I walk out of the shopping mall, polythene bag in hand, in quick measured steps, confident that this simple act of exit would not be botched up. And I don’t. I descend the familiar flight of stairs that lead to the main street and its jumbled traffic. I must cross the street for I have to travel in the other direction. This too I accomplish without anxiety, no mean feat in the milieu of ferociously accelerating vehicles hoping to avoid the impending red lights and even more ferociously accelerating vehicles hoping to avoid the cops once the lights are red.
It is only when I safely reach the other side, that my confidence abruptly deserts me. I am engulfed in a deep sense of foreboding. The journey ahead, though the path is familiar and the destination known, poses challenges that I am most fearful of. For it is now that I must face my most intrinsic insecurities and inadequacies, delve into the darkest corners of my mind and soul, engage in a cathartic dialogue with myself. For I must now find myself a willing Auto Rickshaw Wallah.
They stand there in haphazard formation, dozens of them, waiting for an opportunity to deny me a ride. I am engulfed in their midst, in despair and without escape, needing and loathing them more than ever. My gaze wanders amongst them, seeking friendly eyes, compassionate faces, desperately keeping my mind from straying into territories where I know it eventually must. But I find none.
Distraught, I venture to enquire a couple of them if they would consent to aid me in my quest to journey homeward. They quickly glance back at me, shaking their head in a direction perpendicular to the one I hope for. It is a tight rope travellers like me must walk. If the destination be too proximal or too distal, rejection must be accepted. The Auto Rickshaw Wallah’s nobility must neither be shortchanged nor exploited.
What an odd relationship it is between the driver and his passenger. They have never seen each other before. They know not what the other is like. They know not whether or not they have anything in common. They know not how, precisely at that moment and in that spot, the other is present. And yet through the infinite other possible cosmic combinations, they find each other to spend a few minutes with. And yet, they, perhaps, do not even talk to each other. The passenger sits, calm and observant, comfortable in his or her assumed superiority over the driver, while the driver guides his vehicle through the mayhem, master of their collective destinies.
What must I do, I consider, to find myself one such driver from this group. Must I tug at their heartstrings, stating how my body bears the brunt of a deadly disease? No. That would be selfish and inconsiderate. And unethical, perhaps.
Must I then, appeal to their sense of duty, informing them how I must make it to the said address in time or catastrophe may befall me? No. With a shopping bag full of items of leisure in hand, the suspension of belief required, would be beyond them.
Must I be aggressive, shrieking and threatening them if they refuse? No. My disposition is too cultured to trouble theirs.
I watch as a pair of lovely young ladies walk up to one of the Rickshaws, simper coquettishly into the man’s ears, and immediately secure permission to sit inside. How I wish I were born a woman, I muse. Then I check myself. Would this be interpreted as sexist? And if so, which side would I have debased? Or, I reflect, I could I wish I had a girlfriend in tow. I always despise it when I reach this point in the introspective arc. I have noticed that I seem to be reaching it with increasing frequency as the days pass. Whether I must or must not have a girlfriend is an issue I fail to address with logic and composure. It is an unconquerable conundrum for me. There, of course, exists a more elementary problem in this case. I fear the day I decide that I do need one. Because I would not know how to go about finding one. For all my conversational talents, I remain sadly devoid of the knowledge of the art of courtship. Not that I have ever actively sought to hone it, but I have a feeling it is the sort of thing that does not require honing.
The crisis at hand still remains unresolved. The auto rickshaw wallahs have by now lost all hope in me. I feel like I have disappointed them. I wonder if I will ever be able to make it up to them. But then, I remember, these men are shorn of their rights of refusal. They are a mode of public transport and public service cannot be conditional; thus have deemed those with knowledge and power. I almost convince myself that this is indeed true before I understand their folly. Auto Rickshaws are as much a form of public service as any private industry. They run their own business and make their own money. And they must have the right to choose who they do or do not do business with. Trains and buses are public transport. And those that drive it are employees of the government. They have fixed routes and fixed incomes. Auto rickshaw wallahs don’t.
Anyway, I walk home.