Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A dark night in Delhi. The street lamps that are on flicker desperately. They tell us it isn’t safe, tell us the night threatens us all. I’m in a speeding auto-rickshaw. B., a little and mild-mannered boy, probably still in his teens, is driving me back home. We take a fly-over, monstrous arch over a nightmare city, and come down at high speed. We take another, and B. slows down suddenly, peering out of the auto with worried eyes. A bunch of uniforms shuffles across our sight-screens. Policemen stroll over to the truck piled high with heavy wooden boxes, which has skidded to a halt at a peremptory police whistle. Their narrowed, shifting eyes pass over us once, as we slow down and pause by a broken signboard, the smoke from my cigarette curling in the lamp-lit air. The policemen’s eyes jerk us through, and we move on, surveyed and humiliated.

A pause as we gather speed through the dark streets. I bring out a lighter. Click. He takes out a box of matches. Snap. We move on, two glowing dots of red light zig-zagging through the darkness. Load-shedding. The summer’s going to be hard for little people with less food, clothes, money, access to shelter that they need to last out the season. The little people clear their throat. B. speaks.

‘Char hazaar se kam nahin lenge.’ Nothing under four thousand rupees. ‘A chalaan?’ I ask. He nods his head. The guys driving that truck are fucked, then. And it could have been B. I begin asking questions, and he begins talking. How much does he make in a month? He makes about five or six hundred on an average night, for this is his shift: the darkest hours of the cycle, between eight at night and eight in the morning. That would make, I calculate, about fifteen or eighteen thousand rupees a month, a comfortable sum. But B. doesn’t keep the money. Each day he has to hand over four hundred rupees to his boss, most of his night’s earnings. His boss sounds faintly humanitarian: apparently he pays for petrol expenses. Most auto and taxi maliks make their employees pay for fuel.

And then there’s the police. B.’s bitter. The daily humiliations, the lowering of the eyes when a uniform passes. The scraping of the feet and the bowing of the head. The random searches, insults, occasional beatings. Men bound up in small, petty lives taking out their bile on weaker men. The rip-offs that beset most auto-drivers at regular intervals: the misfortune to be caught without identification, or a license, or to be marginally over the speed limit. Four thousand rupees as a fine, a chalaan: it’s the standard going rate, though they might adjust it upwards during this phase of inflation.

So they need to borrow money. And it’s cap in hand, head down, at his master’s mercy the next morning. And it’s a temporary advance, to be deducted from B.’s wages for the next month. On a bad roll, for the next two months. B. is twenty, and he sags like an old man.

We’re nearer home now. A police car lies sprawled insolently across the road, we skid round on a speed-breaker and B. mutters a curse. I snatch a furtive glance at the uniformed body and face inside the car. But the body’s slumped against the back of the seat, and the face is young, asleep, strangely vulnerable. A person’s face and body, for once not filled out in monstrous shapes by the daily role they’re paid to perform.

We approach home. I feel I should say something. Awkwardly, I tell him I might write this up, send it somewhere, see if anything can be done. The puerility of such promises hammers in my ears like a storm. I’ll write, and I’ll be a degree less troubled, my political conscience slightly salved, for, in a small way, bearing witness. Testimony. Narcissism. And B. will go his way, handing his wages – his labour – to his master every day, paying tribute to the police every few weeks. Exploitation. Resignation. He’ll go his way and I’ll go mine.

I know this and so, I think, does he. But he seems neither expectant nor scorning, neither supplicant nor judge. B., a boy far away from home, nods his head gravely.

‘Haan ji, likhiye. Likhiye auto-walon ke baare mein. Likhiye ki humein tang na kare.’ Yes, write. Write about us auto-drivers. Tell them not to make our lives hell.

He nods his head once again, gravely, and then I get off, and he takes the money, acknowledges the tip, and I turn to go, and he’s gone.

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