Image credit: Mumbainet.com
It must have been one of those rarest occasions when Mumbai was drenched in pouring rains in the mid of December! This was my very first trip to the Bollywood-dream city. We grew up watching movies that had shots of Churchgate, Marine Drive, Juhu. There were built up desires of spending time at Essel World and Water Kingdom from childhood. It wasn’t until now that I could manage a trip to Mumbai and every bone in my body was super excited. I was visiting a friend-cum-cousin who was studying in the prestigious IIT Powai. It was going to be the best trip of my life! I would do everything, visit Mumbai, meet cute boys of IITB, eat vada-pav!!
My train from Kanpur to Mumbai stopped at Andheri which was the nearest station to Powai. When I got down, the first thing I did was to search for a PCO. It was the year 2002, when we were deprived of any personal communication devices. There were no google maps, actually even Google was pretty much non-existent at that time. So after two-three attempts when I could finally connect with my cousin and when he gave me long and confusing instructions on how to reach his hostel room, while he would sit cosy watching s**t on his PC, I knew it was time to strip off some of the expectations from the trip.
Nonetheless, getting an auto outside the station was super easy and the driver knew very well where the campus was. I told him to take the route through Jogeshwari as suggested by my cousin (R). The auto guy seemed to think it wasn’t a great idea but nevertheless obliged me.
It had started to rain hard now. I had the blinds of the auto pulled down to save my luggage and myself from getting wet. There was not much I could see outside. The guy reiterated that going by Jogeshwari wasn’t a good decision. But I was firm and clear to follow the instructions given to me. No we must take that route only. He complied. Suddenly, it occurred to me, what if he doesn’t take me through that route. Or what if he doesn’t take me to Powai at all? What if he takes me to some random place outside the city, kidnaps me and then asks for a ransom. What are the chances that it would not happen? How do I validate that this wasn’t happening right now?! Doesn’t this happen all the time to young women as shown in TV serials and movies?
Suddenly, panic struck me. I asked him, bhaiya hum kahan hein? (Where are we?) He said some place’s name. But then how do I know he is not lying?! I asked him again, bhaiya hum Jogeshwari se hi jaa rahe hein na? (We are on the right route?) He said yes and then explained the route to me. This scared me further. In Delhi/Kanpur, if you cross-question the auto guy and if he is honest, he will get irritated by your questions. He will either ignore your question or give a curt reply. This guy here was so happily explaining me the entire route. What the heck! Something was bound to be wrong.
While contemplating the worse situation, like how I would jump out of the auto if required to, what all stuff in my luggage is precious to me and so on, I heard his voice again. He seemed to be asking me something.
Aap kahan se ho? (Where are you from?)
Oh hum bhi UP ke hein. (I am from the same province.)
Damn. While growing up in kidnapping and theft infected locality of Lucknow, the capital of UP, and while studying in molestation-capital of the country, Kanpur, another city in UP, I had sworn never ever to trust UP guys. Rains, luggage, random city and UP driver in private vehicle; this is the worst nightmare ever.
He seemed to be speaking again.
Hum yahan pe 4 saal se hein. Ghar gaon mein hai. [with some village name] Achcha nahi lagta yahan lekin kaam hai, paise chahiye. (I came here 4 years ago. My family is in the village. I don’t like it here, but work is here.)
Oh. This sounded genuine. Aapke ghar mein kaun kaun hai? (Who all are there in your family?)
Biwi, bachhe, maa baap, bhai. Bhai ko yahan bula rahe hein. (wife, kids, parents, brother. Brother will also come here)
Aap apne biwi bachhon ko kyun nahi bula lete? (Why don’t you call your wife and kids here?)
Kyunki yahan ghar nahi hai. Ek kamre mein rehte hein kai log. (I don’t have a home here. I live in a shared rented place.)
Aap chawl mein rehte hein? (Do you live in chawls?)
Nahi, jhopad patti [slums] mein aur gaon walon ke saath. (NO, I live in slums with other village men.)
After this conversation, I was calmed down. This guy is a family person. He spoke again:
Itni baarish mein auto chalana risky hai. Shayad beech mein auto bhi ruk jaye. Kahin per thodi der ke liye ruk jaate hein, baarish kam hone tak. (It is risky to drive in such heavy rains. We should stop for a while and wait for it to get better. There is a chance that engines might fail us in the middle of the road.)
