As a part of our rural immersion at India Fellow, my teammates and I visited a village called Jiswal*, 20 km away from Udaipur, Rajasthan. Being the group leader, I was responsible for managing the commute and food expenses of our team for 4 days in the field. Usually, when we return, we take a bus to Chetak circle which is among the main bus stops in the town, and then we book a cab to our training venue.
On the final day, when I was about to click ‘confirm’ on Uber, for 130 rupees to our destination, an auto driver who seemed to be in his early 50s approached me and asked, “Sir aapko kidhar jana hai?“, I told him Jeevantara and he quoted 150 rupees. Seeing that the difference was just 20 rupees, the leftist in me thought, “Okay, let the auto guy get that money instead of a multinational corporation” (against the wishes of one of my teammates, though). They sat behind and I, being the tiniest in the group, sat on front seat of the auto-rickshaw, sharing it with the driver.
We started making small talk and soon he asked me where I’m from. His face lit up when I said Kerala. He mentioned that he has visited the state several times and that he loves the place. It was surprising for him that being from Kerala, I was able to speak Hindi fluently. Till date, he had only seen two Malayalis who can speak Hindi fluently. The other one was an army captain known as Major Nair. He knew him as his brother’s colleague, who also served the army. From there, he started telling the story of him being a taxi driver for most of his life and recently, taking up auto-rickshaw driving in order to live in his hometown.
He was grateful to have had the good fortune of visiting all 29 states in India numerous times and having worked in UAE briefly. There was a sense of pride in him, being from Udaipur. He spoke to me in great detail, about the history of the city with great enthusiasm and mentioned how he gets irritated when he sees people dirtying his city by littering, spitting and urinating on the roads. His belief is that India should have more strict rules like those of UAE, to penalize the offenders. When I shared that I and my friends plan to work in grassroots organizations and we were here for the training, he said that it’s a great choice and only people with a clear conscience or goodness at heart would think about such a carrier choice.
He has a good amount of religious knowledge as he had spent a large part of his life studying various religious scriptures including the Gita, the Koran, the Torah as well as Buddhist and Jain manuscripts. Even though he was a devout Muslim, he understands and respects Hinduism as he finds the religion is flexible, which is its greatest strength even though it can sometimes be seen as a weakness. In his curiosity to know about my religious perspective, he asked if I was a Hindu or a Muslim. In order to not offend him, I hesitatingly told that I am ‘almost an atheist’. He quickly caught the duality and flaw in my answer before saying, “You can never be an almost atheist. Either you are one or you’re not!”.
The previous day, as a part of an activity during our training, we had discussed how someone living in rural Rajasthan may not be aware of events that happened years ago in places that are thousands of kilometers away. How could someone with basic education, without having gone to fancy schools or being a part of prestigious fellowship programs would know about faraway Kerala or Guatemala?
This conversation, even though an exception, was an eyeopener for me, and probably for anyone in my place. It was a reminder that we should avoid judging other people on the basis of their occupation, financial status or education. I found Habib Bhai* to be more socially and politically aware than many of the ‘educated’ millennial friends who can be seen hooked to their smartphones in order to stay informed.
On reaching, I paid him the fare, we exchanged numbers and he offered to take us on a city tour in case me and/or my friends plan to do that, saying that he will just be a call away. I was curious to know about his family, and immediately asked about his wife and children. At that point, I noticed his tone changing as he said, “Sirji, I live alone and have not married till date”. It was again a reminder to not assume.
*Names changed to protect identity