The frustrations of middle class started with the advent of Industrial Age and reached it’s zenith when Public Transport was introduced. There was no commute to work till the steam engine was invented which heralded the industrial revolution; people just worked in farms near their homes or owned land and did not work. The mass transport changed human behavior like nothing before. Anyone who has taken a tube in London or waited for a metro in Tokyo or Paris or a boarded subway in New York or attempted to get into suburban train in Bombay (Mumbai) would know what I am referring to. In other large cities where there were no trains or introduced much later, the buses played an equally cruel part in packing people like sardines in a tin can as it happens in Jakarta or Calcutta (Kolkata) or Delhi. The same must be true for Caracas, Santiago and Say Paulo.
I have seen my aunts struggling to get into a train from a distance suburb in Mumbai to go to downtown in the mornings and that was in seventies. BBC has made an excellent documentary on Mumbai Trains and you can watch it here;
If you google top short story writers of the world, you would always see it’s filled with writers from English speaking world or from Europe whose stories were translated to English. The Top 5, I saw today is Edgar Allan Poe, O Henry, Mark Twain (all English), Chekov (Russian) and Kafka (Czech). There are thousands of stories written in other languages by equally great writers but their works are not known because they were not translated into English or French.
Indira Parthasarathy, a great storyteller in Tamil, has written some excellent short stories, novels and plays. The following story is about the disappointments, frustration and anger of a man who tries to get a rickshaw (a 3 wheel contraption used for Public Transport) in Delhi with his young daughter. It’s one of my favourite stories and will definitely figure in my Top 100.
An overcrowded Delhi Transport Bus and Rickshaw
Distance – தொலைவு
Janpath Traffic Island. Mammoth buses, having waited like statutes, started off with full acceleration once the signal turned Green.
“Dad! Look there! Scooter!” Kamali shouted as she wrung herself free from protective hands of Vasu and ran across the road unmindful of the Red Signal.
“Kamali” shouted Vasu.
She looked at him with disappointment. Vasu dragged her back to safety of the platform.
“You should cross only when you see ‘walk’. How many times have I told you this? You are seven years old and still you don’t understand this.”
“That Scooter was empty. Now someone will get in before we walk across” said Kamali.
“Let them get in. But you should not cross the road now” said Vasu. Auto Rickshaw is called Scooter in Delhi.
“Dad everyone is doing that.”
“If someone makes a mistake should everyone else follow?”
Kamali was getting angry with her dad. They were searching for an Auto Rickshaw for the last half an hour. Vasu had made her walk all the way from Plaza.
They could have gone by bus. But buses were overflowing with passengers. With the child can he get into a bus? Vasu could not contemplate this. They could have taken a taxi, but Vasu could not afford one. It would cost four rupees to go to Lodhi colony. Of course, they are going to get interim allowance. But last month he had to rush to Bombay to see his elder sister who fell ill. So, he had to borrow money for that trip. Though he does not like to borrow, sometimes things get out of hand. How can you manage unforeseen expenses?
“Dad someone got into that Scooter” Kamali said with irritation.
He could understand her irritation. But what can one do? After 5 PM in the evening getting a Scooter in Connaught Place is impossible. Whether you will get one or not totally depended on your luck.
Vasu thought he never had luck. He wanted to join Medical College. He scored good marks as well. But when he was asked in the interview, “how much did it rain in Central Africa last year?” he could not answer. So next year he researched heavily on rainfall and sunshine of all the countries and went to the interview. But this time he was asked, “what do people do in the afternoon in Mexico?” So, he did not get a seat that year as well. It was written on his forehead that he should study B.A and become a clerk in Delhi. He just accepted that.
“Dad. I can see ‘walk’ signal now.”
‘OK. Hold my hand and don’t run” said Vasu as they stood near Cynthia House.
“My leg is hurting” said Kamali. If they had taken the Scooter near Marina, they would have reached home by now. That Scooter fellow also looked as if he wanted to go to Lodhi Road. He accepted to Vasu’s request. But suddenly a lady came barging and said she stopped the Scooter first. The Scooter fellow asked her where she wanted to go and she said “Carson Road.” Scooter fellow told her that the place is nearby and she could walk. But she was not ready. Since she had flagged the Scooter first, Vasu thought her anger is justified. He asked her to get in and stepped aside. Instead of thanking him, she got in as if she had won the battle of rights. If he had not worried about what is right, Kamali’s leg would not hurt now.
