I am not very fond of driving, especially on weekends. The whole city seems to be in transit and the traffic moves at a crawling pace. It also doesn’t help that I stay in the lane next to a Big Bazaar. The ‘Independence Day’ sale at Big Bazaar is the biggest ‘mela’ that you can see in an urban setting and all roads within a radius of few kilometers from the store are choc- o- block. So, in the evening when I had to go to a temple I decided to take an auto rikshaw.
After being denied rather impolitely almost half a dozen times, finally an autowallah gave me a fair hearing. Thick beard and a skull cap made his religious identity quite clear. “Ulsoor. Balaji Temple?” I asked him unsure of his response. “Return bhi ana hai kya?” his interest surprised me. “Haan bhai, abhi permanently jaane ka waqt nahi aaya hai” I said jokingly. He got the joke and smiled with a “kyaa sir aap bhi…?” Getting back to business, I said “it will take ten minutes. Can you wait?”
“Baitho…par ten Rupees extra dena…waiting ka ” he said pointing towards the seat and we began our journey. The traffic was awful and we were hardly moving. I could see him getting all worked up, so to break the tension I started the conversation “Naam kya hai apka” “Ahmed” he said without turning back. “Traffic kafi bura hai” I commented. “Puchiye mat sir. Yeh road hamesha jam milta hai” “Aur yeh metro ke kaam ki wajah se bhi problem ho raha hoga. Kab tak banega yeh?” I asked him sympathizing with his problem. “Sir, yahan koi kaam time pe hota hai kya? Sab jagah corruption hai. Aap ne news mein dekha hi hoga commonwealth games mein kya gadbad ho raha hai” “Hmmm…” I said in a reflective tone, impressed by his awareness of current issues. “Sir aap ko kya lagta hai…yeh games ho payange India mein? Country ke izzat ka sawal hai” I didn’t have an answer really “ho jayage. Kisi na kisi tarah manage kar lenge. Hume aadat hai na aise kaam karne ki” I reassured him.
“Acha ek bat batao- aap log ye hamesha extra kyon charge karte ho. Meter ke upar?” I tried changing the topic. “Aap ko to pata hai sir, mehangayi bhad gayi hai itni. Petrol Diesel ka keemat har din bhad rahai hai. Bolo kya karega hum log?” he was quick with the retort. While we were engaged in this conversation a young boy selling national flags in various sizes and shapes approached us. It was the eve of 14th August and every signal had these selling. Ahmed was a smart negotiator, he asked the boy picking up a small one “kitne ka diya?” the boy announced the price “15 Rupees” Ahmed made another offer “Agar bada bhi loonga to discount dega” While the boy was still calculating in his mind, Ahmed offered a solution “yeh chota, bada aur saath mein badge (to be worn on shirt) sab mila ke fifty mein de de” assessing that he couldn’t get more from Ahmed the vendor said “de doh” and closed the deal.
I was intrigued when Ahmed began carefully folding and stacking the flags “You are not putting them now?” I probed. “Nahi sir. I will put them tomorrow morning” he explained. “Why” I asked intuitively and my heart clenched at the dumbness of my question. “Kal 15th August hai na sir. Apna independence day. Isliye” he explained without judging me. “Aap yeh har saal karte ho? Yeh flag aur sab?” I wanted to know. “Yes sir, har saal... aur is din mein ekdum fresh kapde pehanta hoon auro auto bhi chakachak rakhta hoon” he replied in an excited tone.
I was both impressed and puzzled with his narration “par abhi toh aap itni complaint kar rehe the. Poor infrastructure, corruption, price increase in sab ke bare mein? Fir bhi?” I voiced my doubt.
“Sir, tell me which country is perfect. Har mulk ke apne problems hai. Mana yeh problems hain…lekin yeh hamari hain aur hum inse nipat lenge. Kisi ke gulam toh nahi hain na hum. Aap freedom ko problems se compare nahi kar sakte. Aur tarakki bhi toh kar raha hai na India. Sochiye agar hum Pakistan, Afghanistan ya Bangladesh mein paida hue hote toh? kitni buri halat hoti?” he was forceful in putting forward his point of view.
I kept my promise of not more than ten minutes waiting and returned with a packet of ‘prashad’ for him. He thanked while taking it and as a mark of respect touched it to his forehead before consuming it. On our way back, the auto came to a sudden halt at a signal and refused to start. “Sir kuch problem lagta hai. Sorry aap ko doosra auto lena padega” he said. “That’s ok. Kitna Hua” I wanted to know. Looking at the meter and referring to the new rate list he said “Seventy Five sir” “Extra Mila ke?” I asked “Nahi sir, extra rehne dijiye. Aapne prashad khila diya bahut hai” he spoke in a friendly tone.
As I settled the bill and started to walk, he called me aloud “and sir Happy Independence day” “aap ko bhi” I responded. Happy Independence day.