I had an interesting auto ride today. Walked a bit in the heat and didn’t find an auto, so when one stopped by with the driver apologetically inquiring if I minded him stopping by to fill gas, I hopped in. The driver was polite, reassuring me that the wait at the CNG station would take 5-7 minutes and generally seemed like a nice bloke.
And so, we had a full fledged conversation. Netrapal Singh, from Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh. He was happy to meet someone who had lived in UP. He had lived in Delhi for some 20 years, 16 of which had been spent driving an auto riksha. We spoke about Akhilesh Yadav, the wonderful politeness of UP dialects and about how one-way the phenomenon of migration is (though his retirement dream consists of chilling in the village someday!). His kids went to school and he, matter of factly, commented on them being ill at ease when they visited the village house and eager to return to the city. He was also understandably proud of being able to educate them and even more so of being able to build his own home in an urban village in Badarpur, which is on the border of Delhi and Haryana at Faridabad. He is now saving to add a second floor to his home. He earns about Rs, 25,000. I also learned that he can fill 4l of CNG in his auto and each litre gives him an average run of 25 kilometres. So he can run 100 km in one refill. Fascinating! I was happy to know I could strike up mundane conversation with my auto driver. He was happy to have a chatty ride.
He reminded me of another Netrapal. Also from UP, he used the be the office boy in CCPS, where I worked about a decade ago out of a poky office in Nehru Place. Now this chap was our man Friday. Once when I had asked him to get me a grilled veggie sandwich from round the corner for lunch, he looked very very concerned. He wanted to know why I wanted to pay an obscene sum of Rs 100 for shredded cabbage stuffed between two pieces of sort of stale bread! He expressed this in very colloquial Hindi, and it was hilarious! I’ve never been able to have a veggie grilled sandwhich since! Netrapal was one of those rare people who actually did go back to his place of origin, Bulandshahar or thereabouts if I remember right. That happened because he managed to wangle a government job back there. Now that’s one thing that can reverse rural to urban migration!
My family has been through a strange experience this past week. We’ve had the same driver for near on five years. He’s from Pataudi, a tall, wiry young man, always smiling and enthusiastic, resourceful and agile. He started working for us as a bachelor and we’ve seen his ups and downs and shared them, in a sense- his marriage, two kids, run-ins with his parents and his brother, the usual travails of life! Just as he has seen ours, my daughter’s birth, moving house, panicky drives to hospitals, birthday celebrations and the like. It’s been a relationship. We’ve always trusted him, even with our children, and to be fair, he’s never really broken that trust.
Why am I telling you all this? Because one fine day, about a week ago, things changed all of a sudden. He had an altercation with a security person in the apartment complex. There were fisticuffs, I had to intervene and talk to the security supervisor, who agreed to sort the matter out if the driver apologized. Well, he simply refused to do so!
Not just that. He lay outside the gate in wait and, aided by some friends, beat up the opponent after working hours the same evening! We heard of all this the next morning and of course, we had to consider him fired, since there was no way he would be allowed to work in our complex again.
If you thought the matter ended there, you’re wrong. While we were trying to make sense of his unexpected behavior (we actually thought he staged all this to escape paying us back the money we had loaned him; someone even told us he had landed a better job with Reliance and had nothing to lose, etc), he did the even more unexpected. He stole a bike from a neighboring apartment complex and tried to frame someone else by entering a faux name and number in the register. Unfortunately for him, CCTV cameras caught him in the act of driving out the bike and now he is on the run from the police!
Of course, we are carrying on as usual. There is a new driver in place and life goes on, but it shakes me up to think someone I trusted so much and who played a significant role in our lives ended up being a criminal! What had driven him to do this, I wonder? A fit of madness, a vendetta of some some sort, desperate need for money….could be anything! And us? We’re getting visits from the police, we’re being told to be careful..of what, I have no idea!
I wonder if the guy had been a friend or colleague and not a driver, would I so easily have dropped him from my life, not called, not tried to find out what drove him to this? ‘Don’t mess with the locals’, they say, here in Gurgaon, Haryana. This is a city where a 16-year old boy got kidnapped and sodomized in broad daylight two days ago! Where women get raped and assaulted and the police make absurd statements about their character instead of making the city safer. This is a city where its hard to trust…Yet, I feel bad for giving up on him…yet, I know there is precious little I can do here, but let things go…..and forget he existed.
And you know what, we do not have a single picture of him…after knowing him for five years…such are the manifestations of the class divides we practice, knowingly and unknowingly every day…..