by Connie Stambush
“Tell the taxi-wallah to cross the Yumana River using Matura Bridge, not any other bridge. After crossing, tell him….” Sujata’s rhythmic right, left, right instructions left me dizzy.
“They’ll take advantage of you,” she continued in her sing-song cadence. “You foreigners don’t know taxi drivers like we do.”
“Don’t worry, Sujata, no one is going to take advantage of me,” I said, but that’s what I and other foreigners fear daily when we live abroad.
Sujata, a fellow editor at the wire service where we both work, had invited me to dinner with her family. I’m an American who had been living and working in New Delhi for a year, but this would be my first trip across the tea-colored river.
I knew she had legitimate concerns. Taxi and auto rickshaw drivers in New Delhi had devilish reputations. Since first moving to India, I’d heard all the stories of taxi-wallah ripoffs: their meters didn’t work; their meters were rigged to tick faster than allowed by law; they refused to activate their meters, preferring instead to negotiate outrageous sums before setting off. But their main scam, according to foreigner’s urban legend, is to chauffeur wide-eyed tourists around in circles, racking up the miles and money when the destination is just a few-rupees ride away.
A young German couple once told me that when they first arrived in New Delhi an auto rickshaw-wallah offered to take them from the train station to their hotel in the travelers’ ghetto Pahar Gang for fifty rupees. They readily agreed, thinking they’d met the only honest driver in Delhi. Climbing in to his contraption, they tugged their rucksacks onto their laps. Their driver putted his smoking three-wheeler out of the gravel parking lot and twenty feet across the street, then stopped and announced, “Here is Pahar Gang.” No, I was too sharp for this to happen to me, been here too long to be taken for a ride.
“I’ll be fine, Sujata.”
“You do not understand. It is different coming to the east side of Delhi. Foreigners do not come across the river. Taxi-wallahs will know you do not know your way. You must be very careful.”
“I’ll be careful. I’ve got your instructions, nothing will go wrong.”
As I hung up I wondered if Sujata’s fears were for my safety. There were always reports of bad things happening to women in taxis. Her words, her subtle suggestions played in my mind, and deep inside I began steeling myself for what might come.
When it was time to leave for Sujata’s house that evening, I wrapped a silk shawl around my shoulders, confirmed I had her directions, and headed for the taxi stand near my home. It was cold and I quickened my pace as I passed my neighbors’ homes warm with light and guarded by walls embedded with shards of glass along the top. As I approached a group of taxi-wallahs huddled around a glowing twig fire, one young man jumped to his feet.
“Yes, madam. This way, madam.”
The thin teenager ushered me to a black Ambassador and tugged open a screeching back door. I climbed in. Once slumped inside the leathery womb, smells of damp tobacco and sweat from former passengers assaulted my nose. For a brief moment, I wondered if this was where the driver slept, folding his thin legs to his birdlike chest in a fetal position, letting his heavy eyelids fall shut till dawn. But before I followed the fantasy into his life, I heard both front doors open and looked up to see the driver sliding in behind the wheel while another smaller man eased into the passenger’s seat.
“Co-pilot, madam,” my driver said, grinning and bobbling his coconut-oiled head.
“Oh, no, tell your friend to get out,” I said, Sujata’s other warning ringing in my ears, “Never get into a taxi with two men.”
His face clouded as he looked from me to his friend. The friend sat silent, innocent as a six-year-old, and I felt silly. The two of them together would barely equal my size and weight. What could they do to me?
“O.K. But no funny business,” I said.
“Yes, madam. No funny business.”
Adopting a low, authoritative memsahib tone of voice was one of the first things I learned upon moving to India. I didn’t really like it but preferred sounding like a stern maiden than to be seen as a sex maven. It’s not that I am sexy or dress provocatively, but I am a tall, blonde Western woman living in a country where men and women are segregated and the men’s opinions of foreign women are formed from watching Baywatch.
I had planned to dole out Sujata’s directions turn-by-turn, but since I couldn’t see my notes in Delhi’s soot-filled air, I gave the driver her address. As soon as he heard East Delhi he jiggled the stick shift into first and popped our weighty vehicle over the curb. We lurched into traffic with the horn blaring and me sitting rigid in the back while the two men up front navigated in silence.
My suspicions soared immediately. They were too quiet. Why was the co-pilot along if not to chat with the driver? Stories of women being abducted by their drivers while riding in taxies never leave the minds of women traveling alone, and now I thought of all those headlines I’d read. Even though my driver and co-pilot weren’t big men, my alertness was imperative. I watched for secret signals or missed turns as we passed street vendors selling paan, newspapers, fruit. There were none. I snatched glimpses of Sujata’s directions each time we rumbled under one of Delhi’s dim yellow street lamps. I found the drive took the exact route Sujata had wanted, rumbling past the zoo, the crumbling red walls of Firoz Shah Kotla, and the formidable Times of India news offices. He created no shortcuts of his own, drove without excessive speed, and within twenty minutes stopped in front of my destination.
“Press Apartments,” he said, grinning and jerking his head to indicate a row of gray cinder-block buildings. “Oh! Fine,” I said, a little startled by his swiftness, his competence. How could it be this simple, this uneventful? “How much do I owe you?” He walked to where the ticking meter sat welded on the front fender of the taxi and put his eyes close to the numbers.
