Friday, January 20, 2006

Three Conversations and an Encounter (Part 3)

The encounter:

A week ago, when time was short, showers infrequent, and the mornings rushed, I got drawn into an addictive, evil habit. Of zooming (in)to the university by auto-rickshaw. Anyway, with two posts under my belt today (to compensate for what was and might be a rather sparse week before and after today's publishing), let's cut the foreplay.

Buses in Delhi offer a certain set of experiences. While mine have been largely bland, some friends have had to put up with the horrendous pawing and groping that almost every woman in this city has been inflicted with. Pawing and groping, and much much worse :-( Names shall not be taken, but I've heard stuff that... well, will never leave me. The intrusion, discomfort and humiliation
heaped on women, who are made to bear it in the most painful silence makes me wonder why more men aren't thrown off (not while they're moving, mind you) buses for their behaviour, clutching their groins in pain, faces contorted by a swift and strong jab to their nuts.

Coming back to autos... An entirely different swathe of experiences is possible, if travelling by these three-wheeled contraptions. Not only is it a struggle to negotiate a non-extortive journey, but also to understand how most of these guys passed the driving test.

But I digress.

Tehelka, which (if I remember correctly) tags itself the "fastest growing weekly", has of late, vanished from the neighbourhood's news-stands. Its website is subscription-only, and bugmenot doesn't have a free password :-( Somehow, for a publication that has good writing and features (despite its obvious tilt) and tags itself in the aforementioned way, the only place to get my hands on it is the T-junction (site of some of this part of the city's worst traffic jams) en route the university.

This particular T-junction is also the point at which the major elements (the auto habit, the possibility and difference in/of experiences, the aforementioned newsweekly of this story, and some others) converge. Intersect. Singularize.

It's winter and the destitute face a starker set of challenges, which oscillates them between a bare life and a barer death. Or the other way round. As the auto slowed to a halt for the light, a kid, not older than six, grabbed the iron bar at the right. He was pulled
- hopefully not dragged, because friction injuries on/from tarmac are painful and take a long time healing - along by the vehicle's momentum for about two meters. Peering into the auto and at an article I was looking through, he tried hawking a tabloid from the previous day.

I didn't know how to get rid of him (which, really, is what I wanted to do, on that cold morning ;-( ) Finally, I said I'd buy, but only if he had Tehelka. It was a cheap trick, because I could tell the pile he hauled was composed of just one tabloid brand. A cheap trick, to shoo him off. To disappoint him. To regain the initiative, by setting the rules of the game :-( This was also when, in the face of the unexpected, the unknown, the unpredictable, my calculations (including whether I could pay for what I'd asked) went haywire. For all the inertia - being pulled, the pleading, the tired entreaties - he had displayed in the previous minute, these words were a catalyst for activity.

Jumping over the central verge, and onto the other side of road, he ran across, full breath.. There was no traffic... he wouldn't have tried this dash otherwise. Climbing a few feet onto a tree, retrieving a copy of Tehelka, and running back across, he was back before I'd even stopped imagining the terrible consequences of doing this during the morning rush hour. Didn't time it - and time felt like it stopped - but all of this might've taken just twenty seconds.

Sadly, almost as soon as I fumbled - strange, how the tables were turned - with my wallet and paid (up), two more kids appeared, with their tabloids and Tehelkas; clinging on and getting dragged - to the horror of the autowallah - as the lights turned green, and the traffic started moving.


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