Travel weary after a business trip, I landed at Mumbai airport just wanting to get home as fast as possible. That morning, I decided it would be better to look for a tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) than put up with the grumbles of a cabbie over a short ride. What followed was an interesting discourse and an eye opener.
But first, I think it’s important to set the scene.
As I said, travel weary I was trudging to the tuk-tuk line at Mumbai airport. I had almost reached the waiting tuk-tuks when one of the drivers came up and asked me where I wanted to go. When I informed him, he grimaced. I think it’s the worst nightmare of airport cabbies and tuk-tuk drivers. All those hours of waiting for their turn for a fare only to be told that the ferry is a short ride away. He turned away and I had just about started looking for a willing driver when he turned back and said, “I’ll take you. Jo teek samjhe de dena.” Translated, that’s “Give me what you think is right.”
Ask any Mumbai citizen and they will tell you that those words always raise suspicion because they usually mean the driver is going to ask for more money. Haggling over the fare is almost guaranteed. Accordingly, I got into the tuk-tuk and immediately told him to switch on the meter. He complied in silence.
A few minutes out, I idly remarked that the weather in Mumbai was getting warmer. To which remark, he responded saying, “When is it ever chilly in the city?” His response told me that he probably hailed from the north somewhere. I was right. Because on asking, he informed me that he was from Jharkhand.
The ice was now broken. And the resultant thaw led to a discourse. It began with a bit of shared grumbling on the indifferent attitude of youngsters. Triggered by….afraid I can’t recall what exactly.
The tuk-tuk driver embarked on his analysis of the state of affairs. Here’s when it began to get really interesting. He put it all down to the fact that children were not being taught the right value system because both mother and father were out working. He asked, “What do you expect when children are left in the care of domestic help and other strangers? What do you expect when children are without the hand of the mother guiding them?”
I pointed out that with the expense of education and health care today, most parents had little choice but to run a double-income household. What I didn’t say was that I often thought the exact same thing. Children are better off with the right parental influence. There are enough articles on the subject* bemoaning parental guilt leading to over indulgence and the breeding of an entitled generation.
In response to my observation about the economics involved, he volleyed, “See, people can live within their means. They don’t need a better TV than what they already have. The issue is not they don’t have enough to give their children a good education. The issue is they are not satisfied with what they have.” All this was said in Hindi. And I must say, his take resonated more in that language, which is always so rich in cadence.
He paused for a minute and then went on to ask, “You are educated. Why don’t you stay at home and educate your children. Where is the need to send them to expensive schools?”
I thought, “My God. This guy is suggesting home schooling. What a delicious way to put an end to the commercialization of education and take away lucrative business from politician founded ‘international’ schools in India. A travesty if ever there was one.”
That thought was followed by another, “Not just that, he’s talking the language of Juliet Schor, a Harvard economist, who has expounded at great length about how American households are locked into an “insidious cycle of work-and-spend.”*
I kept my thoughts to myself and answered him. I must admit here that, back of my mind, I was a bit worried that the guy was an RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) brainwashed Hindu radical. And one of those Indians who wished to keep their women in purdah. Nevertheless, the answer I gave him was slightly provocative, fuelled by womanly indignation.
“I am not married,” I said.
That seemed to silence him, leaving him floundering.
I walked into the silence and added, “I lost my father young. I had to go out and work to keep the household running and take care of my mother. She had only two daughters. My elder sister was married off before my father passed away. Kya karte?” (The Hindi words mean – what else could be done?)
His silence continued. I sensed he was sympathising with the predicament I had just described. His sympathetic silence told me that here was a man with kindness in him. No radical, this.
Reassured, I decided to take him on. I proceeded to inform him, “In any case, it’s good if women are not economically dependent on the menfolk in the family.”
His response was spirited, “Our wise ancestors had carved out a role for everyone. The Hindu castes were designed to ensure that society had everything it needed.”
I was by now really impressed with the guy. I remember thinking, “Oh Man! He’s now talking division of labour*. This guy is an economist, sociologist, historian, anthropologist – all rolled into one tuk-tuk driver!”
