One evening in the not so distant past, at about 8.30 pm, standing alone at the Maharani Bagh bus stand, I rejected the ninth auto driver because, like all those who stopped before him, he’d asked me for double the usual fare ( this was before auto fares were hiked and metres made mandatory ) . A traffic police vehicle had just pulled up a few minutes earlier. As I grew more desperate to get home, a tall, lanky policeman approached with the auto driver in tow. “Did he refuse to take you to your destination?!” he demanded loudly. I hesitantly said that I had refused to go with him. Already, a tittering crowd had gathered to watch the fun. On being demanded the reason, I told the policeman that he’d asked for too much money. This instigated two tight slaps across the auto driver’s face, who stood meekly in front of the tirade: “How many times have I told you to not do this?! You idiots from outside never learn. Madam, get in! He will take you wherever you wish to go by meter.” I wasn’t going home in an auto whose driver had been assaulted and publicly humiliated because of me, so I just told the policeman that I didn’t trust their meters either and tried to ask him to stop hitting the man. He yelled at me for trying to stop autos at the bus stand and moved on, shouting into his walkie-talkie. The crowd reluctantly dissipated now that the show was over. Somehow, I was getting even dirtier looks. And it was clear that there was no sympathy for the driver – somebody even suggested putting him into jail. I closed my eyes to block out the static as my cheeks began to burn and willed my stars to get me home in one piece, even fearing that the man might still be around to avenge himself in some horrid manner. Eventually, I did get home safe and sound, but was beside myself with an unreasonable rage, somehow directed at the auto driver.
Yet another day, there apparated before me an auto driver who looked like he had had a really good day, such was the smile on his big-whiskered face. The police vehicle was nowhere in sight this time, so I charged myself up to haggle with him. However, he did not give me the chance – saying that I could pay him whatever I thought was right, mumbling something about there being more important things than money. Taken by surprise, I quoted my price and got in after he benignly acquiesced. Once on our way, I took out my Ipod, when he clucked his tongue and again mumbled something about today’s generation. Despite myself, I demanded an explanation, to which he responded with a chuckle and a quick glance in his rearview mirror. He said that in his youth, he wanted to soak in the world, drench himself in its beauty. I retorted, well, so did I. He said that the world is not what books and TV can tell you, it is what you see and hear on the go. If you block off the sounds of life, there is not much you’d learn. This did shame me into pulling off my earphones. He was a chatty old fellow, so he told me how he’d come to Delhi having completed his graduation, in search of a decent job but wound up doing this instead. He told me of how he was still trying to pay off the debt on his brand new auto, which he had finally acquired after saving up the down-payment amount for 15 years. He said he knew this was not the easiest or the most dignified way of earning a living in this country, but he was happy because this gave him a steady income, his independence and a chance to see many lives lived. He was still raving on when I pulled out my wallet to pay him. As I was leaving, he thanked me and by way of blessing, gave me this important nugget of his painfully acquired wisdom: it takes all kinds to make this world, beti. It sure did, I smiled, and shook his hand before he drove off.