The Driver by Any Other Name….!

I commute to work by auto – that three-wheeled, middle-class individual’s hot wheels for rent. Driver et al! My ‘driver’ arrives at my place at 8:30 sharp, come rain or sunshine. He drives us (that’s me and my daughter, 7 month old Debbie) to the day-care centre, where I leave Debbie. Then he dutifully drops me off at my work place, and leaves after I have instructed him to come back at 1 pm…or 1:30 or 2:00, or whenever. He is quite flexible in such things, you see.

The driver (whose name, by the way, is Subhash, read the ‘u’ as in ‘look’ and ‘a’ as in ‘far’ ) is back at 1pm as promised and he waits patiently at the gates of the big building where I work until I decide it’s time to leave. Then the usual routine of picking Debbie up at the day-care centre and back home by 2:30, give or take a few.

Each day the trip is made in absolute silence, except for the sirens of cars whizzing by and the wheeze of the giant government bus, huffing along with its cross(es)! We easily overtake the bus, but little else! Subhash is a careful driver, barely raising the accelerator beyond 30 km per hour, (quite frustrating if you’re late for work, but reassuring if you think of your child’s safety) and so we practically see the entire working community fly by before we get where we’re going. Hence, the half hour head start! Slow and steady may not win the race but at least we get there!

Subhash, bless his heart, follows orders to the tee. He never asks questions and never expects explanations. He never offers advice, his greatest redeeming feature, considering the favorite pastime of the majority of the populace of Nagercoil (look for us on the map of Tamil Nadu, please…better still, look up ‘tsunami’ on the Net, we’re there, on the map.….! See, I told you! Pretty famous, huh!).

Well, anyway, I sorely digress. The point is, not that we got hit by tsunami, which historical event I missed, but that people of Nagercoil like to give advice (and ask personal questions!), free of cost, whether you want it or not. Everyone from the lady selling fish on your street to your ‘mother of two children-holding a plump government job-free most of the time-so-nosy as hell’ neighbor gives you advice. No points for telling me how that feels!

However, (the “Hallelujah” chorus rings in the background!) Subhash holds back the advice, questions and any other uncalled-for chatter that drives me mad with rage. He only speaks when spoken to, and that too sparingly. Lately, I have started to feel that ‘Subhash’ is synonymous with ‘auto’. I have even saved him as “Subhash Auto’ on my cell phone!

Now, before you fling a shoe at me, there’s a point here, in all this. The other day, Subhash almost banged his auto into an old lady (the lady’s fault entirely), missed her by an inch and applied a sudden break. The old lady slowly turned around, and I thought, ‘ok here comes the Great Fight’ and…the widest smile spread itself slowly and brightly across her lips. She called out animatedly in Tamil, Thambi, nalla irrukiyapaa? Amme epdi irukkue?Naalla veettuku vaaren, enna? Which translates, “Little brother (word commonly used to address any male younger than oneself), are you well? How is your mother? I will come home tomorrow, ok?” In response, my hitherto unanimated and waiting-to-disappear-into-the-woodwork driver smiled as broadly, said ‘hello’ and ‘ok’ to all her questions and kept driving. The smile, meant only for the old lady, disappeared seconds later.

It made me think all the way home. Here was a person with a family, friends, and a happy, or perhaps difficult, life. He, just like me, woke up to the rising sun every morning. He, just like me, had a hurried breakfast and rushed out to his business. He, just like me, had aches and pains of the heart and the body. He was a live human being, with feelings and thoughts……., just like me. And yet, I thought of him only as my driver. “Subhash Auto”, at the most.

I felt ashamed at never having realized that. I suddenly felt ashamed at having made him wait for more than 5 minutes on the odd Monday morning, when he had to go on other morning trips after dropping me. I felt guilty for all those times when I felt righteous anger at him when he was a few minutes late, at all those times when I generally forgot he existed.

And then I thought of how we often forget that the shop attendant, whom we were impatient with, is actually someone’s son or daughter; that the slow cyclist ahead of us in traffic, whom we yelled at this morning, is someone’s father; that the janitor, for whom we left some candy wrap on the office floor, is someone’s beloved friend.

We simply label them with the jobs they hold. This insensitivity is glaring in the Indian habit of hailing someone by the wares they sell. For instance, the spinach seller is hailed as “keera” (Tamil for spinach)! The auto driver is referred to as ‘auto’. The sweet seller’s name is whatever he is selling at the moment. The neighbor who teaches at a local school becomes ‘teacher’ to everyone, whether it is the 10 year old colony-brat or the 50-year old grandpa down the road! See, I am no exception to the condition! We also have this queer habit of addressing someone by their relationship with their children (I know!). So, in effect, I would be called ‘Debbie Amma’ translated as ‘Debbie’s mother’, as if I have no identity of my own, save for what I am to my child! I do have a name, you know.

That’s how we lose sight of the ‘person’ in people, how we put them into slots and compartments and label them as something or the other. Usually, they are more than, or nothing like, what we make them out to be. How easily we hold prejudices based on ill advised, preconceived notions that have been passed on to us down through the history of society! How we see the world with foggy glasses that never clear up, ever! Oh, how we act based on these prejudices and kill and plunder and destroy lives, reputation and nations based on what we ‘think’ someone is!

We will never stop being inconsiderate, prejudiced, all-knowing oafs if we do not open the shutters of our minds to let the objective breeze of tolerance and understanding enter in, fill every cobwebbed corner and clear away the musty, dinghy stench of narrow-minded doctrines and superstitions that have been festering there from time immemorial. When we cannot allow the winds of free thought and universal tolerance to ventilate our minds, we can never open our doors to true Progress and Growth that stand knocking, waiting to come in and make our minds home to Higher Thoughts and Successful Lives.

Tomorrow, maybe I will greet Mr. Subhash with a “hello, how do you do?”, and mean it. Yes, that’s what I’ll do.