By Dev Chaudhry
Being in the development sector, I have travelled a lot for work purpose within India. During these travels, I have come across many drivers and, believe me, every driver is different from the other one. And each journey is a story, an interesting story. Even if it was harrowing and scary at that time, it would seem fascinating later when you reminisce and regale (let us assume that, no harm in that) others with it, adding the right amount of your own masala and tadka.
During these travels, I met men, women, and children of all ilk; met professionals from different fields; savored different cuisines (I have made a rule – whenever I suspected that I might not get a good well-cooked meal, I ordered khichdi, green salad, and cold milk; how bad that could go); have had tea made in chaasni of sugar even after giving clear instructions to use less sugar (or for that matter, the harrowing malai-maar-ke chai, the tea made with heavy dose of richly brewed milk).
During these travels, I have seen how beautiful the country is, how diverse it is, and how hardworking the people of this country are. I have also seen the same hardworking people living in abject poverty and naked penury. On occasions (such occasions come once in every five years, at least), when I saw these people standing in queues to cast their votes in elections, I often wondered what hope still made them stand in these queues.
I have been in villages where you only see old people, children, and women with hardly any young man in the sight. Apparently, the young and working age people were all toiling away their youth and life in some far-off places, some within India, some beyond the borders.
Once I got to work in an area in national capital, Delhi, where every third house had someone with tuberculosis. Whenever I visited their houses, they offered me water and food, and I, always (scared of catching TB) refused that offer but to be conscientious of not disappointing them (or may be because I was trying to make myself acceptable in the community), I used to ask for tea, thinking that boiling the water will reduce my chances of acquiring the infection. I, always felt bad (and told myself to think of something else to ask for in place of tea) when I used to see them scurrying to arrange for tea or milk.
Hmm, looks like this tale is getting heavy with a heavy dose of melancholy, despair and the reality of life for many in India.
But as I said in the beginning, I have gathered beautiful experiences over the years during these journeys with all kinds of drivers; kuchh tikhe, kuchh khatte aur kuchh meethe. Let me share one such incident with you to lighten your mood.
‘He is too young; will he be able to drive properly?’ I asked the owner of the Taxi Stand in Mohammadpur village, next to the iconic Bhikaji Cama Place in Delhi.
‘Sirji, don’t go by the look; take my word.’ Tokas said. (I assumed this was his name because it was Tokas Taxi stand.)
I had planned to go to my village Baliqutubpur in Sonepat in the neighboring state Haryana after visiting the project area and I had decided to hire a cab. And that had brought me to the Tokas taxi stand.
‘But, still?” I said.
‘Sirji aap darte kyun ho, why are you afraid? I am saying na; sometimes you should just take a chance,’ Mr. I-thought-so-Tokas said.
The guy (the youngie driver) had a swagger beyond his age. He was merely eighteen or nineteen, I thought. I made some haha kind of sound and sat in the car, with some apprehension because his age, his boyish looks despite his trying to be macho, did not give me much of a confidence.
By the time we were out of Delhi, my sense of apprehension was bordering on a stage called ‘concerned’. Already, the front and back lights of the car were broken; back lights because he slammed the brakes suddenly and the front ones because he was not able to apply the brakes in time. But when I asked him, he was ready with an answer: ‘Sirji, you know Delhi people, they are in such a hurry; they have no sense of when to stop and when to drive.’ Even before I could say something, he was off again (I was sure with a deep-seated intent to do more harm to the car and to me!).
And then he saw the majestic and iconic Grand Trunk Road. He, like a child on a big sprawling playground, just went berserk. He put all his bodyweight on the accelerator. I told him in quite a sharp tone to slow down and drive carefully to which he repeated the same dialogue that Mr. Tokas had said, ‘Aap darte kyun ho, why are you so scared?’ ‘Shut up,’ I blurted out.
Well, he was running the car at full throttle on the highway, and enjoying the speed and the thrill of it when all of a sudden, the car started making some gasping sound, and smoke started bellowing from under the hood. Then the car stopped.
I said, ‘What happened?’ To which he replied, ‘Garm ho gayi’ (the engine has heated up).
‘So, now what?’
‘I’ll have to pour some cold water in it’.
‘Then go, bring some water from that tube-well, what are you waiting for?’
