6 p.m., Sunday,
M. G. Road, Bangalore.
Twenty-two auto rickshaws faithfully stand in a line. Their twenty-two Altafs, Ravis, Asifs and Suryas of unpronounceable Pallyas rest inside their three-wheeler cars, uninterested in their jobs, in life, in the border wars… everything, awaiting the bane of their lives, commuters of public transport, to come, beg. The Arjunas of very many vast middle class categories humbled, plead, making sad faces holding onto the yellow-black chariots, looking earnestly into the eyes of the indifferent, cold Krishnas in khaki, timidly pronouncing their destinations.
“Tch.” A very definitely IT Arjuna hears, from the seventh rickshaw he has handed his ego to. Imitating several others like myself, he approaches the eighth with a sincere, almost intense desperation on his face and when turned down, immediately looks up, walking down the pavement, ignoring rickshaws nine and ten through twenty two. Like all of us Arjunas, I observe, who beaten and angry, quietly assume glorious statures of valiant losers thinking, “Fuck them. I’ll walk.”
I instantly remember Ramanand Sagar’s “Ramayan”, the episodes of adolescent Rama and Lakshmana with their never aging guru, Vishwamitra training them to be kingly and yet humble. Shaved little heads, clad in saffron and yellow, they bowed before each house in the neighborhood, juvenile beggarly princes crying, “Bhikshaamdehi, daata bhikshaamdehi!”
As I stand there, rejected by all twenty two khaki charioteers, hoping a twenty third will pass by me and discover a human heart pounding beneath his license badge, I wonder how this business thrives, what the ethics of this work culture are, the ethics of this reverse feudalist culture. How does King Altaf of public transport live off a career driving around a small section of town aimlessly, filling gas at his expense, and refusing every ten in twelve people who ask him for a drop?
Thus goes his working day:
King Altaf religiously gets out of his house at 4 a.m. and rides to a bus stop awaiting tourists, wanderers and travelers from afar. He does this with dedication till 8 a.m. demanding a 1 ½, double or even triple on the meter. From 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., he rides around in circles, stopping at every chai-cigarette shop he sees and when he’s acidic enough with tea to burn a hole through his intestine, he looks for a well-endowed tree and climbing slowly into the back seat like his bride awaited him here, he sticks his feet and Paragon slippers out to the world and goes to sleep.
When he’s woken up to need more chai and a cigarette, he rides around again, and then again, stopping for lunch. No one daresay waste his time asking for a drop now, a man’s gotta eat when a man’s gotta eat. Later, if it’s a hot day, another evil, knowingly full, seductive tree will possibly entice him to take another nap. A man’s gotta sleep when a man wants to sleep.
By evening, King Altaf is so bored by his day, all he wants to do is go home, or meet a friend, visit the local bar, do a couple of joints and relax. And so begins the riding around, looking for that one blessed individual on the face of this city who wants to go to Murphy Town, which is on the way to his home in Babueswar Palya. That too, he will only trade his privacy if the stranger begging for a ride in his blessed little caravan is willing to pay double the fee the meter says he should.
As I grind my teeth, inspired by these thoughts, rickshaw No. 23 passes me by. I wave frantically and exasperated, he stops.
He thinks a bit.
“Ulsoor mei kidhar?”
Putting on my best poor kitten in a wet blanket face, I reply. “Lake ke paas.”
He begins to think. I begin to pray.
6:40 p.m., Sunday,
M. G. Road, Bangalore.
I sigh. Making appropriate noises, I begin to carry my bags into the benevolent rickshaw, deciding King Altaf is not my most favorite man in the world. As I see his arm acrobatically turn back to turn his meter on, I begin to calculate the fare when my mind is suddenly confused by the familiar dreading sound we Arjunas hear so very often by our free-spirited Krishnas.
My one foot in the air and outstretched arms with bags before me, I am left behind as King Altaf yanks the start lever and zooms off, his auto roaring at me and road it has left behind.
Angry, tired and feeling betrayed, I scorn, cursing in my mind the most truly malicious curses I’ve flung at anyone besides my seventh grade math teacher. Groceries in both hands and shoulders humiliated by a heavy bag, I begin to walk.
“I will never take an auto again!” I foolishly declare within my head, and a couple of voices in there smirk.
The calm, smiling face of actor Arun Govil who played a magnificient Rama in “Ramayan” appears in my head and I want to ask him what he would have done if his daatas behaved this cocky. Not one, not two, but all twenty three he’d begged that Sunday evening.
“Liftaam dehi, daata rickshawm dehi!”