Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A chance meeting with an unknown Indian

(Photograph courtesy Souveek Bhattacharjee)

Would you have ever thought of comparing Kumbhakaran, Ravana’s brother, with the late Walter Hudson, the fourth heaviest person in world (according to Wikipedia)? I would never have of thought of it, even as impolitic as it would be. But then, this guy did just that!

We wanted to take the bus, but decided to polish off our ice creams first. I hadn’t taken the bus in while and we had an hour to get back, so I didn’t mind. Around five buses, two ice creams and 20 minutes later, we rued letting the first two buses go, because not a single #73 came thereafter.

It was 12.45 on a hot March afternoon and I simply HAD to get to work by 1, so the moment I spied an auto, I ran towards it with reckless abandon—hailing and shouting on the way—much to the amusement of my colleague and the others at the bus stop.

The auto stopped. The driver said he would take us as long as we paid the exact change. I wasn’t going to argue. Hopping into the auto­­­­ I urged him to go as fast as he could. At the first roundabout, as we crossed Jantar Mantar Road the driver wondered aloud as to why someone would name a place Jantar Mantar…possibly something to do with black magic or voodoo? Asha ma’am, my colleague, and I exchanged a smile.

We tried explaining to the man that the name had actually come from Jantar or Yantra, the Hindi word for “machinery” and Mantar is usually another word for “formula”, but in this 18th century monument by Sawai Jai Singh, the first maharaja of Rajasthan, it means “calculation”. So, in effect, the actual meaning of the term was polar opposite to his interpretation. When we told him that Jantar Mantar was actually a collection of different kinds of mammoth-sized sundials and an astronomical observatory of sorts, he rapidly nodded his head in understanding, saying he once had a teacher in Chhapra, Bihar, who had made two dhoop ghadis (sundials) from scratch. The teacher was apparently an award-winning geography teacher at a local school in Chhapra. The auto driver recalled how the class would spend hours telling the time and figuring out how the dhoop ghadi worked.

The conversation then led to local ways of telling time and other “calculations” in the absence of fancy machinery. He mentioned how his aunts and grandmother used to use the shadow of the hut’s roof to accurately determine the time of the day and I was reminded of the immensely hilarious scene in Satyajit Ray’s Goopi Gayne Bagha Bayne (1969), when Goopi wanted to sing a morning raga but was unsure of the time, so the village head held forth his walking stick saying that till its shadow doesn’t fall on the stone lying on the road, it was still morning. This got us talking about Indian mythology and how Vidur’s running commentary of the Kurukshetra War to Dhritrashtra is similar to the modern-day satellite system (yes, all those who sat through my hour-long presentation in college, stop rolling your eyes!); similarities between the characters in our epics and those who exist now. The gentleman mentioned reading about Walter Hudson in school, who was “the heaviest man” in the world at the time, and how that’s similar to the giant rakshasas in epics, like Ravana’s brother Kumbhakaran. “People who eat and drink several quintals of food are quite like those rakshasas, hai na?” he asked us. Hmmm… a fair assessment. The driver went on about his teacher and what all he learnt for a few more minutes.

Curious about how he knew and remembered all this, we asked him about his schooling. I half expected him to say he’d studied all the way through to college, but couldn’t find work. Turned out, he had just studied till class 10. After a little more prodding, he continued with his life story. He said that after giving his 10th Board exams, his family wanted to him to get married. Unable to argue with the elders, he reluctantly gave in, on one condition, that his future wife be allowed to study. The family grudgingly agreed, he told us, adding, they hadn’t expected him to follow through with his decision.

With a wife to support, the driver started working in the field. All the while making sure she got ample money and time for her studies. When the income proved insufficient and his wife had finished school, they packed their bags and came to Delhi. He started work as a labourer; saved as much as he could, and added to his earlier savings, he was soon able to buy an autorikshaw. Meanwhile, staying true to his resolve to educate his wife, he made sure she finished her BA Pass degree, followed by a master’s in history and finally a B.Ed. She is now teaching history at a Kendriya Vidyalaya in north Delhi. He has a 20-something son who is doing his master’s in English from Delhi University and is working as a translator for various publications. He had done his bachelor’s from one of the top DU colleges {I forget which, I’m sorry :-(}. His daughter is currently in her second year of Chemisty (Hons.) at the Banaras Hindu University.

As he drove into Kasturba Gandhi Marg, our destination, he quoted, or at least what I remember he quoted, Gandhi: “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world… as in being able to remake ourselves.” He couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate quote, adding: My kids and wife now tell me to rest at home and let them take over the finances, but I just tell them that as long as I am able, I want to work and fend for myself. I am not hurting anyone, I don’t cheat anyone by driving an auto. I will work till I can. What’s the use of sitting and doing nothing? That’s the root of all that’s wrong.

As we stared (and gaped) admiringly at the auto zoom ahead, it struck us both: “We should have at least asked his name”.


  1. you definitely should have asked his name, noted down the address and got a stoy up on ur newspaper! this is awesome. m so glad u put it up... :)

  2. Thanks Pandey! And I know!!! Hopefully I'll meet him again some day :-)

  3. insightful article and terriffic autowallah!
    especially the reason he gave for driving auto in the end.........