This is about some $20, but it made me think last week.
Before UB City, I decided to ride an autorickshaw for the first time after many years. The third rickshaw I hailed was willing to go to my neighbourhood. Its condition surprised me: like it’d only just been scrubbed down, it gleamed even if wasn’t so new. The seat cover was red n’gold with floral prints. It was neat also behind my seat, on the floorboard, and on back of the driver’s back-rest. His khakis were fresh-washed too. On the black n’white chequered stole round his neck, the white was bright, the black stark.
“We’ll go via Mysore Bank,” he said, and smiled. “No autos on Raj Bhavan Road.”
“That’s my daily route,” I protested, wondering how I could’ve not noticed whether rickshaws plied or not on it. “My need to go faster is more than yours, saab,” he said. It was an older man’s assurance, said in a kind gruff confident voice, a voice to believe in.
We fell silent, passing Mallya Hospital. At the perennial jam on Rammohan Roy Road, he turned his profile to me and said he was distraught. “You are my boni,” he said—at 6:15 in the evening. A boni is the day’s first customer. “I’ve not taken customers for two days!” he said. “Just been driving around.”
“What happened?” I asked him.
His son fell while playing two days ago, and a tooth had gone up to the eye. (“Can that happen?” I asked myself.) After admitting the boy at a hospital, he’d been trying to raise funds for treatment.
“Age?” I asked.
He said the operation would cost ₹27000. He’d sold for ₹15000 his daughter’s necklace. “Her marriage is next month, saab.” He’d then begged everybody he knew, and raised about ₹5000. The rest he needed by morning, ahead of the operation. “I’m distraught,” he repeated, and sank in his frame.
He was tall. His head hit the roof of the rickshaw each time we hit a hole or a bump. His back was straight, though he needed to bend a bit at the neck for a better view of the street. His shoulders were broad, but bowed. We didn’t speak until we reached Cauvery Bhavan; from there we crawled toward Mysore Bank and I marvelled at how the rickshaw performs in bad traffic. Tired eyes glanced down at me from buses as they came alongside, and turned away. I glanced back toward them, and turned away. The vast canopies of rain trees that line this street had gone into silhouette. My chest rejected in short coughs the temple-smells of jasmine and sandalwood that came riding exhaust fumes.
“Sorry, saab, to tell all this,” he said. “Maaf karna.” All the way from Mysore Bank, along Palace Road, through Chalukya Circle and until the Golf Club, he didn’t speak. He let off soft grunts and sighs instead. The road was clear on this stretch. The temperature had fallen; a breeze was upon us.
On Golf course Road, he gave me control. “Straight chaloon?”
“Haan,” I said, “until and beyond Mekhri Circle.”
He’d snapped a walking stick onto the bars behind him. It was on a side, and thus far I’d taken it to be another member of the metal grid. Its stem was of metal, with holes along it to adjust the height, and the handle was synthetic and black and grooved for grip. This driver was altogether a proper gentleman. As we hit Mekhri Circle he straightened and stretched and pressed his sides and pushed a fist into his back and cried a tired, “Hai, Allah!”
What was this about his son? It was a story you could drop before the gullible and wait for results. But this man was nice. And his rickshaw was sparkling, whereas outside it was din and fumes and a most horrid press: A veritable Jahannum. before me was a distinguished-looking man wasting away in a torturous job.
A few hundred yards from home it started to rain. Large drops fell on his small windshield. He cursed. There was no splashing from the sides. His speed dropped on my quiet street.
“Against your meter,” I said, handing him ₹140.
“Bismillah!” he said with other adorations, and pressed the notes to his eyes.
Then I pulled three ₹500 notes.
“For your boy,” I said, giving the extra.
With folded hands he pressed them to his face. “I pray my boy will be fine,” he said.
“Zarur,” I said. “He’ll be absolutely fine.”
I went in and flopped on a couch and asked myself if I’d been a fool. And, going to work next morning, I asked Mahesh my driver if rickshaws aren’t allowed on Kasturba and Raj Bhavan Roads. “They’re allowed everywhere, sir,” he said. “Only on Brigade Road and in Cubbon Park there’s no entry for them.”
“Oh,” I said.
“It’s all right,” my wife beside me said. “He’s a good man. You liked him.”
And what if his son really had his tooth going for his eye?