There's Something Strange About the Ezras
Nikhilesh Burman’s bike was running at 100 km per hour, revving through the tricky turns of the mountain road at the twitch of his hands. There was wind in his hair, now way overgrown from the buzz-cut of his prison days, and Don McLean's 'American Pie' blaring through his brand new, imported Walkman. He had shaved off most of his beard for his first day at work, leaving only a thin line of stubble. On his back, at his new employer's insistence, he had a clean white shirt.
In the next ten minutes, Nikhilesh would arrive at the Ezra Mansion for his first day as a chauffeur. And from what he had deduced, he wasn't looking forward to good things.
By the time he swiveled into the town square, the small hilly town of Nibirganj was already up and about; FM radios blasting the morning bulletin, vendors pushing carts of fresh vegetables into town, day's first tea being jostled between cups and kettles at the corner stall. October’s chill hadn’t quite settled in yet, but the warmth of summer was gone. So every now and then, you’d catch a glimpse of a stray monkey cap or a light sweater in the crowd.
“You are the new driver boy, aren't you?”
Nikhilesh had just pulled over at the gates of a sprawling stone mansion, when a burly man in a security guard's uniform yelled at him.
“Uh, yes,” he replied, dismounting from his bike. "My name's Nikhilesh. Mr Ezra asked me to—"
“Yes, yes, hurry along. Sir is waiting. Park your bike outside!” the burly security guard barked again, snapping his fingers at Nikhilesh.
The front lawn between the gates and the mansion must have been about the size of a small football court, completed with closely trimmed grass, colossal marble fountains and workers. At least a dozen of them. Mowing the lawn, tending to the garden, walking the...are those dogs or wolves?
"Hurry up, in you go!" the security guard snapped his fingers again, holding open the front door. His voice was now a hushed whisper. Nikhilesh obediently walked in and immediately after his feet were over the threshold, the oak wood double doors closed behind him. He heaved a sigh, only to realise that it kind of...echoed.
He was standing in a circular room big in enough to fit a hundred people, with a dome-shaped ceiling that was at least fifty to sixty feet high. From its highest point hung a chandelier that, if collapses, could crush a small elephant, no sweat. The beige walls were choking on gilded oil paintings, elusive statues and antique lamps that were lit at seven in the morning. But the light, as flickering and dim, was required to make sense of the house. Because there wasn't a sliver of daylight slipping in from any corner of the room.
Before Nikhilesh's mind could wander off in the misguided direction of Count Dracula, the sound of approaching footsteps pulled him back. Quick, short footsteps of boots meeting marble.
“Ah, Mr Burman! Utterly sorry about keeping you waiting.”
Mr Raymond Ezra walked in through the dark hallway across the front door and approached Nikhilesh with an outstretched hand and a smile that didn't quite meet his eye. Nikhilesh took his hand, not quite expecting the crushing grip.
"Please sit down," Mr Ezra motioned him towards the sofa set in the centre of the room. Seated across from each other right now in this dimly-lit unfamiliar room were two men around the same age — mid twenties or so — but that's just about where their similarities ended. Mr Ezra, dressed in a tailored three-piece suit that wafted expensive perfume, had what some may describe as 'an air' about him. Not a single hair was out of place on his head. His moustache trimmed to picture perfect length. Leaning back in his sofa, he swung a number on the rotary phone sitting on the corner table. Nilkhilesh, his new employee, sat at the edge of his seat and absent-mindedly tucked the sleeves of his crumpled white shirt around his elbows. He had no 'air', but anxiety around him.
"Anthony? Send two coffees over to the east-wing lounge. And ask Mrs Ezra to come downstairs. She must be in the morning room," Mr Ezra commanded into the phone. Then, setting the receiver down with a 'cling'. he Ezra turned to Nikhilesh; his joyless smile back on.
“So, Mr Burman, I believe my manager has explained to you what the job entails.”
“Yes, sir," Nikhil replied. "I'll be driving Mrs Ezra's to—"
"Wait a minute," Mr Ezra interrupted. "You drink coffee, right? I apologize, I called for it without asking."
"Coffee's fine, sir, thank you," said Nikhilesh, clearing his throat. "Um, so, I was told Mrs Ezra college starts at eight-thirty." Nikhilesh said looking down at his watch. It was seven-forty-five.
“Ah, yes. She should be here—!"
Mr Ezra stopped. The sound of her anklets arrived before she did. Mrs Ezra, unlike her husband’s quick struts, took slow, purposeful steps into the room. Also in contrast to her husband's polished look was her crushed cotton saree and weaved sachel. She stopped halfway into the room, staring stoically at the two men. Measuring.
“Mr Burman, this is my wife,” Mr Ezra stood up just as Nikhilesh did. “Darling, this is Mr Burman. He will be your new personal chauffeur, just like you asked.”
“Hello, ma’am,” Nikhilesh said, forcing a smile. Mrs Ezra said acknowledged with slight nod.
All the stories that he had heard about her were crossing his mind now. She was stunning, yes, they were right about that. And haughty, that too. The prodigal wife who returned...after falling off the face of the earth for three straight months.
“Well, you better get going, love,” said Mr Ezra, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ears. "Hmm," is all she said before heading for the door without casting a second glance at either of the two men. The moment she stepped out the door, Mr Ezra turned to Nikhilesh.