Whaaaaaaaaaat?! No way man! We were at, what is now the Jogeshwari Vikhroli link road, and in 2002 that area was completely barren. There was nothing on either sides of the road. Road was a sequence of potholes connected by gravel. In retrospect, I guess the guy was correct. We should have stopped. But to a 19 yr old, inexperienced, immature, non-travelled, over-imaginative girl that was a terrifying suggestion.
Nahi bhaiya, aap mat ruko. Mera bhai wait ker raha hai. Agar main nahi pahunchi to woh pareshaan ho jayega. (No please do not stop. My brother is waiting for me. He will be worried if I don’t reach on time.)
Yes, this was the right thing to say. This way the man would know that someone is tracking me and that he can’t cheat or harm me!
Theek hai, dekhte hein. (Okay, let us continue.)
After a few silent moments, he started again.
Aapka bhai IIT mein hai? Padhta hai? (Your brother is studying in IIT?)
Haan. Main bhi IIT mein hun. Kanpur mein padhti hun. (Yes, he is. I am studying in IIT Kanpur.)
I could never let R take the credit of cracking IIT alone! I have to have some of it for me too!
Arre wah! Aap to bahut mehnti aur tej hogi? (Very nice! You must be smart and hard working!)
All smiles. Nahi nahi bhaiya esa kuch nahi. (No, it’s not like that).
IIT se bahut achchi naukri lag jaati hai. Videsh bhi chale jaate hein. (IITians get very good jobs and salary. They go abroad as well.)
Haan yeh baat to hai. (Yes, that is true.)
He seemed to have developed some respect for me as soon as I mentioned that I am from IIT. I was also surprised to know that he was familiar with IIT! And so, we both had found a mutually interesting topic. He would praise me and IIT and academics and people who study and importance of school work and everything related to studies. And I would blissfully shine in the glamour of being “studious”. Obviously, only I knew how much I was screwing up my studies in IIT at that time, but it didn’t matter then. At that moment, I was one of the few, maybe .0001% of all the students in the country and would gladly share my wisdom with the auto wala!
It turned out that guy was pretty sharp. He asked me about engineering, the different departments, what we study, what kind of jobs we do after the program, and so on. For a few of the questions, even I didn’t know the answer. He kept asking me questions and I was liberally answering. We moved on to exchange details about our families, friends, plans etc. By this time, all the suspicion was gone.
As we kept talking, the guy told me about how he didn’t work hard in school and how hard life has been for him. I tried to boost his morale by saying that he was doing a good job and there was lot more that he could still do! Then suddenly, he asked me if I considered him a friend. I was little taken aback from this sudden change in thoughts. I said, ‘sure yeah’, I mean what else could have I said. He offered, ‘If you want to go around Bombay let me know, I will be around Powai area.’ I said ‘sure’, though obviously we both knew that chances of that happening were pretty low.
I was wondering how much far we still had to go, when he asked me if I can have a cup of coffee with him. I was like whoa! I was both scared and flattered. My fear of him was completely gone now, it wasn’t raining anymore, plus we were in a crowded area again. But this twist in the tale was confusing. I said, ‘no my brother is waiting, he would be concerned.’ So he said, ‘don’t worry you can call him.’ I was still quite hesitant at which he got really defensive, attacking me ‘would you consider it improper to have coffee with a person like me, an auto driver?’ I strongly objected him saying he had been so nice to me, like an elder brother. But I insisted: ‘I still can’t have coffee with you this time. I am very tired from a long journey, my brother is waiting’ But he didn’t listen to me.
He was already driving towards L&T, and stopped at one of road side tea shops. I was pleasantly surprised to see his choice of place to have coffee. He told me to stay seated inside the rickshaw and he will grab us both coffee. So I took the opportunity to call and inform R. R was shocked to hear that I had stopped to have coffee with an auto walah!!! Was it a joke or for real?
The coffee came in tiny plastic cups, barely 3 gulps of it. When he handed me the cup, I felt grateful. Until now I was resisting this whole thing, feeling very awkward about having coffee with a man I met barely 30 mins back, but then when we both actually started drinking quietly, both occupied with their thoughts, it felt like a regular thing to do. It wasn’t weird anymore.
I guess in those few minutes of our journey together there was an exchange of something more than just words. I don’t know what was going on in his mind, but for me it was a completely mind blowing experience. From scare of being kidnapped, I went on to have coffee with this guy! How paranoid I was I to think of kidnapping?! Why was I so suspicious of everything he said or did? And now, the very same person is treating me to coffee and it doesn’t feel weird anymore! How come?! It was as if with every sip a fear was getting dissolved. A deep rooted fear of strangers, fear of people was melting away. My mind was storing this memory which would become a guiding light for all the future travels.