Delhi, India, 22nd December 2009. 6:00 PM on a chilly evening. I was scheduled to meet with some friends for dinner at a restaurant around 50 kilometres away from my house. I called a cab company and booked a pick-up at 7:00 PM. There was no Ola or Uber in those days; indeed even smart phones and apps were unheard of back then. You either called a cab company or you went out on the street and flagged down an empty cab.
I got a text message on my mobile phone with the driver's name Manoj Singh, and the car registration number. Then exactly at 7 PM, I got a call from the driver. "Wow that's punctual" I thought and went downstairs to find the cab waiting for me. The driver Manoj Singh was a man in his late fifties, with grey hair and simple but clean clothes.
After I checked his ID and got in, he told me that the ride might take a bit longer than usual, maybe around an hour and a half, due to the foggy weather. That was fine with me as I was scheduled to meet my friends only at 9:00 PM.
15 minutes into the journey, I noticed that Manoj had not switched on the meter.
"Uncle, you have not switched on the meter yet. How are you going to charge me?", I asked him.
"Never mind, Sir. It is a free trip for you.", Manoj responded with a smile.
"What?", I retorted with a puzzled look.
"Today is my last day on the job. I am retiring tomorrow and will then go on a pilgrimage to all the holy places in India. This is my last assignment and you are my last passenger. I cannot take money from you.", Manoj clarified.
"No Uncle, that is not acceptable to me. We met only 15 minutes ago; so I cannot take favours from you for no reason. You are providing me with a service, so I will pay you for the same," I shot back.
"Beta, you called me Uncle and it is me who is asking for a favour from you. I would feel good if my last assignment was not for money. After all, 200 rupees won't make a difference to either you or me. Please don't deny me the chance to do some good.", Manoj said.
I simply could not argue any further. I leaned back in my seat and reflected on the fact that the simple man next to me had a bigger heart than most well-heeled people. Then I started chatting with Manoj. He was quite gregarious and told me that he has been driving a cab for 35 years. "Never once have I missed a pick-up or not been on time.", Manoj claimed proudly.
I started nodding my head in appreciation, when I noticed that the watch around his wrist - an old, worn-out timepiece - was not working. In fact, the hands were stuck at 6:45 PM. Bit ironical for such a punctual person to be wearing a non-functioning timepiece.
Manoj followed my gaze and understood the slight skepticism that had crept over my features. He covered the watch with his shirt sleeve and said with a sheepish smile, "I know my watch doesn't work; but it was a gift from my father, so I always wear it as a lucky charm. Besides, we don't need a watch to be on time."
I had to agree that indeed, Manoj did not need a watch to be on time, at least in my case. We continued to talk as he drove on and I learnt that Manoj was a widower, his son was an engineer and had just got married, his daughter-in-law was expecting and so on. Finally we reached my destination, again on time. 90 minutes spent with a good man.
I stepped out of the cab and said to Manoj, "It is very rare to meet a good person like you. I know you won't take money from me; but at least you have to accept something from me as a memory of this ride. Please take this watch as a gift from your last passenger."
I slid my watch off my wrist and offered it to Manoj. After some initial hesitation, he accepted my little gift. I thanked him again and said goodbye. Manoj drove off and I walked in to the restaurant to meet my friends.
About 5 minutes later, my phone rang and I picked it up. "Sir, I am calling from the cab company. We are very sorry that your scheduled pick-up has not happened yet. We are arranging for another cab to pick you up immediately," a lady said apologetically from the other side.
I was confused and blurted out, "What do you mean? The cab had come to pick me up on time and dropped me at my destination as well."
The lady paused for a few seconds and finally asked, "Who picked you up, Sir?"
"Manoj Singh, the driver who was supposed to pick me up. I even checked his ID and the car registration number before boarding," I said.
"Sir, there must be some misunderstanding. Somebody else may have picked you up. Manoj Singh died in a road accident at around 6:45 PM today. He was on his way to pick you up when a truck collided with his car and he succumbed to his injuries instantly. We have just been informed about his death," the lady said.
I froze and the phone slipped out of my hand. With a dull throbbing in my head, I understood why Manoj Singh didn't take money from me - he didn't need it where he was going. I also realized that his watch was not working as it had stopped at the time of impact. Yet he did his duty one last time and managed to arrive on time - even at his last assignment - punctual to the minute, as he claimed.
Standing there in the air-conditioned lobby of the restaurant, I started sweating. Suddenly remembering something I looked at my wrist. My watch was still there. Manoj Singh didn't need my watch either!