Poet, Author, Editor, Creative Writing Consultant

Monday, February 23, 2009

Indigenous Intelligence

The other day, on a ride to Panchsheel Park [which is in South Delhi and considered a posher place than others] in an auto, the auto driver said to me, “Madam, I only drive in South Delhi.” He was being posh.
I said, “Oo…kay,” and he said, “Thank you, Welcome,” both words together to me in English.He was being more posh.

Yes, driving in South Delhi and only in South Delhi and speaking English are claims to poshness/snootiness. It is another matter that I had hired his auto from East Delhi. He must have strayed there somehow(?).

Having established his credentials with me,he set forth.There was no stopping him. He told me that he did not know how to read and write, was an “agoontha chaap” (one who uses a thumbprint instead of signature) but considered himself as good as anyone else. He was in his late fifties perhaps, and said he used to be a chauffeur earlier. He worked for the American Embassy.

Then he began to drop names of the people he had worked for, and what kind of life they lived— their ways and their world. He was the fund of funds as far as these tales went. I listened with a bemused smile.

He continued. Before being a driver, he had worked in a factory, then an export house and then a…The list was endless. However, the point was that he claimed that he could teach anyone anything, because though he was not literate, he was more intelligent than most. I would go along with this claim, for I have seen it in people. So what if one has not had a formal education, many have a great degree of native intelligence that far surpasses that of those who have been ‘educated’.

I have an immediate example to prove this. As a part of an experiment for some work they were doing, my father- in- law and husband went to shops all over town with a two types of jaali and a prototype of what they wanted made, but there was no one willing/or who understood what was required. Eventually, our servant, who is a landed farmer in his village in Bihar, understood and constructed what was required, at home. Well, he can read and write but its limited to basics, yet he can understand and remember and do many things which you and I will fail at. He has intelligence far worthy of appreciation.

The auto rickshaw man, content that he had seen the high life through borrowed space, as a driver on the sides, and proud to have been a part of high society, took a long drag on his bidi. He said to me, “Anyone wants to know how to get a visa made (yes), or how to set up an export house (sure thing!), or undertake any kind of entrepreneurship (believe it!), he could tell them how do it.

There was no waver in his voice, the conviction was heartening.


Friday, February 13, 2009

Taxi Driver 1

The flight lands at 8 pm. Something about the time, but the queue is long, oh so long, so I finally get my prepaid taxi cab number at 9.30 pm. It s 6, and I have to run with my baggage to a demarcated area on the road with 6 on it! I stand there, and all around me people are running into taxis and doors are slamming and the taxis are moving on and no one is heeding me waving the ticket with 6 in the air and shouting it out now, running, I am number 6, I am number 6, but the 9s and 12s or whatever are getting their rides. I decide to turn from harried customer to belligerent taxpayer. I stride up to the guy who is in charge of all this and wave my ticket in his face, and he says, madam, I will arrange the taxi for you immediately, and a Maruti van cruises up, he opens its door deftly, lifts up my baggage in a split second into it and I lift myself up behind it, the door slamming shut and I am on my way. Then and only then do I see what is all around me, my mind has been so concentrated on getting that taxi for getting home.

Well, the taxi guy is a young man, with a black cap on, [is there something about my being that all my vahan (chariot) drivers wear a black cap, whether they be young or old?]. He asks me my name and address as a matter of protocol, to shout it out to the guy at the checking point, and then I ask him his number to tell my people at home, so that they know I am travelling in a particular vehicle. He shouts out the taxi no., and then his name too, he says—tell them my name too…P…K…M…! Just to be truly safe, he says. I am a bit taken aback by this and mouth his name into my cell phone.

I don’t know how the conversation begins. But it does. And its about safety and cities. P (initial of name of taxi driver, and henceforth denoting him) tells me he used to be working in Karnataka, and there were forests and it was safe, despite that. I tell him about Mumbai, the city I am returning from, and tell him about how its so wonderful that a woman can be out at night and the lights are on in the streets and other women are out and about as well for meetings and outings. Mumbai spells a kind of security for me that I have never experienced in Delhi. He says, yes, Delhi is pretty unsafe, and not too friendly a city as well. He says even cab drivers in Delhi get hauled up by aggressive customers, and he recounts experiences that he has had. He is also unhappy over the fact that customers don’t offer a welcome drink like tea to cab drivers that wait outside their homes in the cold for long periods of time. Such lack of hospitality only to be found among the well-heeled in Delhi, P says. Uh-huh. The other side of the coin.

He then says that taxis can be unsafe too. Even DL1T ones, like his taxi is. A small shiver runs up my spine, but I put it down to the cold night air. He asks me if I remember the gruesome murder of a young NRI a few months ago. I say no. He does not let it go. He says there were three very young taxi drivers of a low caste (he emphasized that, as if that made a difference!) who were driving this NRI around and about Delhi.

“Why three taxi drivers?” I ask, but he shrugs that off with a “You know how it is.” Do I? I am trying to comprehend this, but his voice rises now. “They killed him and threw his body in the forest near Gurgaon, took his cell phone, put in a new SIM, and went off to Kullu Manali.” He says, I may not know something, but he is enlightening me about this. “In the new expensive cell phones, putting a new SIM card will spell doom for the guy who puts it in, since that is how the police traced them.”

I don’t know about this, but that is what P says with absolute certainty. He also knows that with the dead man’s ATM card, those people took out a lot of money, and he says, “You know, you can withdraw only upto Rs. 24,000/- at a time from an ATM, so they had to do this repeatedly to get more money out.”

Very aware, this taxi driver of mine.