‘I can’t put the water just like that. It will burst.’
‘First it will have to cool down; only then I can pour water in it.’
‘How long will that take?’
‘Half an hour or so, at least.’
‘Hmm.’ I thought for a few seconds and said, ‘Okay, do one thing. I am going to that dhaba, you see that (I pointed him to a dhaba half a kilometer away), when you are done, come there’.
I started walking towards the dhaba. I had on my mind tandoori paratha along with dollops of white butter on top of it and some hot strong tea. At least for the next half an hour or so I was safe, I thought. This very thought and the thought of the crisp hot tandoori paranthas and him stuck with the broken car brought a wicked smile on my face.
Those who have not had parathas at Murthal dhaba on the G.T. Road have not eaten anything. At any dhaba I’ll say, but people have their favourites among the dhabas in Murthal. Is it paratha or parantha? As per the American English, it is paratha but who cares! Crisp, thick, stuffed (as per your liking, I hate paneer so no paneer paratha for me) paratha with white butter on top of it in a quantity that it could last till the last bite, and tea to go with, to complete the course.
That day, as I was sipping my second cup of tea, I saw him come racing the car at the same high speed he was clocking earlier. It screeched to a halt just next to the charpoy I was sitting on, almost half-reclined. He came out all smiling and happy as if nothing had happened.
‘Chai pioge? Will you have some tea?’ I asked. To which he replied, ‘Yes, but I will eat also, very hungry; haven’t had anything so far.’ ‘Sure,’ I said (I thought from where were you summoning all the zest and energy then but did not say anything outwardly) and asked, ‘Which paratha?’ and lo, to my horrors, he said, ‘Paneer paratha’. I ordered two paneer parathas and tea for him, and one more cup of tea for myself (well, after all, I had to do something while he ate those ‘paneer’ parathas). Although I had started disliking him (in my mind), I did not express anything openly. One thing, though, I liked about him – he smiled a lot. I think the most beautiful thing in this world is a happy smiling face.
Soon we set off on our journey to my place, village, friends, parents, younger sister (only the younger one, the elder sisters were married by then). As I reminisced about these things, I even forgot about his driving skill or the lack of it. I came out of my reverie only when we reached Ganaur (the block town) and he asked me for the directions. Inside the town,too, he was driving like a maniac. As we left the town behind and started on the narrow, serpentine sadak (a narrow stretch, not correct to call that a road) opening in front of us, winding between the freshly planted paddy fields, he was clocking 90 kmh. The fields were filled with water and the young saplings were swaying in the wind, trying to hold their heads barely above the water surface.
‘This is not GT Road, slow down.’ I told him with all the patience I could muster at that time.
‘Don’t worry sir, you just sit and relax. In no time you will reach your home,’ he said.
Yes, for sure, I will reach not my home but where nobody wants to go, I thought.
I promise that I don’t have a black tongue but that is what happened soon after. There was a treacherous multi-fold turn in the sadak. And at that speed, even Schumacher could not have negotiated the turn perfectly. The car just went out of control, swerved from one side to another, on these two wheels one moment and on the other ones the other moment. You could smell the ferocious friction of the tires against the hard surface. The car made loads of sounds of hissing, screeching and whirring but it did not topple over (Now I remember the make of the car, it was an Ambassador). I was sitting tightly, holding the headstand of the front seat, quite light on my feet, all body weight on my arms and hands. After few rounds of swerving and tossing on alternate sides one after another in the air, the car stopped; rear wheels on the sadak and the front ones in the water in the paddy field. I bolted out of the door in nano seconds and yelled at the same time to the driver, ‘Do not remove your foot from the brake, OR it will go all the way in the water.’
He was sitting almost stuck to the steering wheel, his foot planted on the brakes. He was drenched in sweat. Within those few seconds, he had turned pretty pale. The car was slanted in the field almost at an angle of 45 degrees, with the front guard touching the water. I looked around, there was no soul in the seeing but the weather and greenery all around was pleasant to the eyes and the mind. The only hope was if a bus, tractor or auto-tempo happened to pass by, I thought as I exhaled a deep breath with cigarette smoke dancing on and around it.
