Monday, November 9, 2009

Mr. Rao

I hate driving within the city so I very often end up using the paid cab service to go to my office which is on the other end of the city and that is how I met Mr. Rao, almost eighteen months ago.

With his medium build, side parted hair and a well trimmed moustache, Mr. Rao, in his mid thirties, looked more like an employee of some government undertaking than a cab driver.

Always dressed impeccably in a sky blue shirt and warm grey trousers complete with properly polished black shoes Rao was often the better dressed one between the both of us.

It worked like this- whenever I needed a cab, I used to call the helpline of ‘Dot on time’ city taxi service and depending on where I was, they would arrange for a cab that was closest to my location of my pick up.

On that particular day, they had sent Mr. Rao to pick me up. He slid open the door of his Maruti van branded with ‘Dot on time’ city taxi stickers for me and greeted with a big smile and a courteous “Good morning Sir”. While I smiled back, I was pleasantly surprised by his behavior.

I was dozing off comfortably in the cab when I heard his “Hello”. Sleepish-ly I asked “What happened?” not realizing that he was talking over the phone. He immediately cut the call and apologized “Sorry sir, did I disturb you?” Impressed by his etiquette, I said “No, no, that’s perfectly fine. This is the first time that I could actually sleep in the cab, other wise they keep that wireless radio on which blurts out information about passengers and pick up details. It is so annoying, it hardly lets you sleep”. In proper English, he replied “I know Sir, that’s why I turned it off, so that you don’t have any disturbance”

Thoroughly impressed, now I was intrigued too. I asked him “you don’t look anything like a cab driver. How did you get into this business?” Sensing my interest, he started “I was in my PUC sir when my father passed away. I had to leave my studies and start working to support my family. I did a lot of small jobs before I finally got into a logistics company where I performed well and I was promoted to the supervisor level. Then an MNC bought over the company and changed all the policies. According to their policy, you had to be a graduate to be a supervisor and should also know computers. I was not a graduate but was willing to learn computers, however they didn’t give me a chance and I had to leave the company”

He was not finished yet, negotiating with the traffic, he continued “Around that time IT industry was growing in Bangalore, many software companies and call centers were being set up and there was lot of demand for cabs. So I thought why not start up on my own and since then I have been driving”

As he was anticipating my response, I said “great. See… you lost job because you didn’t know computers and now you are making a living because of the people who work on computers whole day. What goes around comes around”

As we reached my office, he said “Sir I stay very close to your place and in the mornings I am generally at home. You can take my cell number and directly call me from next time” I noted his number thinking how convenient that would make my life and that is how our relationship started.

Every time I, my wife or my friends needed a cab, we used to call him directly and he would always oblige. In case he couldn’t come personally he would at least arrange a cab for us and it always took lesser time than what ‘Dot on time’ taxi service would have taken.

One day, on my way to office I was trying hard to keep myself awake as I hadn’t slept the last night, so I asked him stop by a Pan shop to pick up cigarettes. As I lit my cigarette, he curiously commented “Sir, I have never seen you smoke before?” I smiled as I explained him “I usually don’t smoke unless I am too stressed…and please don’t tell this to my wife, she will kill me and you will be responsible” Shyly he complied- “No, no sir what are you saying, never”

A month after this, I was coming from Mumbai and I called him to pick me up from the airport. There was some political rally that day and we were stuck in traffic for hours. I was desperately searching for a cigarette shop but couldn’t see one. Sensing my frustration he offered me help- “Sir would you like to smoke?” I confessed “Ya, I would feel better with one, but I can’t see a shop here”.

What he said next was music to my ears “You can take from this” he said as he offered me a pack of Wills Navy Cut that he just pulled out from his dash board. Plucking a cigarette I asked him “But you don’t smoke. How come you stock them?” Now it was his turn to confess “Sir I also don’t smoke but this traffic…aiyyo… it’s too much sir. So once in a while I smoke to handle this. But very limited sir... only one or two per day”

To shrug of his hesitation, I said “That’s ok. Would you like to smoke as well?” He took up my offer pulled a cigarette for himself. As we lit our cigarettes and let a sigh of smoke, I saw other people in the traffic watching us in amusement.

Once my wife and I were traveling in his cab when I asked him “do you have children?” Cheerfully he said “Yes sir, I have a daughter. She just turned two last month” Tanu wanted to know “is she naughty?” Opening up to the topic he said “Yes madam, she is very naughty. In fact I have the album of her recent birthday party with me” and he handed over the album from the dashboard to us.