“To college and back. No detours, please, Mr Burman,” he said. His voice only audible to Nikhilesh.
“Of course, sir,” Nikhilesh said, then turned to leave again.
“Oh, and Mr Burman?” Nikhil stopped in tracks and turned aaround.
“Get a shave tomorrow, will you? Goes better with your uniform.” Mr Ezra smiled again, picking up the newspaper on the coffee table.
Nikhil took a deep breath. “Of course, sir,” he repeated with yet another forced smile.
Mrs Ezra was already in the backseat of a black Corvette in the garage by the time Nikhilesh got changed into his chauffeur's uniform of a black suit and tie. Buttoning up his suit, Nikhil quickly slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine and the air conditioner at once.
“Let it be.”
Nikhilesh peered into the rear view mirror, meeting Mrs Ezra’s gaze. “I’m sorry?” he said.
“Let the AC be,” Mrs Ezra repeated. “I like to have the windows rolled down.”
"Okay,” he shut the AC off as he steered the car out of the garage and through the main gate. The city college was a good 45 minute drive away, on the other side of Nibirganj. Soon, the car slipped away from the town’s early morning din and into deserted greenery of the hills.
As he drove down the narrow mountain road between the woods and a plunging cliff, Nikhilesh quietly plugged in his Walkman in one ear, stowed safely in his suit's inside pocket. He had worked as a driver before and in his experience, rich people didn't like to chat with the working staff. Immersed in his mix-tape, he had almost forgotten about the other occupant in the car till the sound of a spark caught his attention. In the rear view mirror, he could see Mrs Ezra holding a cheap plastic lighter to the cigarette between her lips. She puffed out a cloud of smoke through her mouth, filling the car with a stench of nicotine.
“Could you put this on, please?” Mrs Ezra’s cigarette-free hand reached over the seat, holding an open cassette case.
“Sure,” he took the cassette out and popped it into the music player. A few seconds after he hit 'play', the mellow voice of a man reciting in Urdu filled the car, followed closely by Jagjit Singh’s melancholic voice..
Nikhilesh pulled off his earphone. These were going to be his days now, he thought to himself. Mr Ezra's snide remarks, Mrs Ezra's cigarette smoke and Gulzar’s sad songs. For the first time in a long time, he regretted dropping out of college.
At some point through the song, it started to rain. Nikhilesh winded up the window next to him, stealing a peek at the rear view mirror again. Mrs Ezra was leaning sideways against her open window, eyes closed, the cigarette between her fingers out. Unfazed by the rain. Loose strands of her dark brown hair were billowing in the breeze. Nikhilesh turned back to the road and chuckled to himself. Taant sarees, cigarettes and Urdu poetry... Mrs Ezra seemed caught between time and trends.
The sky crackled into a thunder as he turned a corner and drove deeper into the wilderness. The thicket of the forest canopies made the already-dreary cloudy day worse. Headlights may be a stretch, Nikhilesh considered, but he slowed down the car. Skidding off the mountain with Mr Ezra’s precious wife, especially in his Corvette, was the last thing Nikhilesh needed.
“Stop the car.”
Nikhil looked up at the rear view mirror again. Mrs Ezra was sitting upright, her pitch black eyes wide open and alert.
“Please stop the car, Mr Burman,” she said again. Her voice was soft but stern.
“It’s okay, ma'am. I’m driving very slow, nothing will happen—”
“STOP THE CAR!” she screamed, jumping forward and grabbing Nikhilesh by his shoulder. Before he could react, the car automatically swivelled sideways and screeched backwards into a jerking halt. And as it did, a massive pine branch, big enough to smash a car, fell from the sky on the exact same spot where the Corvette had been a second ago.
Rain splattered on the hood of the now-stalled, smoking car. A low thunder rumbled somewhere nearby. Slowly, Nikhilesh felt Mrs Ezra’s hand withdraw from his shoulder, her nail marks still stinging.
"I'm—I'm so sorry, Mrs Ezra. Are you okay?" said Nikhilesh after a long pause. " Should I call an ambulance or something?"
Breathing unsteadily, he turned around. Mrs Ezra was still sitting upright, eyes looking out the window. But for someone who had just missed a fatal accident by the width of a hair, she seemed...unusually calm.
"I'm fine, Mr Burman, thank you," saying, she slowly relaxed back in the seat and took a deep breath. "Looks like I'm going to miss my first lecture."
Nikhilesh turned back around. His heart was thumping against his rib cage, like a hammer on taut cloth. His hands, now resting on the steering wheel, were still shaking.
Nikhilesh cleared his throat before responding. "Yes, Mrs Ezra?"
"Are you okay?"
He smiled, genuinely for the first time today, "Yeah, I'm okay." Saying, he turned the ignition and started backing the car.
"How did you know the branch was going to fall?" Nikhilesh blurted out before he could stop himself.
Mrs Ezra was looking out the window. She turned to Nikhilesh and furrowed her brow slightly. "I never said I did" she asked.
"Then why did you ask me to stop the car?" he persisted.
Mrs Ezra silently stared at Nikhilesh for a while. "Next time, just listen to me straightaway."
For a very long time after, neither of the two spoke of this incident to a third soul. It was the first of their many secrets.