If there one thing that I can confidently claim to have gained from a year and half of being an architect – it would be my increased mathematical capacity. Ever since the pretense of financial independence began, it has become almost a necessity to quickly calculate the balance remaining in the bank account before handing over the card to be swiped. Considering the fact that the said balance has even dwindled to single digit numbers – this calculation has helped me more than once to salvage one’s dignity and walk out of stores with the pride in place.
So it is only natural that I laugh when approached by people trying to sell insurance policies and coaxing me to join chit funds.
Things haven’t changed much post marriage. V and I take a solemn resolution to keep a strict tab on our spending at the beginning of each month – which gets forgotten in due time in the maze of dairy milk silks and pizza coupons. And the black book that was expressly bought for this purpose gathers dust at the bottom drawer of the dresser.
Yet, these days I think for at least a minute before I hand out that card to be swiped. I pause before I pick up yet another pair of footwear. And each time I pick up a note to be spent over something frivolous, a face comes to mind.
A tearful, pleading face of an auto driver in Chennai.
It was on a hot summer afternoon that I hailed his auto as I walked out of a shopping mall into the busy street. After haggling for a bit about the fare – I gave in and climbed on to the auto. I sat at the edge, very close to the entry – my shopping bag firmly in my lap and clutching the handbag that hung from my shoulders. I had begun to be cautious in autos having lost many things over auto rides. My carelessness is enough of a joke among people I know – and I didn’t want to add a new story to the list.
A small picture of Jesus Christ hung alongside a framed photograph of rajnikanth above the rear view mirror. The auto-driver must have caught my smile of fascination as he caught my eye in the mirror.
“Christian , madam? “ . He asked, the tiny gap between his teeth showing as he smiled.
“No”. I said, not wanting to get into a discussion – and focused on the outside, my mind unwittingly wandering as our auto sped.
It was the blaring of a Tamil church song that broke my reverie. A mobile phone shook within the khakhi driver’s uniform. He slowed down the auto and stopped it on the sidewalk stepping out to answer the call. I sat waiting looking at his lean frame in the distance.
He returned back just as I was getting a little impatient and we started again. My thoughts had just about begun to scatter when I heard a faint sobbing. The auto-driver’s eyes were tearing up.
I was most alarmed.
“What is it?” I enquired in my broken Tamil.” Why in the world are you crying? “
“It is my wife, madam” He said. “She’s pregnant and admitted in the hospital. I just got a phone call that her situation is serious and she must have an immediate operation”
“Look at my hand madam” He said extending his palms to show me the marks from constant holding of the controls of the auto.
“I have been driving the auto all day and all night. I still don’t have the money for the operation or even the medicines. I don’t know what to do”
He was sobbing hard by now and my heart had begun to melt.
“You can drop me here, anna. I’ll find my way – why don’t you go to the hospital” I said, preparing to get out of the auto and handing him his fare.
“No madam, I will drop you “He insisted wiping his copious tears with one hand.
There is something to be said about watching a grown man cry piteously before you. I gave up every pretense of being a detached passenger and became and active listener, crying to console the poor man in a mixture of English and Tamil.
He rambled on, about his wife, their life and his helplessness. I listened – and at some point – just burst out asking him if I could offer any help.
Perhaps the medicines?
Three thousand rupees, madam. He said sadly.
I stared down at the shopping bags in my hand. The stuff which it held, that cost more than the amount that he had asked of me – felt completely frivolous.
I can never claim to be a self made person. If not for the wonderful coincidence of being born to loving parents who cared about my well-being and strove to get me an education, I would never have made it so far. If not for all the beautiful things that were endowed to me by chance – merely by chance – I could have had the same fate as this poor auto driver.
Please stop at an ATM, I told him.
He looked at me with eyes filled with such wonder that it was almost a little scary. He then stopped his auto on the sidewalk – getting out of it and falling at my feet, all while crying copiously.
I was completely taken back by this open display of emotion by this utter stranger. I urged him to carry on and he did. He drove – all the while promising that he will pay me back – every penny and passing on his phone number. He rambled on about how this was all about god’s love stopping abruptly at one point to enquire if I had enough money in my account to survive the month if I gave him the three thousand.
Three thousand rupees is by no means a very small amount to me. But somehow this man’s need seemed infinitely greater to mine. Somehow, giving him the money seemed the only right thing to do. I didn’t think for a moment that the man could be cheating me – or that he could be a liar.
I paid him the money and took another auto to reach my destination where V was waiting for me. I told V everything that happened expecting to be roundly scolded for being a fool. My lack of shrewdness has always frustrated him and I braced myself for a full round of firing – which I received.
V’s wrath over the incident died away soon. I had to change my mobile number soon after for some reason and I never bothered to contact that auto driver again.
Perhaps the auto driver was just an incredible actor and I was merely his gullible victim. Perhaps I was an utter and total fool to give away money to a complete stranger.
But the important thing was the lesson the incident thought me – about this vast divide that exists within our society. About the enormous difference that the same amount holds for me and someone else. About how something frivolous to me can mean the world to someone else.
It amazes me that so much happens in the world by chance. I could have been born in a slum and could have spent a life of hardships. But I was lucky – for no merit of mine. It makes me want to do something for the world around me. Somehow share my luck.
I had this boss at my first job with whom I used to have long discussions about everything under the sun. He told me once to never feel guilty of one’s luck. To enjoy one’s pleasures as much as possible and never hesitate to spend money over oneself.
But T sir , it merely doesn’t seem right….