For a girl of my age and position, it was a supremely risky thing.
I shouted, as I stepped into the road and raised my arm, at the three-wheeler auto rickshaw careening down the dark avenue. I was in central New Delhi and it was 9:30 at night; late enough and dark enough for Delhi to turn into the nocturnal monster I had read so much about in the newspapers. Robbery and rape were rife, I understood.
And yet here I was, a lone girl in this Delhi night, flagging down an auto rickshaw.
It swerved and came to a momentary halt in front of me, its engine still put-putting like a lawn mower.
I looked at the autowallah to see if I could discern any signs of evil. I saw neatly-combed hair parted along the side, beardless, moustache-less face; tired, almost shy, eyes and a khaki-colored shirt that was probably half of a uniform. He looked like a schoolboy, only older.
Harmless, I thought. (Then again, isn’t it the harmless-looking ones that turn out to be the most dangerous?)
I looked down at his thin frame and mentally calculated that I could easily land a few blows and tackle him.
“South Ex?” I asked, to see if my destination was agreeable to him.
Delhi autowallahs are notorious for being extremely picky about where they go. Some even choose to stand around and earn nothing all day, rather than go in the wrong directions. Their logic, if there is one, escapes me. I prayed this autowallah would agree. Four before him had already rejected my destination and me. In exasperation, I had even sarcastically asked the last one to take me wherever he fancied, since my original destination was clearly not convenient for him. He had laughed in my face and driven away.
“150 rupees,” this fifth autowallah proposed.
Great! Now that I finally had an autowallah who was okay with my destination, he was turning out to be an extortionist. Despite having functioning meters, most auto rickshaws in Delhi don’t use them, relying instead on some vague idea of agreeable rates between locations. So it’s important to have an idea of the correct fares and bargain before a trip.
I had developed some expertise in the matter. I put on my sternest face and retorted: “80 rupees and no more. I travel this route every day.” I was ready to fight.
He shrugged and motioned with a nod towards the back seat. “Sit.”
I was surprised. He had given in very easily. Me: 1, autowallah: 0. I slid triumphantly into the back of the auto and the low putt-putt turned into a constant whirr, as the tiny vehicle moved on towards Pandara Road.
An auto rickshaw is a glorified metal cabin on three wheels with a two-stroke engine, a handlebar like a motorbike’s and no doors, no seat belts and no airbags. And a ride in it is a bit like riding a roller coaster, except you stay firmly on the ground with no definite track. Though only for the bravest-hearted or the most immune, it’s one of the most convenient ways to get around Delhi.
And did I say cheap? Eighty rupees translated into about $2, for a 30-minute ride. In an auto, almost anywhere in Delhi is only Rs.100 away.
But that is once you’ve bargained.
Once behind the handlebars, the autowallahs zigzag and weave through traffic, unafraid of bigger vehicles or pedestrians, quite like a bumper car at a carnival. And if the gap between two cars or buses in front is seemingly impossible to fit into, fear not! (Or better still, do). For autowallahs will surprise you by daringly maneuvering their rickshaws into the tightest imaginable spaces in traffic. You can literally touch the vehicle beside you by sticking out a finger.
But that also means that an auto is one of the most† “real” ways to see Delhi. You get unfeigned views of the local people, roadside foods and the occasional cow or dog. And since it is open on either side, you get it all: sight, sound and smell. From roadside beggars and fake-book sellers to incessant honking and clouds of smoke.
On this particular night, the platter seemed especially full. With a scorching dry summer added to the mix, I prayed for zero traffic and no stops. If the auto kept moving, then the wind would keep blowing, making this hot-summer night just a little bit more bearable.
My hair lashed my face in the hot wind. Despite the hustle-bustle on the roads, the tree-shaded sidewalks looked sleepy and lethargic. The streetlights were feebly trying to light up dark corners, but were succeeding only in attracting a cloud of insects. What really lit up the roads instead was the constant succession of blinding headlights from on-coming cars. We passed a stray dog on the side, stretching, in what looked like a yoga pose.
Maybe if I closed my eyes and blocked out the sounds, I could pretend that I was getting a massage.
I reached into my bag for a cigarette. Why passive smoke what the cars around me spewed, when I could active smoke and enjoy it? I closed my eyes and took a deep breath in through the just-lit stick, and let the first clouds of tobacco smoke fill up my lungs. Satisfaction.