The parents and the baby dressed in their best clothes and smiling to the camera made a picture perfect family, a family that looked happy together. The baby was adorable and one could make out that she was center of their universe. As he put the album back he said “Sir, there is no bigger joy than going back to a home where your child is waiting for you. She brightens up as she sees me and I completely forget all the day’s stress and become a child with her” he finished by saying “I want to give her the best of education, best of everything that I couldn’t get”. It was moving to see a father trying to relive his childhood through his daughter.

Meanwhile, I got a driver and started using the cab only on few rare occasions particularly for airport drops and pick ups. On one such occasion, I saw his cab stripped off- of all the ‘dot on time’ taxi service stickers and even the wireless set was missing. I asked him “are you no longer with the ‘Dot on time’? Taking a breather he replied “yes sir, I pulled out of that service. I was paying them three thousand rupees monthly just to get information about pick ups. All my passengers call me directly so I hardly need that information, so why unnecessarily pay them”

After some time he asked me “Sir, what is this recession and when is this likely to end?” I wasn’t expecting a question like this from him, so, instead of answering I asked him a question “Why are you asking. Is it affecting you by any chance?” He was looking uncomfortable telling me “most of my passengers are from software companies and lot of them have reduced using cab services. They prefer autos or are using shared car services and when I ask them all of them say it is because of recession” To reassure him I said “Don’t worry, we will come out of it very soon”

He still looked concerned “sometimes I think I should take up a job. I even tried contacting few companies but all of them rejected me because I don’t know computers” trying to pass it off as a joke he said “this computer will never leave me”

A month later, he picked me again from the airport and today he was looking very glum. He didn’t speak a word in the entire journey. On one of the red lights, a fat, bulky guy suddenly opened the door and got in forcibly. While I was still shocked, Rao started talking to him in Kannada. From his tone I could make out that he was pleading for something. I could gather that he was requesting the fat guy not to create a scene before me. In Kannada he said “please don’t create a scene before the passenger and please let me drop him”

While the fat guy refused to listen to him at all, another person came on to the driver’s window and took off the keys. At this point I intervened “What is happening here. Who are these guys?” Mr. Rao tried his best to keep a normal face “Nothing sir, some confusion. These are recovery agents and they have got the wrong information. By mistake the bank has given them my car number” Before he could finish the fat guy looked at me and spoke in a dominating voice “he is lying to you. He has not paid the EMI for last four months, we are seizing his car. You can take an auto and go” and he signaled a passing auto to stop.

I didn’t want to look directly into Rao’s face and embarrass him more. His face was red with humiliation and I could sense that he was trying hard to control his tears. Sandwiched between the two fat guys he looked visibly meek and insulted- as if someone stripped off his honor. Now I could understand why he might have opted out of the ‘Dot on time’ taxi service, he could not afford the service anymore.

I wanted to help him but there was nothing I could do. All I could say was “Don’t worry everything will be fine. You call me if you need any thing” As I was getting into auto, he ran up to me with teary eyes said “I am sorry sir, very sorry for all this”. Sensing his helplessness l said “don’t be stupid, be strong and sort out the matter. Everything will be fine”

That evening I called to check on him if he was fine. He was sounding better now “the matter is in control now sir. They have given me a month’s time to pay the due amount. I will arrange it by then”. I offered him help “tell me if there is anything that I can do. Anything” I was careful with my words as I didn’t want to hurt his self respect.

For the next one month whenever I called Mr. Rao, he always arranged a cab for me but never came personally. He would always apologize and tell me that he was with some other passenger or that he was not feeling well or that he has gone out of town. I thought he was too embarrassed to face me and understood his situation completely.

Then one day he finally called me and said “Sir I wanted to meet you when you are free. Can you give me some time” Unable to read what was on his mind I said “You can meet me tomorrow morning at eight thirty. That’s when I leave for the office; I will see you outside my apartment’s gate”

Mr. Rao was waiting for me at the gate. For the first time I saw him in a shirt of some other colour than blue. He was wearing a crisp white shirt paired with black trousers today and looked better that the last time I saw him. In his hand he held a brown envelope. I greeted him “how are you and where have you been?” and stretched my hand for a shake hand.

Holding my hand in both his hands, he gave me large smile and told me “I am fine sir. I sold my car last week and paid back the loan. I have decided to take up a job. Just wanted to give you my CV, if there is anything in your company please do let me know”.

Taking his CV I reassured him “good, you have decided to make a new start. I will definitely look out if there is anything for you”.

Then as I turned on my ignition he proudly declared “…and sir I have started learning computers, I have enrolled into an evening class” he took a pause and then almost personifying computer as his enemy he said “…and this time I will not leave him"