Babu is one of the trendiest auto rickshaw wallas in town. He’s also perhaps the most sensitive, perceptive and alert. Quite an impressive combination of qualities, you’d agree. On an average, if one can dare to make such a claim, this is not so with other auto rickshaw drivers of Pune.
Perhaps because they are a beleaguered lot — over-worked, under-motivated, stress-ridden, with poor health, precariously surviving on the very edge. But Babu, he stands apart.
A few nights ago when we were looking for a rick to take us to a multiplex on the other side of the city, seven rick wallas turned us down. Just then Babu came forward and asked us to hop in.
On the way, I promised to pay him a bit extra but he didn’t respond. When we got off, I forgot to keep my word and instead paid him according to the card. He didn’t remind me and pushed off, singing to himself.
Half way through the show, I remembered my oversight and felt bad about it. So the next day when I bumped into him at the stand I shelled out the extra bucks. ‘What’s this for?’ He wanted to know.
‘This is what I had promised you.’
‘Promised me? When?’ He raised his eyebrows.
‘Last night.’ I reminded him.
‘Last night was last night. This is another day.’
‘I know, but I promised.’
‘Have I reminded you? No. Right?’
‘So where do you want to go today?’
I told him and we were off.
Gliding along, we got talking, as we usually do when I am in his rick. ‘The hot days have arrived,’ he said, ‘the days when the sun cracks its whip and we can feel the blisters.’
‘Must be hell for you,’ I added. ‘With all the dust and fumes and traffic and…’
‘And wild drivers. Everyone goes wild on the streets in Pune in this season. I am willing to bet that by the time we reach your school, we will see at least one fight on the street…’
He had hardly finished his sentence when on the narrow road running alongside Poona Club, a young motorcyclist and an autorickshaw driver were engrossed in a war of words. Cars and bikes began piling up on either side while their verbal slugfest continued.
Babu jammed his brakes and then turning — began to circle the two gladiators. Neither of them noticed him at first but when they did, the motorcyclist reacted. ‘What’s your problem?’ He snapped. ‘What’s your problem man? Why don’t you mind your own business?’
Babu didn’t reply but continued to circle the two making them increasingly uneasy. Finally, he reached down and produced an iron rod, then called out to the motorcyclist, ‘you need this.’
The fellow looked at him and asked, ‘So you’re taking his side, eh? I can take both of you on. Now. Right here.’
‘Idiot,’ replied Babu, ‘Idiot. I’ve never seen an idiot as big as you.’
‘Why don’t you mind your own business and let’s go Babu,’ I said firmly.
‘So your running away?’ He asked me. ‘You have no time to step in and help solve the problem?’
‘So you’re planning to solve the problem with an iron rod?’ I responded.
Meanwhile, two passersby intervened and sent the two gladiators on their way. ‘What got into you?’ I enquired. ‘You are usually a quiet soft spoken fellow Babu. And there you were ready to join the fight. You were all set to take the side of the auto walla. Obviously…’
‘Not at all,’ he replied, ‘I was offering the motorcyclist the rod. Because the auto walla was armed. He had a knife under his shirt. He would used it, believe me. I was just trying to help. I didn’t want the young fellow to get injured the way my brother did. He was stabbed by a drunken motorist. This is his auto. Thanks to him I have this auto.’
‘So where is your brother now?’