Driving with Mr. Elf: Sunil Sharma

Sunil Sharma

“You OK, Miss?”

Miss held back tears. Nodded a voiceless yes.

Watching the CN Tower from the passenger seat, she tried to blink but a drop escaped the kohl-lined eyes, wiped carefully by a dainty finger.

The 553.33m- Tower dominated the jagged skyline. Going up straight into a blue sky---a concrete statement of soaring hope and confidence.

The Ripley’s Aquarium Museum, Rogers Centre and Toronto Railway Museum---full of the weekend crowd.

A cluster of iconic landmarks defining Toronto.

“Water?” he asked. “I carry a fresh bottle for the fare.”

She mumbled a soft “No, thanks. I am fine.”

Few seconds later, he said, baritone echoing within the enclosed space, “You remind me of my little sister, back in my country…”, voice trailing, as the lights changed.

“Is it? Your country?”

“Immigrants have no fixed country.”

She smiled: “Agreed. We keep on rolling.”
“Well, technically, Myanmar.”

“Oh! In news, of late!”

He manoeuvred the cab into the Gardiner Expressway.

A beautiful September afternoon---mild, with a hint of cold in the air rising off from Lake Ontario, visible in rushed patches. Strollers, bikers, swimmers, walkers---usual suspects soaking in the sun; enjoying the feel of the light breeze---complete the happy picture.

“You?”

“India.”

“We are neighbours.” He remarked, slowing down.

“Yes. Your country is still under the Junta?”
“Power games, everywhere. Sometimes in the open or sometimes, hidden. Forms of control change. Poor citizens have to pay the price.” He replied.

“What is your sister?”
“A PG student…trying immigration.”
“The young are coming in waves.”

“Trying to leave their hell, imagined or real, the young.”

“Philosophical!” Miss said. Checked the name: Thet. “Your voice is measured and tone, calming. Sounds like a voice artist.”

“Name, justified. The calm one. Not an artist but a music buff. See a lot of the Bollywood films.”

She offered personal bits: “Mala. Came on the student visa in 2018. Trying to get in.”

Thet said: “You began crying. Got concerned. Sorry!”

“No problem!” She answered. “A sudden call from the HR. Brutal! Upset me!”

“Hmm.” Changing lanes, the car headed towards the suburbs. “The HR are the new monsters! Without ethics!”

“They terminated me! An unexpected blow…” Mala replied, feeling bruised.

Thet kept eyes peeled on the road but his tone remained gentle, “I understand. Corporate world! Predatory!”

Mala sighed. “Nasty! Imagine being fired on the phone? No reason assigned. No apologies. None! Heartless bunch! Unaccountable.”

The condos and plazas flew by.

“They have no decency left!” she exclaimed. “Dismissing a young worker on the phone! So casually!”
“I understand. Immigrants, young and female, are most vulnerable here. Nobody bothers. No way of quick redressal. You are on your own in a new nation. What do you do?” Thet asked, keeping her engaged.

“I work…worked rather…in a foam factory. Night shifts. Who will pay the bills now? Have no job or immediate fresh openings. Scary!”

Mala began crying softly.

Thet said, “Please! Do not cry! It will make me cry. Tears move me the most.”

She tried to control---but the dam broke.

Thet said, “Tears are natural…but won’t help. Treat me your brother.”

She smiled through hot tears, touched by the genuine concern of a stranger in an alien city.

She lived alone in a tiny basement.

How should she break this to family back in Delhi?

Where should she find the new job?

“I will tell you a story, my story. Interested?” He asked.
“Please.”

Any distraction would help.

Thet said, “I arrived in Canada in 2017. Joined a warehouse as it offered quicker opportunities. Hard work but managed. Then, one evening, there was some argument over a safety issue…with the supervisor. Next day, on the way to work, I get this call from the HR. And the bland order: Do not report for work. I was devastated…”

“I understand.”
“Thanks,” Thet said, each word measured. “It was a cold day. I sat down on the bench of the bus shelter. The bus came and left…I cried in the solitude of that shelter.”

She listened.

He said nothing for long.

The birds flew in the crisp air and the glass facade of the condo-apartments reflected a golden sun.

The highway was congested.

Mala sipped water, waiting.

“I sat there for long…blank, friendless, out of job, in a city of almost three million then. Alone. crushed. Then…”

“Then?” Mala asked.

