Get off the tourist trail. Tear that guidebook. Shed your inhibitions. Let the real India charm you.
The Man With The Turban and an Unexpected Life Lesson.
By Shraddha Panicker.
Somewhere below a pointless flyover in one of Punjab’s haphazardly growing cities, two girls with backpacks were doing something that anyone hardened by years of big city life is adept at. They were trying to hail an auto-rickshaw. Unfazed by a few who quoted inflated fares, they stood their ground until an old man driving one of those white-coloured, share-autos nodded, and told them to hop in.
We resumed the non-stop conversation we’d been having since the previous day. This morning, intense urban design discussions had given way to deliberating upon the complex history of the place we were in. We picked up the thread about Operation Bluestar and the ‘84 riots that we’d been dissecting at breakfast and launched into it anew, only to be interrupted by a traffic cop a few metres ahead. This king-of-the-road-jungle was abruptly waving the oncoming traffic to take a U-turn in the opposite direction. If you’ve grown up in India, you pretty much get used to arbitrary road diversions and one-ways that crop up overnight or (seemingly in this case) right in front of you. Like every Indian, you will typically, also make a last ditch effort at some jugaad to make your way around impossible situations.
You never know what an auto ride in India can turn into. Photo by Abhishek Shirali.
The auto driver looked at us in the rear view mirror and said, “Try telling him that you’ve come from a really faraway place to visit? Maybe he’ll let us pass then.” In response, the cop gave us a deadpan look and waved us away distractedly like particularly annoying flies. The whole functioning chaos of the situation riled me up immensely that morning for some reason, and I fumed in sudden anger. That’s when the auto driver turned his turbaned head around and held up his hand to tell us reassuringly, that he knew an alternate, albeit longer route. That’s also the first time I noticed his fingers. Or the lack of them. “The ’84 riots”, he said calmly, in response to our shocked silence. “That’s when I lost my fingers.” I felt the air around me shift perceptibly, quickly evaporating any hint of that sudden anger two seconds ago. With barely three half-fingers and two thumbs to account for his two hands, we watched as he took that U-turn with ease and navigated through the maze of animals, cycle rickshaws, cars and motorbikes. “So.. you’re not from around here?” I ask hesitantly. He’d spent his childhood and youth in Delhi, he said, before being forced to flee in the aftermath of the riots. Opening up a little on his own accord, he recounted a few graphic and disturbing scenes of how he had managed to hide for days and survive the ordeal. “It’s difficult to talk about it too much,” he says finally, with a slight faraway look. “Even as I speak of it, some of those scenes flash before my eyes, hauntingly. They never really leave.”
Village life in Punjab. Photo by Neha Mungekar.
You would think that someone who has survived so much trauma would hold a severely bitter and bleak outlook about humanity. But this was one of those times when you’re glad to be proved wrong. As we stopped to have chai in the sprawling campus which had pioneered the green revolution in the country, Bedi paaji spoke about life, family-bonds and the wonder of serendipity. A little wrong timing here and there, with or without the traffic cop’s intervention, and we could have missed having this long conversation we’re having now, he said happily. Unperturbed by the ‘storm’ raging in television studios a few days ago in response to the much hyped (but dud) “biggest interview of 2014,” he shrugged when I asked him about his political views. “You can’t expect this leader to do what essentially, the previous ones should have done,” he said. But what about justice, I pressed on. “What about it? I’ve already lost what I did. It’s done. Nothing can get it back.” he said simply. Although he hadn’t returned to Delhi ever since, he said he had moved on, and didn’t hold on to any bitterness.
Sometimes, the best conversations about life, love and meaning take place with complete strangers. Somewhere along the way, engrossed in talk, we had become the sole passengers in what was meant to be a shared auto-rickshaw. For the remainder of the day, Bedi paaji drove us around town with keen interest, pointing out the sights and the many new malls springing up.
If you’re waiting for a twist, there’s none in this tale. He didn’t take us for a ride or trick us. Instead, he smiled while the two girls trooped through a green field peppered with yellow or stood below uncertainly while they clambered up on a war tank to take a picture. Having turned around what was supposed to have been just another faceless, 10-minute auto ride, he had also somehow managed to embody things that no diabetic “inspirational” quote could ever encapsulate.
Immersing in the colors of Punjab. Photo by Neha Mungekar.
As evening came, the time to move onward on our journey arrived and we were dropped off safely, without a hitch. Plain and simple. Just before he bid goodbye though, he wrote down his name and number, with his not-so-perfect hands and not-so-perfect handwriting and handed it to us to wrap around quite a perfect day. Sometimes, ordinary love is the best kind. Come to think of it, it’s pretty darn extraordinary that it still exists.
Ever had such an unexpected encounter on your travels?
AUTHOR BIO: When she's not obsessing over words or working as a Grammar Nazi, Shraddha says she feels the most alive while travelling. You can follow her blog My Indelible Ink or her newfound love for doodling on Instagram. She tweets at @paniconthefloor.
PHOTOGRAPHER BIO: Neha Mungekar is an urban designer and architect as well as an avid traveller and photographer. Her passion for observing cities and people has driven her to offbeat paths, from capturing the -30*C Siberian winter in Russia to crawling through the Nighoj potholes in Maharashtra just to get the feel of a dry, summer river bed. Join her on Facebook page, or tweet her @neeeyaa