‘Why did you take our responsibility when you cannot fulfill it?’ yelled Rabi’s wife. ‘Fine…just leave and go to your father’s home… I am unable to take care of any of you….’ yelled back Rabi. He was tired of the incessant fighting and the ever increasing demand for money. This fight was going on for the past 2 days and every time his wife accused him of the same things and finally of marrying her and spoiling her life.
What could he do? He was a mere auto-rickshaw driver; he tried his best to earn a living in a respectful way. He was honest and had not learned the nasty tricks like that of his fellow auto-rickshaw drivers. He always charged the exact fare; never did he try to cheat his customers. Was that his fault? It is not that he did not try; he tried many times but failed each time. Every time his conscience came in the way and he could never do any such thing. Mala, his wife now, had eloped with him some years back, because she felt that he had a heart of gold. She fell in love with his honesty; and now after a marriage of 4 years and two children, she accused that same honesty for being the reason of their poverty and want. There were fights every day because he could not earn extra money like the other drivers did. He was tired and frustrated. Every day he thought that he would leave one day and never return, but then the faces of his children cropped up in front of him and he came back home each time.
‘When will you ever try to give us a better life?’ shouted Mala at the top of her voice. Although an auto rickshaw driver, Rabi was different from others. He did not like shouting and haggling with customers, nor did he like the fact that his wife shouted while fighting with him. He felt very embarrassed when other people could hear their personal issues. He was furious but he did not say anything. He took his shirt from the clothes hook on one side of the wall and stormed out of the house. He started his auto rickshaw and went looking for passengers.
Mala got a little frightened with the silent response. She stopped abruptly in her anger and started to fear whether she had gone too far this time. She ran out of the house to see the end of Rabi’s speeding auto rickshaw disappear round the corner. She could not even ask where he was headed to. In her confusion, she slapped the toddler tugging at the end of her sari. The child shrieked loudly and started crying. Mala busied herself then, in consoling the child and went inside the house.
Rabi parked his auto rickshaw in the auto-stand and started waiting for his turn to take passengers to the station. Suddenly another auto-driver approached him shouting: ‘Today, you are not supposed to take passengers from this stand. Yesterday you fought with me over a petty passenger. I will not allow you to take any passenger from here!’ Rabi was bewildered for a moment, and then he remembered his brawl with this guy the last night. He was demanding extra money from a passenger when Rabi had stepped in to take the side of the passenger and rebuke him. Then had ensued a bad quarrel and his behavior now was the aftermath of that event. Rabi tried to smile and reason with him but it was no use. He was adamant to make Rabi leave. Finding no way out, Rabi started the engine of his auto and drove to the auto-stand close to the bus stand, hoping that his day would improve a little.
There were a lot of people at the bus stand. The Diwali holidays were coming in a few days and everyone seemed to travel everywhere, either they were returning to their homes or traveling to visit some place. Rabi noticed a couple standing near the Inter-City bus stand. They seemed quite well dressed and a little misfit in the usual crowd of bus-stands. The wife was talking over a cell-phone and motioned to her husband to take the luggage and cross the road. They crossed the road and were now standing next to Rabi’s auto-rickshaw. She went off the phone and kept checking her watch repeatedly, talking to her husband about the Bus that they were supposed to catch; which seemed to be late by some minutes. She then inquired at the ticket booth about the whereabouts of the bus.
The guy at the booth looked at her, heard her inquiry and informed her in a nonchalant tone, ‘That bus has left on time and is already half way….’ The woman could not believe what she heard and that too delivered by this inquiry-boy in such a non-alarming fashion!
‘What? Give me the number of the Bus coordinator now…I want to talk to him…How can they leave the bus without us? I had called yesterday to confirm our boarding from this point…give me the number now…’ she burst out on him. The guy at the counter replied with equal calm, ‘They must have felt that they don’t want to go this way…. so they left….here…you can talk to the bus coordinator if you want’. She was furious by the time he gave her the number but decided to talk to the bus coordinator first and then deal with this guy.
Rabi was admiring the woman’s skills in negotiating and shouting at other people to get her work done. She was again on the phone and with sound logic convinced the bus coordinator to stop the bus at the next stop, where they would reach by any means. Rabi was thinking what Mala would have done in such a situation. She would have either started crying or started a quarrel with Rabi saying it’s-all-because-of-you. It was true that education does change people and make them more reasonable. Amongst all these musings, a thought suddenly crossed Rabi’s mind.
By now, the phone call was over and she and her husband started looking for a mode of transport to reach the next bus stop. Rabi jumped into action. The usual fare to reach the next stop would be a mere 30 rupees but he thought he would demand 150. He waved at them to come and sit in his auto rickshaw. They came and started getting in when the woman inquired about the fare. Rabi’s reply of 150 rupees infuriated her further. ‘Are you crazy?’ she replied and instantly got off his auto rickshaw and started looking for another. Rabi got a little scared, she seemed tough and maybe he had stretched the fare a bit too much. He shouted back, ‘Okay…120 rupees…not a penny less than that….’
‘Just because you heard the problem that we are in, doesn’t mean you that you will take advantage of the situation! Look at how you are charging so much more…!’ haggled the woman. Rabi also did not want to charge more but he had to take some more money home, because he wanted to give Mala and their children a better life. He had to start earning more sometime or the other, and this was a golden opportunity, so why not! Rabi saw that they had no other mode of transport, so he tried his luck and replied,
‘If you don’t want to go then don’t go…I don’t want to haggle with the price’. The lady was adamant too, ‘Fine! We will give you what you are asking for, only if we catch the bus, but nothing if we miss it…’ Rabi was certain that he could reach the next bus stop on time, and the fare was quite a bit more than he usually got, he agreed. The couple was also in a fix, although he was charging more than the usual fare, they had no other way out, so they got back into the auto rickshaw and asked Rabi to speed up as much as he could.
The woman constantly kept track of the bus’s movement by talking to the coordinator over phone. Rabi started to like the woman’s crisis-handling abilities. He caught a glimpse of the woman talking to her husband now, from the rear view mirror. She was pretty, confident and certainly educated enough to control and mold the workings of this male dominated world as per her requirement. Nevertheless, he sped his auto-rickshaw as much as he could and was quite near his destination. He jived and juggled between several cars, buses, pedestrians and people on bicycles to reach the bus stand on time!
The couple sighed in relief as they saw the bus waiting for them at the bus stop. Finally they reached the bus stop, took their luggage out and paid Rabi the fare. They boarded and the bus sped by, leaving Rabi content. ‘Oh… What a day it was…isn’t it?’ mouthed the woman to her husband!
Rabi was happy, not only because he had earned a little extra money but also because this money would make Mala forget her worries for some time. He was also feeling good because he could help the couple catch the bus on time. He also made a mental note of taking his daughter’s schooling seriously, for the simple reason that he saw today an example how education made a person confident and independent. The biggest reason for their poverty, he felt, was a lack of education.
He kept thinking about all these while faring other passengers to and from their destinations. Finally, at the end of the evening and the break of the night he decided to return home. He had stormed out of the house in the morning without saying anything, Mala must be worried, he thought to himself.
He reached home and called out to wife in a happy voice, ‘Mala… come and see what I have got for you!’ Hearing her name, Mala almost ran out with a glass of water in her hand, already ashamed at her behavior in the morning. He put the day’s income in Mala’s hand. She smiled gripping the money in her fist, and replied with a smile still on her lips, ‘Oh… what a day it was…isn’t it?’
(To be continued......)