“God spoke.”
“God?”
“Yes. Through a squirrel.”
“What?!” she laughed. “You are a good raconteur!”
“No fiction. Kind of revelation.”
“Go on, please!”

“I cried, unnoticed, for long in that urban desolation. Finally, I said, God , show me the light…”
“He responded? The Creator?”

“Yes. I saw a squirrel leap into an open bin and after foraging there, it moved across the road, a swift shadow. A motorist swerved to avoid crushing it. And…”
“And?”

“I got the divine message. Picked up the backpack, bottle and walked down to the nearest mall… talked to a few store assistants, desperate…”
“…for the openings?”
“Yes. Desperate and sad…like you are now.”
“What happened next?” She was hooked by the narrative.
“They were sympathetic. Low in cash, I was ready for any job. Sent to a toy store by a friendly one…I landed up the role---imagine---of an elf.”

“Elf?” Mala laughed.

Thet chuckled. “Yes. Elf. Believe it or not! They immediately hired me. Cash job. I donned the costume…and joined the fun. An elf entertaining the kids. My voice helped.”
“You as the resident Elf!”

Face impassive, Thet continued, “Initially, it was tough, pulling it off! A busy store. Playing elf for hours at a stretch, wearing a tight dress. Money was good. I had no other choice. Over the weekends, it became a sheer joy!”

“How?” Mala asked.

“Kids adored the elf. They beamed, giggled, squealed, followed and held my hands. Believe me, it was like, a joint family of kids, happy, screaming, chasing me across the isles. Profits increased, as the toy-store footfalls increased. Somebody made a YouTube video. It went viral. Fetching more clients…and oral publicity. Bosses were happy. I was giving happiness to the lonely kids. Came to enjoy my new role slowly, ignoring the hardships, long hours, thirst, role playing---all that.”
“Wow!”

“One day a memorable event happened. A three-year kid got separated and walked into the store. After a few minutes, began bawling. Female staff tried to soothe it. It cried more. I picked her up and tossed her into the air. She looked at the green tights, pointy hat and shoes, gripped my nose and stopped bawling…”
“Incredible!”
“Yes. And fell asleep in my arms.”
“Really?!”

“I did not stir…stood still for long, afraid to make her awake. Announcements over the public address system were repeated. Finally, the mother came to pick her up. When she saw the kid sleeping, that young woman sobbed and thanked me, calling me, Kind Elf! The kid clung to me. With difficulty, went to her mama…waved back…and…”
“…and?”

“…smiled…and I saw God smiling in those innocent little eyes. It was out- of-the-world experience! Trust me.”
“I see.”
“I had decided to quit but the pull of the kids was very strong…”
Mala nodded.
“To supplement, I began driving in the evenings. Once I dropped a sick child to the hospital and realized my Ikigai…”

He paused. “Some voice told me to go visit the wards as an elf. Patients loved the mysterious elf.”
Mala listened.

“I set up theelf.com that arranges free visits to schools and hospitals.”
“Inspiring!”

“The world needs cheering. Covid has worsened things.”
Mala volunteered.
“Welcome!”

He handed over a card. “Once my family got lost in the forest. My grandpa pressed on with the trail in the thick gloom. ‘Keep moving. You will be led to the right path,’ he prodded. and we found the way out of the jungle. Since then, it has been my mantra.”
Mala said: “My grandpa once told me to find connections in randomness.”

He smiled. “The oldies are right.”
“I remember him often. Wise words return as the lost guides.” Mala shared.

“The system sucks…everywhere. Pa told me: Ride the rough waves.”

She nodded.

The destination was nearing.

“Destiny!” Thet said.

“How?”
“I was on leave today. Urgent work. Returning from a dental appointment, get this call and here we are…”

Mala smiled. “Yes, destined to meet.”

“That squirrel I talked about…”
“Yes…”

“I still dream her…a lame one…displaced…scavenging in a bin! Almost getting killed by the wheels but saved---a miracle!”
“Wildlife gets killed on the roads. Lucky it survived.”

“Random events. Connections. Lost in the woods. Finding new paths. Ha!”

The cab stopped.

As she stepped down, Mala said, “An extraordinary day. Going for shopping. Getting fired on the phone. Then, running into you.”

“Life! Full of contradictions,” Thet remarked. “Parting advice: Find your Ikigai. Take care, sis! See you soon!”

Mala smiled: “I will cherish this drive with Mr. Elf, my great Sensei, full of surprising lessons.”


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