If you don’t respect basic things in life, what’s the point in living in Society? But is it possible to do that in a constantly changing world?
Near Plaza, three Scooters were standing. Vasu was holding Kamali’s hand and stood with piety. But none of the drivers looked at him. Vasu looked at one of the drivers who was smoking and said, “I need a Scooter.”
Without looking at him, the driver asked, “where to?”
The driver did not reply as he exhaled smoke. The next driver told if he was ready to go to Red fort he would come. Vasu thought instead of Lodhi colony he should have been living near Red fort. Just then, the third driver who was knotting his pyjamas, turned and told him he would come for Four Rupees. Vasu was getting angry. Even a taxi ride would cost only four rupees and if he could afford four rupees why would he bargain with Scooter driver?
“Dad! Look one more scooter.”
The scooter had an open top which would facilitate good air flow. No need to look at chart. It had new Meter installed. Vasu ran towards the Scooter as if he has attained the full benefit of his birth. He informed the driver twice where he wanted to go but the driver did not reply. Vasu asked him the third time and driver shot back. “The radiator is very hot and I can’t go anywhere for an hour.” It looked the driver was hotter than the radiator.
Vasu was irritated that he could not get into his favourite Scooter. It’s been six months since the notification for the new meters were announced. But 75% of Scooters still carried old charts. One has to concentrate totally to settle the meter with chart or one will be duped. ‘Even if you pay more in New Meter than old meter it’s OK, but not getting duped with Old Meter is akin to protecting myself against bad elements’, thought Vasu. In cities like Delhi, if one has to spend all his energy in not getting duped how can one get into a progressive life?
Kamali asked, “shall we go in Taxi?” Except the fact that her leg was paining, she did not bother if Central Government Clerk can afford a Taxi during month end. That economic worry was beyond her. It’s not that he could not afford Taxi now. Even during the first week after he got his salary he could not think of taking a Taxi without guilt. The mechanical life based on economical necessities, makes you conditioned to live a life of guilt.
“We will not get Scooter!” cursed Kamali.
“Don’t be in a hurry. We will get one.”
“Let’s go by bus.” She had understood that her dad is not going to take her in a Taxi. Instead of loitering around for scooter, she thought it’s better to take a bus.
“Can you get into the bus in this crowd?
“What should we do then? Should we never get home and stay here?”
That question gave him dangerous premonition in his mind. They are waiting for a scooter in Connaught Place their entire life. He has grown old and even Kamali has become a woman. Even the next generation of Scooter drivers refuse to take them.
“Dad that bus is empty. Let’s take that.”
Vasu turned back. The bus won’t go to Lodhi Road. It will stop near Madras hotel. That’s why there is no rush in that bus.
“This bus won’t go to Lodhi Colony” he replied.
“Dad why don’t they make all the buses to go to Lodhi Colony?”
How can you answer this question? Lodhi colony is not Rome for all the roads to go there. He contemplated if he can explain to Kamali why Government is running buses. The Government which is worried about the society is not concerned about the individual. Only when an individual gets ready to give up his rights, the society gets formed. Can Kamali understand this?
Why only Kamali? Who understand this? An individual gets into the society only to unduly gets benefitted by it. Those who are successful in this, become Frankenstein monsters and use others for their benefits. But if one follows the rules diligently, it means you are fighting the cruelty of this machine. When Vishwamitra found out that Harichandra speaks only the truth how irritated and angry he became?
“Dad look! Murthy Uncle is going!”
Vasu turned back. When he listened to Kamali’s voice Murthy stopped his car. He studied with Vasu. When he was in college, his name was Gopalan. Probably to justify his name, instead of butter, he used to steal other students’ cycles and sell them. He had a partner called Nathan in this. One day they got caught and were sent to prison for six months. Now Nathan is a big criminal lawyer in Chennai and Goplan has become Murthy and is working as a liaison officer in a big company in Delhi.
About three months back Vasu saw him in Udyog Bhavan. When he turned back he was shocked and told Vasu, “My name is Murthy and you are mistaken.” Vasu wondered how two people can look so alike. After two days he came to Vasu’s house and told him, “you forget Gopalan. My name is Murthy now and I am well off. It’s similar job to what I was doing in college only difference now my partner is the Government. I have a car and live in Sunder Nagar. Come home one day.”