He tried convincing me that women had a role to play in the house and in bringing up children. I retorted that progress meant change. That what may have been orderly at one time need not always be relevant to current day society needs.
To substantiate my position, I gave him an example. I pointed out how most Indian traditions were rooted in scientific reason. For example, the practice of washing the feet after answering Nature’s call was instituted for reasons of hygiene in the days before the introduction of modern sanitation facilities. People now blindly followed the practise though the reason no longer holds. Leading to many a wet floor in bathrooms across India. A subject I had blogged about In the wake of tradition.
Silence. Once again. It was almost as if he was mulling over what I had just pointed out.
A few seconds later, he returned to his spirited discourse. This time, he approached the subject through the lens of karma. He pointed to a derelict of a figure on the pavement and said, “Look at that chap. It’s his karma to waste his life away on the footpath.”
I guess he was trying to imply that it was karma, which dictated the life of a woman. I am conjecturing here. But I guess I am not far wrong because both of us were engaged in substantiating our rather polarised view points.
“Not at all,” I replied. “I, too, believe in karma. But the wheel of karma can be broken. It’s a matter of choice. God has given us humans a brain, hands and feet to think and act. No one is asking that guy to lie on the footpath. He can get up and make something of his life. By lying supine, he is allowing others to dictate his fate by blaming it on his karma. He should make his own karma.”
I was referring to the meek submitting to forces of greed, depriving them of means and opportunity. And I was thinking that these things were more a result of religion’s conceptualisation of karma to keep the meek in their place. And how a fatalistic view of life was…well, fatal for the progress of any society.
I didn’t state as much unequivocally but I did elaborate a bit. For, I recall telling him, “Dekhiye (See in Hindi), Gandhiji had rightly pointed out that “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
From that point, we branched out into a discussion on religion.
It was my turn now.
I held forth on how Brahmins had invented many a ritual to keep their coffers overflowing. And to keep their followers in the blindness of ignorance and fear.
I told him how I had gone for the Ganga aarti a few months ago in Haridwar. And how while I was blown away by the experience, I was also distressed by the filth. I described for his benefit as to how I piled onto the poor guy who requested for a donation to keep the evening aarti tradition going by admonishing him, “Jis Ganga ko pujthe hai, wahi itna gandigi kyon?” Translated, I said ‘How can we worship the Ganga and yet, allow so much filth?’ The entire experience has been recounted in an earlier blog The River of Life*.
We had reached my home. I prepared to pay him but he stopped me. “Rukhiye. Paanch minute.” For the benefit of non-Hindi speaking readers, he asked me to wait for 5 minutes.
He wanted to now talk some more.
I obliged. Because, by now, I was in full flow.
I gave him more examples about blind belief in religion, leading to nonsensical practices. I pointed to irrational beliefs about being granted hearts’ desires by religiously visiting specified temples on specified days. I asked him if God was a bania (the word means merchant in many Indian languages), trading favours in return for coconuts and cash offerings. I pointed out that if life were that simple, all we needed to do would be to go to temples and gain riches, good looks and the man or woman of our dreams (you can read more about this line of thinking in another blog God is in Us. The Devil is in the Details.)
He let out a guffaw at that!
On that cheery note, we parted company. I paid the fare topped up with a hundred. I always did the last because I sympathise with the life of airport cabbies and tuk-tuks!
In this case, it was worth every penny. I had never enjoyed a tuk-tuk ride as much as this one.
To my way of thinking, I had come across an unlikely hero who could change the course of Indian society. I only wish I had the presence of mind to take down his co-ordinates.
For, here was a thinking man. A keen observer of life. Someone who had kindness in him. A man who could contribute to a Better India.
But, for him to do that, the movers and shakers of India need to flag him down and go on a drive in his tuk-tuk. And ask him to serve as a catalyst for change!
Featured Image Credit: A slice of nostalgia by Shruti Muralidhar (Flickr.com CC BY-ND 2.0)
Hindu Caste System:
Robert Kutner, No Time to Smell the Roses Anymore. NYTimes. February 2, 1992. http://www.nytimes.com/books/business/9806schor-overworked.html
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