After what seemed like my nth meeting for the day, I hurried into an Italian café and grabbed a takeaway portion of freshly baked garlic bread and some steaming Oolong tea. Stepping out into the unusually crisp winter evening of Mumbai, I was glad to find a rickshaw without any frantic waving. It was a respite on what had been a long day at work. I couldn’t wait to get home but the previous passenger in the rickshaw held me up as she fumbled with her purse for money and spoke on the phone simultaneously. While I waited impatiently, I caught hold of scratches of her phone conversation – ‘jab main galat nahi hoon to main kyun bardasht karoon mummy’ (Mum, why should I tolerate this when I am not wrong?).
As she finally emerged out of the rick, I noticed her kohl smudged eyes and constant sniffing – clear indication that she was crying. I wanted to ask if she was okay but decided otherwise as it would seem too intrusive. It was probably just a heart-to-heart conversation with her mum about office politics. I put the sight behind me and started nibbling on the hot bread while the rickshaw weaved through the traffic.
When we stopped at a signal, the rickshaw waala spit out some paan (betel leaf preparation) and remarked, ‘Yehi hota hai jab maa-baap ki marzi ke khilaaf shaadi karo’ (This is what happens when one marries against the wishes of their parents). I ignored his comment, continuing with my nibbles, assuming he was talking on the hands-free like I find most auto and taxi waalas doing these days. Probably disappointed at not garnering a response, he turned his head to glance at me and repeated, ‘Maine kaha, yehi hota hai jab maa-baap ke marzi ki khilaaf shaadi karo’ (I said this is what happens when one marries against the wishes of their parents). He was definitely not referring to me. Then who was he talking about? Turned out the previous passenger had blurted her entire story over the phone through her journey from Andheri to Bandra and Mr. Eavesdropper had strained and hung to every word he could catch. He told me about how the lady’s husband had hit her the previous day which also happened to be their wedding anniversary. Before he could go on, I pretended to be very busy on the phone and cut him short.
I cut him short not just because it seemed inappropriate to listen to some stranger’s saga, but more so because at that moment I realized that some of my whiny/gossipy personal conversations while plying through the city must have become hot shot topics of conversation for many a driver. Strangers who I would mostly never meet, but nevertheless, the thought is a tad bit intimidating.
As we moved on to the highway, I noticed several police vans at regular intervals. Not realizing that some steps were actually taken in our city (which will last for how long remains to be seen) in wake of the Delhi Rape/Murder case, I inquired with the auto waala if he knew the reason behind so much bandobast (security) on the roads. To which he snorted, ‘wahi Delhi ka hua na abhi’ (The Delhi incident which happened recently). He took this as a cue to preach once again, ‘Sirf ladkon ki galati bhi nahi hai. Ladkiyon ko dekho, boyfriend ke saath ghumne jaate hain aur ghar pe bolte hain traffic mein phas gayi hoon. Rape nahi to aur kya hoga?’ (It’s not just boys who are at fault. Look at girls, they gallivant with their boyfriend and say at home that they are stuck in traffic. Obviously they are going to get raped). This enlightenment of girls lying, going with boyfriends, etc. must have also been sourced from his various fares through the years. He looked young – mid-twenties. But his thoughts I could not put in an age bracket. They were scary for a person who represented young India. I was tempted to give him a piece of mind but getting into an argument with this person in the middle of the highway (especially when my mother had warned me not to travel by rick!) did not seem smart. I chose to keep my mouth shut and ignore his smart ass comments.
On most occasions I am used to the drivers crib, crib and crib. Give them a chance and they can go on about their ‘chutte ka problem’, ‘ulta padne waala raastas’, ‘waiting’ or any other woe of the typical taxi/auto driver. But this guy was very accommodating – when I needed to hunt for an ATM, when I had to make him wait to get change. He also knew his manners, thanking me when I paid him the fare.
I don’t want to judge him. I have had many interesting conversations with the taxi/auto waalas. The thought of journaling it had however never struck. A journey by itself, that remains as a foggy memory of that wintery night.