The hope came in the form of an auto-tempo, overladen with more than twenty persons. As it came nearer, I recognized few faces. The auto-tempo was from my village (actually, my village is the last village on that route). I waved to the auto-tempo and it stopped. They all got down and surrounded me and the car from three directions; three directions because it was not possible to assume the fourth direction, at least at that time (later they did).
They all had a pretty bemused and naughty expression on their faces and I was ready for the upcoming conversation. Well, I belonged to that land and knew how they were going to behave, what they were going to say before they helped me out of the situation I was in. You are not in Haryana if anybody would let go of a situation such as this, where a car is half-submerged in the water and rest of it precariously perched on the road. I was sure they would first have their say, pull my leg, and make jokes about the situation, before eventually taking out the car from the water.
So came the first salvo, ‘Oho, was it thirsty?’ followed by the next one, ‘So thirsty that you had to stop midway and make her drink water’ followed by ‘Why you were in such a hurry, you could have first reached village and then taken it to the village pond’, and many more on this line. And then another round, ‘Why you wanted to kill that young boy?’, and so on and so on till I said, ‘Ok. You had had your fill. Now get it out.’ And that was done in a few minutes. We were on the dry road again. They left but I could hear their cackle for quite some time. This was a story, I thought to myself, they were not going to let go very easily and very soon. I let the driver compose himself well before asking him to start driving again.
Finally, he was ready to drive. We set off again but his confidence, verve, and the speed of the car vanished. The car was moving at an abysmally slow speed – even a person on bicycle was taking over the car. The village was just five or so kilometers away; we would eventually reach there, I thought. I did not say anything to Nar Bahadur (that was the name of the driver and I had for the first time bothered to ask his name) and did not ask him to drive faster. The guy was shaken to the core and he was pretty young to face something like this. He could have died few minutes back (me too, by the way).
He kept on driving at a bullock-cart speed and I decided to get lost in some thoughts and philosophizing. That day, I seriously thought about the sense of humour of people of Haryana. First of all, it seemed weird. They even made fun of people who were in a very vulnerable situation. They had jokes on death, too (actually on the death of a kid also). On gods. No god was spared, not even goddesses. There were all kinds of jokes on gurus, babas, political leaders. Nothing and no one was spared, even mother, father, uncles, aunts – no one was spared; pure irreverent and iconoclastic. Could it be that it was because they had been ravaged and violated so often by all the intruders as they fell in the path of all those armies who came to India? And did they develop the humour as a shield? You could see this kind of humour along the whole stretch – Haryana, Punjab, Pakistan.
Well before I could firm up my thoughts on this apparently very important and path breaking theory, we reached home. As you might have guessed, the story had already reached my village and my home. After the initial show of concern and care (I can with certainty tell you that it was just a build-up to the things coming up next), the narrative took the expected turn, when my uncle asked, ‘So, is it satiated of her thirst or should I take it to the village pond?’ I knew the very moment that the night was going to be long, pretty long and full of fun (for them) and all at my cost. Nar bahadur had already retired for the day after having a warm glass of milk laced with herbs, dry dates, and some jaggery.
Next day, early morning, when I got up, the first thought that came to my mind was of Nar bahadur. I was worried about him as to how well he slept, how he was coping with yesterday’s incident (because as you know he was pretty shaken, he had driven the car at a cyclist’s speed after the car was taken out of the water). I enquired whether he had woken up or was still in slumber.
I really got worried about him when I came to know that he had not only woken up and had had his tea but also gone out with Surender (that’s the way we spell our names, neither Surendra like in eastern parts or like Surinder in the little up western parts of the country, rather somewhere in-between of these two). Surender, one of my cousins, was a real character and a prankster to the core, whose only aim in life was to enjoy life fully, mostly at others’ cost. I wished he would have rather gone with Rajender, Surender’s older brother, a relatively sensible and sensitive person. I was getting more and more worried just imagining what Nar Bahadur might have been going through at that moment. I imagined him sitting among lots of people, being made fun of, harangued, pilloried. ‘Poor chap, after all he is just 18 or 19,’ I thought as I sipped my tea, sitting in my bed, half covered with the thick homemade rajai (quilt).