He then shouts, “These people should be hanged,” (very vehemently), “I will be happy if they are hanged. You know, one of these guys, poor guy, was a good guy (seems to have known him personally?), but he got into the bad company of the other two, and this was his death sentence.” How apt. He says, “The parents of the convicted drives are moving heaven and earth to save them. Don’t know what bad mahurat (time) it was that these boys were conceived, that the parents have to suffer like this!”

So I have a commentary into justice and karma and sin and murder and caste and city culture.
And I have dread that is seeping into my bones, as to “Why is he telling me all this?” I have become very alert, watching my surroundings and his driving. Things seem to be all right. But you never know. Another shiver runs up my spine, but I have no choice but to stay put. I try to change the topic, but he comes back to it, like a dog chasing a runaway tail.

At a red light, a motorcycle driver, young and hooded against the cold, signals to P for a light with his hands, and P deftly throws him one. The lights change and we move on.

Desperate to change the topic, I ask P how the motorcycle guy knew he had a light. “Of course, he knows,” say P. “All taxi drivers carry a matchbox for their customers who come out of airports dying for a smoke— they have been in the non-smoking zone for so long,” he gives a low laugh. “And then, most taxi drivers smoke a bidi.” End of explanation, but now I am watching the road, for I can see the motor cycle man driving close to the taxi and I am wondering, “Are they together? Are they upto something?” but he comes close to the taxi and throws the match box right back, salutes, and whizzes off, much to my relief. P promptly puts the matchbox back and looks back at me to see how I am faring. I pretend to jab a message into my cell, ignoring his stare.

I tell myself, “Nothing will happen to me, God is with me,” and begin chanting “Om, Om,” under my breath, stopping only when we turn into my apartment gates and the familiar smile of the guard greets me. Whew. Home in one piece. Thank you, God. Yes, everything helps, and the chanting did calm my frayed nerves and flying thoughts.

The driver gets off, I get off, he hauls my luggage down, I give him his slip, and then look at him. He is very tall and thin. I wonder if something sinister lurked there behind his talk, so I look at his eyes.

They look a bit crazed, but it may only be my heightened imagination playing tricks. His tale had spooked me.

I am thankful that the ride is over. Maybe he spoke thus to exorcise his own ghosts, or to tell me that I was safe with him for he wished that such people were hanged to pay for their sins and also teach a lesson to other taxi drivers, but I don’t think that message came across that clearly! All I know is that I called up my family and friends while I travelled in this taxi to keep them posted that I was alive. And now I survive to tell the tale.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Rickshaw man

He is thin, a parallel line, and I wonder what kind of body he packs in such a degree of slimness. The t shirt clings to him, a deep orange sleeveless! This is teamed with black cotton pants and a black cap [to ward off the sun, so he tells me later]. Yes, this is the cycle rickshaw guy whom I have flagged at noon to go about my work. He rushes through the crowd and the traffic and then , when I arrive at my destination, since he does not have change for Rs. 100/-, he says its his bohni , (first business of the morning), and he could wait if I was to return and I said it would take 15-20 minutes and he said he could wait upto half-hour, and so I said fine and hurried off.

Harried by the end of the hour, but finished with the business at hand, I hurried out to spot him in the afternoon sun, the bright orange of his t shirt an easily recognizable sizzler/beacon. In the strong sun a combination of orange and black! And yet he did not appear to be uncomfortable at all.

He said he refused 20 sawaris (clients), and expected me to believe that, but I shrugged it off, and said, let’s go! And then on the way back, an auto grazed the mudcap of his left cycle wheel, and then I notice it— that it is a strange peach colour!

The traffic is a snail so we strike up a conversation.

I tell him that once the Nano is here, a car for a lakh of rupees, the motorcycles etc. will disappear and we will have traffic that will not move at all. We will return to the bullock cart stage only this time the carts will be motorized and the bullocks will be men. He laughs and says yes, and the first things to go will by cycle rickshaws. I tell him they have already been banned from Chandni Chowk, the old delhi area, and he then says, the advantage of rickshaws is that they can go in any gali, any narrow alley. Don’t we know that, I say.

He smiles and I see that his teeth are stained with orange— tobacco stains. But the smile is sweet and I smile back. Encouraged by my smile, perhaps [!], he gets off the cycle and gives a piece of his mind to the auto driver who had earlier grazed his cycle and had now accidentally come up beside his cycle once again. He tells him to come ahead and have a talk.

I look at the dented mud cap…I point it out to him.

He says, it is a small thing, can be okayed, no problem. Then he asks me, “Should I give him a piece of my mind up ahead. There is a policeman there. I can complain to him. This guy will have a tough time then.

Instantly, I say, “No, no, leave it.” more to save my skin, than anything else, from burning some more in the midday sun. All around its traffic and heat and crowd and impatience and this guy wants to stop and have an altercation for half fun and half vindication of his rights.

So he smiles and deigns to let this opportunity for asserting his self go. We trudge on till the traffic clears as we turn left. On the way I spot once again the trees laden with polythene and old clothes on the side of the bridge that we are crossing. For once I give in to my need to photograph these and tell this guy to stop as I click pictures. He does not understand why in the beginning, thinking I am just clicking trees and then when I point it out to him then he starts pointing them out to me himself, all over the place, like an excited child. He actually wants me to get down from the richkshaw and click away but I tell him its okay, I can do it from my seat.

We are on our way after ten minutes of clicking and then he says, oh so you will put this in a newspaper, sudden comprehension dawning on him. “The land is not dirty, we people are making it so,” he says wisely.

On the way, he also haggles with me about his payment and though I pretend to argue, I have already decided o pay him the extra ten rupees for waiting for me to return from my work. The mudguard of his left wheel has begun to make an infernal noise and I mention it to him. This I do when I have reached home and am paying him. He removes the mudguard with a flourish, and twists it to attach it like a tight necklace to the rod at the back of his rickshaw!

Problem solved for the moment. He grins, and I say thank you and we part our ways.