his mobile phone, they heard the police sirens approaching.
‘That’s quick, ain’t it?’ said ‘Very Important.’