When Vasu went to his house he understood that Murthy wants to use his connection in Udyog Bhavan. Once he realized this, he stopped going to Murthy’s house. But he came to Vasu’s house five or six times.
“Hello Vasu. Where are you going? Home?”
“Yes Home” Kamali replied and looked at Vasu hopefully.
I am not getting a Scooter. Should I go with him? Vasu thought like this for a moment. No, I should not get a feeling that I am indebted to him. That thought may make me expect few more comforts from him. Murthy expects that I should have such a feeling. One should join with others and live- this is how society was formed. Now it has changed to how can one use others and gain from all the opportunities that comes one’s way. If I go with Murthy, I will also become a part of this. Should not sacrifice my principle for immediate comfort? No! No! thought Vasu.
Vasu said, “We are not coming. You go.”
“I am going towards Lodhi Garden. You come with me!”
“You are going in the opposite direction and you are telling me that you are going to Lodhi Garden.”
“I have to see someone here and then I have to go to Lodhi Garden” Murthy said.
“You are staying in Sunder Nagar. Why do you have to go around Lodhi Garden? You go. Thank you.”
“Why are you making such a fuss? I will not come and trouble you in Udyog Bhavan. OK? I know lot of other people in Udyog Bhavan.”
Why is he saying this? – ‘You are a nobody in Udyog Bhavan and I don’t need your help’ to indicate this? Or to indicate, ‘I am ready to give money to so many people and why are you so innocent like this?’ What can we not achieve with money? There won’t be any necessity to do research in his mind now. I can go by taxi or even have my own car.
“What are you thinking? Just get inside the car?”
“No… please” Vasu pulled Kamali’s hand and started walking fast
Kamali wrung her hands. “Don’t hold my hands. I know how to walk.”
Vasu understood her anger. He did not say anything.
Two scooters were standing near Cynthia House. Drivers were not to be seen. When he neared the Scooter, Vasu looked around. Kamali pressed the ‘Horn.’
“No… you should not do like that.”
A driver appeared suddenly and asked him, “Where do you want to go?”
“You want to come back?”
Driver did not respond. He lit up a cigarette.
“Will Scooter come or not?”
“Don’t ask me. It’s not my turn. Ask the other driver.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know.”
By this time, five or six people came for the scooter. All got the same answer.
That Scooter fellow came after 15 minutes. Vasu ran to him. “I want to go Lodhi Colony.”
Just then a beautiful young lady smiled with her eyes and told the driver, “I want to go the Kaka Nagar.”
When Scooter fellow asked her to get in, Vasu said in an angry voice, “I am waiting here since last fifteen minutes. Ask the other Scooter fellow”
“When he was called as a witness the other driver turned his head away. Vasu did not leave and asked him, “Who came first?”
“How does it matter? Look he is going with that lady!”
Vasu thought that the lady was mocking him. His body shook in anger. He wanted to break the next Scooter, all the taxis nearby and buses to pieces. Ten years back, when he was going from Kumbakonam to Swami Malai was he waiting for a bus or a Scooter or a Taxi? Can he not carry Kamali to Lodhi Colony home?
Kamali may cry if he lifts her. I can make her understand. Even then he will be called – Mad. In an increasingly complex society one has to accept and live with an idea that, ‘society means everyone except me.’ I need to fight this.
“Kamali… come on let’s walk home.”
“All the way by walk?” Kamali was stunned.
“If you can’t walk, let me know. I will carry you.”
Taxis, Scooters and buses were rushing past in a line.
Vasu and Kamali have to walk a long distance.
Doodle Courtesy: Rachna
Indira Parthasarathy (commonly known as Ee. Paa.) is the pen name of R. Parthasarathy, a noted Tamil writer and playwright. He was born in July 7 1930. He has published 16 novels, 10 plays, anthologies of short stories, and essays. He is best known for his plays, “Aurangzeb”, “Nandan Kathai” and “Ramanujar”.
He has been awarded the Saraswati Samman (1999), and is the only Tamil writer to receive both the Sahitya Akademi Award (1999) and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (2004). He received Padma Shri in the year 2010, given by Government of India.