Define common, my mind told me, as I listened to this auto rickshaw driver speaking the truths of life as we know it in one of the largest democracies in the world. When he had started talking a while ago, I was surprised and I thought to myself, “wow! the real thoughts of the common man.” Yet, what I was witnessing was not so common, to say the least.
It was around 7 pm and with the sun just down, I beat a hasty retreat from the Mall in Saket. Playing at the toy store with my little girl had literally led me to forget what time it was and by the time I looked outside, I realised that it was later than I had imagined. At least for me. I make it a point to get home before sunset. Conditioned in a country that sped towards modernisation and related security woes in the 1990s? Yes, guilty as charged. My parents did not take any chances; and these days, that voice of caution stood me in good stead.
Until this chance meeting happened recently. Let me explain.
I rushed out of the mall, huffing and puffing, in desperate search of an autorickshaw that would take me to the other side of Delhi: almost next to the airport. And what do I find? Most of them refused, smilingly citing the distance. Others simply named a sky high price and refused to listen to my pleas to use the meter that would calculate the distance and the price accordingly.
Then there was this fellow. He was already hailed down by a group of boys, but he drove right past them and asked me where I needed to get and immediately agreed before snapping on his meter. Never had I been more relieved. Yet, I asked him for his rickshaw number and promptly sent a text message containing the same to my husband, who would get home from office around then.
As I settled down, the rickshaw began trudge along and before long, a traffic signal halted it. A middle-aged woman, holding a baby approached and held out her arm. It was bandaged, bleeding and much more than I care to actually recount here. Suffice to say that it was a gory sight. As she eyed my daughter, I immediately produced a 5 rupee coin, which she took before hastening away. She remained in my thoughts for a few more seconds before I was interrupted by the rickshaw driver. Let us call him Ram Singh.
“Madam, why did you do that?”
“She was bleeding. And did you not see the state of her barely there arm?” I replied with a question of my own. He smiled an easy smile and shook his head as he answered, “Madam, do you really think that any sane doctor or nurse would leave it in that state after putting a bandage on it? What she was wearing was a fake bandage. It comes manufactured with the stub at the end of the arm and copious amounts of blood to go!”
I had heard of these stories, but I was aghast at the way Ram Singh had effortlessly diagnosed the situation. I agreed that I had been made a fool and asked him what he thought of kids begging. “Well, that’s a different story,” he began as he took me through how the begging industry works, and how even an invitation to adopt is rebuked with a crass, “we make more money than you can imagine!”
At this, our man, got into the nitty-gritty of what I would like to term as public policy ethics. And never once did he raise his voice nor use bad language. He spoke about how the system at the traffic signal works and who all are involved. The best bit? He spoke without being judgmental. He simply told the tale of how it, and how this must cease.
Soon Ram Singh got down to education. These kids need to be put in school, under the guidance of teachers and a normal childhood, he reminded me in simple words. I did not need to hear the speech of a big politico to understand the essence of what was being revealed here. However, the massive racket that thrives on alms, literally, is one that is supported by the very people who have been given tools like uniforms and authority to actually put a stop to it. But then comes the question of what they make if not this: a measly salary? The problem is from within, he reminded me, echoing the sentiment that public policy needs to be fashioned for a thorough inside-out cleansing drive. “You really want development madam?” He asked. “Give the country to the armed forces: we will be a changed nation in 10 years!”