As I got out of my rajai and emerged from the room, I realized it was a beautiful wintery morning. The air was moist and fresh. The genda flowers, the marigold, in pots on the wall, near the main gate, were glistening with the dew. There was a hint in the air that the sun would soon come out. With the cold, fresh air on my face and in my nostrils and strong tea in my body and veins, I set out in the hope that I would find Nar Bahadur soon so that I could keep him by my side for the rest of his stay in my village to save him from the caprice and vagaries of the villagers, villagers who have a weird sense of fun and humour.
Wishing people on my way to the village pond, which is just next to the community well, I met Rajender. I wished him; he stroked my head with affection and said, ‘Good that you were with Nar bahadur.’ ‘What?’ I thought but did not ponder much on that, and went towards the fields.
After walking for some time, I smelled sweetness in the air. ‘Kolhu,’ the sugarcane crusher, I exclaimed to myself, and my speed automatically increased in that direction. How could I not remember this? This is the season of kolhus and gur (jaggery) making. And my steps were outpacing each other now, with freshly made gur on my mind.
When I reached there, I was not ready for the scene I saw. Nar Bahadur was sitting on a little mound, surrounded by villagers and he had freshly prepared gur on a sugarcane leaf in his hand. He was saying something and people were listening to him. As soon as I reached there and as soon as he saw me, Nar Bahadur went silent.
I was happy to see him in that state. He looked okay, the tenseness was gone; his face actually looked cheerful and happy. As I told you, he was a young good looking boy. Sitting on that little mound, with a locally made cotton shawl around his shoulders, and with gur on sugarcane leaf, he was looking pretty comfortable and way more handsome. I really liked the scene – a young chap, far away from his home, people and land, and sitting among totally unknown people, just like one among them.
Before I could ask him how he was, this time Surender, who he had gone with in the morning, said, ‘It was good that you were with him’. ‘What?’ I said as I wondered what they meant by saying that it was good that I was with him. First Rajender said this and now Surender; I was thoroughly clueless. But I did not pay much attention as I was listening less and thinking of the freshly made gur more. I moved in that direction and looked at the boiling pot of the sugarcane juice – bright red and muddled, burning bright red, and the froth coming up now. I moved further towards the flat wooden pot the boiling juice was poured into, to cool down and to thicken, and made into gur with continuous stirring with wooden planks. The air was thick with the smell of boiling sugarcane juice and freshly made gur; it was intoxicating. I took quite a bit on the khoi (dried crushed sugarcane pulp), started eating it, savouring every bit. I was careful to take small bites so as not to burn my tongue. All the while, when eating, I was sitting next to the group where Nar bahadur was sitting surrounded by people.
As I ate more of it, the diminishing utility of the gur started setting in. I started paying attention to the discussion in the next group. After listening to the talk for some time, the meaning of what Surender and Rajender had been saying dawned on me.
Apparently, the story had completely changed. Nar Bahadur was, now, a hero. He had saved me by first controlling the car on that treacherous road by asking me to get out of the car, all the while trying to maneuver the car to stability, and then keeping it steady with his foot planted on the brakes, half on the road and half in water, almost at a ninety degree angle. Nar bahadur and I stayed in my village for two more days. I heard the story from many people and each time there was some new addition to the story. It reached to a stage where I started suspecting my own memory of what had really happened.
You could still go and ask anybody. Nar bahadur is a hero in my village. He is a legend – Nar Bahadur, an eighteen-year-old boy from a far off land, who saved their village boy (that’s me) that fateful day, when it was raining heavily and the road was slippery, as if some evil person had sprinkled oil on the road. That day, only Nar Bahadur, a brave young man as he was and an excellent driver that he was, could have saved Dev. The legend of Nar Bahadur lives on in the folklores of my village even today.
On our way back to Delhi, he drove at a decent, comfortable speed. He looked happy and at peace with himself. I smiled to myself looking at him. The boy had become a man.
Dev Chaudhry has been associated with the development sector for last 15 or so years. He has worked with several national and international NGOs. A social scientist by training, he did his master’s programme in sociology at JNU, New Delhi and as a result loves to observe people and their behaviours. He did his Ph.D. in Community Health Sciences from University of Manitoba, Canada and his thesis was on ‘migration and health’. He loves to read all kinds of books but his first preference lies with poetry and fiction. He is currently based in Delhi.
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