The Hole By Amita Basu

Pothole. Without warning, bang mid-street.

Deftly, he maneuvered around it. They always gave me good drivers.

Down J. N. Boulevard, we had been coasting. His hands relaxed—his neck relaxed, but he was ready.

This one I’d had for, let’s see—about ten months. Yes, I remember: The first day this driver drove me was when I had my teeth taken out. My dentist had spotted a cavity in the last molar. A tiny hole he said had healed, but I’d had him take it out anyway. Take them all out. Good riddance: After two decades of smoking, my teeth had acquired a yellow patina, increasingly unconcealable. It had been a choice between my Treasurer Menthol Slims and the teeth.

My dentures, they claimed, would be stainproof.

I had the teeth out all at once. All twenty-eight, which they avoid, but there’s nothing money can’t buy. It had been this chap who’d picked me up afterwards.

I had emerged from the clinic, groggy behind my shades, the mouth cotton-stuffed. I had purchased for that weekend, to wear outdoors and in bed and bath until the swelling subsided, a D&G ecru charmeuse hijab. Groggy, on my 120-mm stiletto Louboutins, I strode out, the peril of stepping keeping me awake. Left right left right. My Marc Jacobs pencil skirt gripping the buttocks, the slit tickling the backs of the knees. I became aware of stares.

Man Sporting Swastika in Islamagunj Lynched by Mob! I read through the tinted glasses of a Volkswagen stuck in traffic. Read in a fat man’s Economic Times.

Down the road, a man in white, immaculate head-to-toe, staring up and down from her hijab to her bare legs, takes offence. Is she a bad Muslim or an infidel abusing for vanity the sacred cloth? Down the boulevard, she comes striding, neck relaxed, titanium heel-tips clicking. Before she notices the fanatic, she is thrown to the ground. Satin cheek crushed into pavement arousing instant, ugly purple bruise. The purple bruise that has been waiting under satin skin for thirty years to arise. For a moment, the ecstasy of release. Please oh please.

But no. But I was okay. There he was at my car, holding open my door, saluting as I strode up puffy-faced from my twenty-eight extractions. This driver, in the old one’s uniform but altered, I could see groggily. Perfectly. I slid in. Glancing back down the block, I saw no fanatic in white. Not around my dentist’s office. Not here. Never anywhere my life takes me. They say the world changed after 9/11. Not my world. To me, nothing will ever happen.

Pledging to End Two Wars, Pres. Obama Finds Himself Entangled in Three! So they said on my car radio as we cruised down J. N. Boulevard, clear and soft in the quiet. My driver got my windows re-beaded: top-of-the-line nano-adhesive sealant. Now, in there, tomb-quiet. That day, the mourners had placed on the grave a bouquet of lily-of-the-valley. My driver changed the channel. There’s More Violence in Darfur Now, Not Less: Fourteen Years After Conflict Erupted! Clear and softly they spoke, in the silence of my Lincoln Signature. CDC: Ebola Could Kill 1.4 million in West Africa by January! A lively scent, lily-of-the-valley, filled the tomb. This, from the pico-porous Valentino car-freshener sachet I snatched on impulse yesterday at aisle’s end. How clear and soft was this voice on the radio, arising into my tomb of silence. Who would imagine there was outside, a noisy, dirty whole world?

Down J.N. Boulevard we coasted, the asphalt baby skin-smooth. Smooth as the skin on the belly of a baby unbreathing. Baby freshly dead. My driver got my car’s shock absorption upgraded too: Now I’ve got in my little Rolls-Royce Sweptail quintuple state-of-the-art Bilstein shocks, patented last year for sixteen-wheeler freight trucks.

Newborn Unearthed Amid Khyber Pass Wreckage! Roads Closed for Remainder of Monsoon! This they didn’t say on the radio, but when I dreamed up the baby headline, I heard it in their voice. The voice of the news. The voice, so concerned. Apologetic. The voice that co-opts you into apology. As if other people’s bad luck has anything to do with you.

God save those to whom news happens. Thank god news never happens to you and me, for there is no god.

Without warning bang mid-street, the pothole.

My driver starts. The passenger is jerked forward. The body hurled at 80kph between the seats headfirst into the windshield. For a moment, the ecstasy of release. Please oh please. The car comes to rest nose-first, body airborne. The windshield shatters into a thousand-rayed cobweb, each glass edge star-bright. Starlight. In a web of starlight, under the morning sun, the body that’s been pitched forward is held suspended. For an instant inside the car, while my driver head in hand battles to get out. He shuts the door behind him—bang—and then, with the sound of music, the web of starlight collapses, spilling out the body. The body trails over the hood, still shiny the contents of the skull, and comes to rest on the asphalt.

But no. But, “Sorry ma’am,” said my driver, already back in control of my car. Back in control, before the nails of the clutching fingers had sunk into the back of the empty passenger seat of my car, leather-shrouded. My driver had pulled short at the last instant and now maneuvered around the pothole. This could’ve been my tomb. Carbon-steel chassis, leather shroud to hand (handmade Prada chamois leather), and an incinerator too. Instant cremation. Next time?

A black pothole. Glancing at it as we passed, I saw its sides were the same black as the baby-smooth road. A pothole meter-deep, but exposing underneath the asphalt no other road-layers. No base course, no embankment. Only asphalt. Only a surface, meter-deep. For all you know, a surface mile-deep.

Ebola: Five ways the CDC got it wrong! Sudan Pres. Hails Role of Qatar in Darfur Peace! they continued.

“I wonder where that came from?” said my driver, coasting again down the Boulevard. “Wasn’t there yesterday.” His English was excellent and his manners were subtle. He glanced up at me for a half-second in the rearview mirror. I saw what he wanted.

“You’re an excellent driver.” Whoever he was, driving me that year. Didn’t know their names. Why bother. They always gave me good drivers.

“Wasn’t there yesterday,” he repeated, scrutinizing the road ahead.

And then I saw: He was curious. He had done his job and, after all, nothing had happened. Nothing ever happens, and still he was curious about the world and sudden potholes. Plebeians.

New Militia Attacks on Villages in Darfur Emblematic of Continuing Genocide: The World’s Forgetting and Ignoring Now Complete!

“Someone must’ve dug the hole on purpose!” he concluded. No longer looking for reassurance.

God bless the plebeians. Always looking for intent.

I produced my compact and reapplied my lipstick. Estée Lauder Pure Color Envy. That always shut him up. God knows who had raised him: A woman applying makeup in public caused this one acute embarrassment.

He dropped me outside the Tata compound where I’d been consulting all week. As I strode across the paved garden, through the blood-deep shade of weeping willows, through the gold-sparkling music of the fountains, I saw him cruise around the corner to penetrate the cervix of the underground parking. The path was clear. Without slowing down, he thrusted violently. Without warning, throwing the system into shock. Underground, the recipient’s scream of ecstasy, muffled.