I opened my eyes and looked out at the night once more, wiping off a thin salty layer of sweat that had formed on my upper lip. It had been the most brutal kind of summer, one that should be survived only in the comfort of air conditioning. And yet there are many have-nots in Delhi and I was getting a good taste of what the summer had been like for them.
“You shouldn’t smoke, you know. It’s not good for you.”
It took me a moment to figure out that the autowallah was speaking to me. “They kill you† faster. ” l looked at the round rear view mirrors on the side, to get a view of his face. He was looking back at me in the mirror, with a slightly challenging look. Great! So now he was a champion for the no-smoking campaign.
I surprised myself by letting out a chuckle and a smile. “Achcha?” Is that so? I hadn’t been reminded of the cigarette-death connection in a long time.
I felt vaguely amused by the autowallah’s intrusion. It had been a long day and I must have been in a conversational mood, for I continued, “Whatís your name?”
He looked back at me, through the rear-view mirror, trying to gauge my question, and me.
“Husain Mohammed,” he said quietly.
I understood his hesitation. His name was Muslim. And in supposedly secular and religiously-conscious India, it wasn’t always the best thing to have your religion known.
“And where do you live, Husain bhai?” I continued, suffixing the Hindi word for brother to his name. Like any other girl travelling alone in Delhi, I had learnt early on that it was safest to make a brother or uncle of every unknown man.
“Old Delhi,” he answered, “very close to Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk.”
I had been to that part of the city. That’s the heart of Delhi, the key to its history. Crowded, dirty, quaint and mostly dilapidated, it had looked every bit like it belonged in the pages of Arabian Nights. I told him so. And he laughed, a hearty unbridled laugh. “Well, for me that is home, no matter how it is,” he appended. I caught the fondness and the helplessness in his tone, and chose to only smile back in return.
“And what about you?” he asked. And in a rare and potentially quixotic abandon of caution, I found myself telling him my story: How I was in Delhi only for a few months for an internship, and how in that short time I had managed to fall in love with the place, despite the heat, the lack of security and the absence of convenience. I told him about how I was worried I had put on weight gorging on chaat and jalebis, and how I had found friends for life in this city.
This last comment struck a chord.
“I have a best friend too. Shankar. We grew up together. Heís my neighbor. My mother doesn’t like him. Heís a Hindu, you know. Brahmin.”
I understood the intended message in that last word. India had supposedly left its caste system behind. But it hadn’t been erased from most minds. And so it was very common to find Brahmins, the top rung, proudly staking their claim to mistaken superiority. But Husainbhai had told me that detail only to convey that his friend was a devout Hindu, and to impress upon me the unlikelihood of their friendship.
“Some years back, people threatened me. Told me to find friends in my own qaum.” He used the Urdu word, to refer to his own community.† Shankar also faced problems with his people.
“But I donít care. Friendship is friendship and religion is personal. It is nobodyís business. No?”
I nodded my head vigorously, surprised and pleased.
“I agree. Nobody elseís business.”
I wondered why more people in the world didn’t think like Husainbhai. He could be the poster child for Indian secularity. Perhaps the daily grind had made him aware of what was truly consequential, and what was not.
“Are you married?”
The question caught me off guard, as it seemed a very personal thing to ask. But then, in Delhi, in India, there are no questions that can’t be asked, even of strangers.
“No,” I responded, “not yet,” bracing for a lecture on marriage and the right young age for it. I had gotten used to that here. Every older married person in Delhi thought it their divine duty to advise the unmarried female folk to tie the knot quickly.
I looked outside to check how far I was from my destination. Khan Market, almost there.
“Good! Take your time. There is no hurry,” he responded with surety. Had I heard correctly?
“I donít understand,” he continued, “why everyone thinks itís so important for a girl to get married by the time she is 25. You should enjoy your 20s. Live your life and do everything you want before you get married, ok?”
I smiled, a genuine big smile.
I liked this guy. Maybe this was the changing face of the city. If so, there was still hope. “Yes, ok!” I told him with a laugh, ” I wonít marry in haste and repent at leisure.”
Almost at my destination, I sheepishly took out another cigarette.
I decided to take my chances and, while I was at it, to be a little cheeky. “Yeah, you want one?” He glanced at me in the rear view mirror, his face grim and incomprehensible.
And then I caught a trace of a naughty grin. “Yes!” he replied, lowering his eyes and breaking into a smile.
I passed him a cigarette with a chuckle, and we continued on into the night. Just two people, smoking and bantering about the city and its difficult life.
Nidhi Chaudhry is a writer based in Singapore.
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