Eighty? Fifty maybe, but eighty rupees? I wondered. Still, I reached into the little purse dangling from my shoulder and pulled out a one hundred rupee note; this is less than $5. He grinned. Big.
“Sorry, madam. No change.”
“No change?” Ah, so this was his ruse, to take a fat tip on top of his inflated meter reading. I wasn’t surprised but I wasn’t prepared for this old trick either. Delhi’s taxi-wallahs reputedly never carried change for their passengers. While I’d encountered the situation before, it wasn’t limited to foreigners. My former landlord, Mr. K.N. Gupta, used to complain at length about the taxi-wallahs lack of change. “They are thieves,” he would rumble, shaking his gray head. “They will never admit to having small bills for change.”
Now, here was my driver insisting, rather gleefully in my opinion, that he had no change.
O.K., I thought, watching the driver and co-pilot exchange covert glances. This hostage situation required some balance.
“Give me your sweater, please,” I said, memsahib superiority dripping from my words.
“Your sweater. Please, give me your sweater.”
A befuddled expression replaced his grin and his wide eyes slid to his partner in crime. I could almost hear the wheels of his brain singing, Foreign woman wants me to remove my clothes!!! as he tugged the sweater over his head. The co-pilot remained speechless.
The driver handed me his heavy, crew-neck sweater and I saw that beneath it he wore only a thin t-shirt worn thinner with holes.
I should have seen where things where headed, but I felt sure he had change. I took the sweater and got out of the taxi. I wasn’t going to be duped by these clever taxi-wallahs.
“When you find the change you owe me, come and get your sweater,” I said, shoving the door shut.
I got as far as the iron gate to Sujata’s building before hearing the rubber-slapping sound of two men’s sandals as they ran up behind me.
“Madam, madam. I need my sweater.”
“Yes, madam, he needs his sweater,” the co-pilot confirmed, uttering his first words in halting English.
“Yes, and I need my change,” I countered. My eagerness to play the memsahib should have concerned me, but it didn’t.
They looked at each other, and another telepathic message crackled between them. To prove he had no change, the taxi-wallah slid his hand into his tight, hip-hugger jeans and pulled out several one hundred rupee notes. Then he turned out his other pockets, proving big bills were all he had.
“Please, madam, no change. You look for change.”
I didn’t want to believe him, preferring instead to maintain my cynicism. Taxi-wallahs have a wealth of hiding places for small change. It’s well known. The glove compartments of their cars, little pockets in the door panels, and maybe in this case, the silent co-pilot.
The Price of Privilege
Twenty rupees was an insignificant sum of money to me, but it wasn’t the money I was after, it was the upper hand. While in India I’d felt powerless. The locals spoke the language. The shopkeepers sold the goods. The taxi-wallahs drove me places. If a local didn’t want to talk, he walked away. If a shopkeeper didn’t want to sell me something, he turned his back on me. If a taxi-wallah didn’t want to drive to the part of town I wanted to go, he steered his taxi out into traffic and left me standing on the side of the road. I had no power or control. But not now, now it was my turn.
During my year in the subcontinent my faith in others took a beating, becoming frayed and tattered. Not by big incidents, but rather little ones, like the shopkeeper charging me more than anyone else or the man who pretended not to see me as he stepped in front of me in line. These things wore my patience and darkened my view of humanity so slowly that I didn’t see it happening. I’d chosen to view these as slights against me–me, a foreigner. But the looking glass is two-way, and seeing the skinny driver shiver I wondered who was being taken advantage of. In the black velvet night, I suddenly saw a new truth. He had no change, and I no compassion.
As a child, my brother and I played a game every Christmas that was supposed to teach us compassion for those who had less than we had. My mother had grown up poor and she knew the cruelty of others; her children would have compassion. Pretending to be orphans, we would go outside without our coats and look in at our beautifully decorated pine tree, glimmering with silver tinsel, bejeweled Styrofoam ornaments, and glowing red, white, and green lights. Shivering in the snow, we’d whisper, “Isn’t it beautiful. Maybe there is a lady inside who will be kind to us.” Then our mother would appear at the door and say, “Oh, you poor children. You have no coats. You must be freezing. Come inside and I’ll get you some hot chocolate.” And in we would go, stepping back into our privileged lives.
I still had a privileged life, as do most foreigners who can afford to live abroad, while the driver’s clearly wasn’t. Most likely he came from a village to work in the city, slept in his cab, and owned only the clothes on his back. We foreigners lived in pristine houses with marble floors and had servants clean and cook for us. It’s the way things were; not to hire a maid would keep someone unemployed. But our opulence can blind us, making it easy to get caught up in the he-done-me-wrong stories we feed ourselves, losing sight of the truths before us. Ashamed of my behavior, I searched inside for that girl who learned compassion on those long ago winter nights and handed him his sweater.
The driver could have hurled ugly insults or muttered obscenities that I’d tried to cheat him, but he didn’t. He smiled and quickly pulled the black, diamond-patterned sweater over his shivering back. I started to slink away, wondering when I’d stopped seeing with my heart and became the one who took advantage, when I heard the taxi-wallah call out, “Madam, shall we wait for you?”
Yes, I thought, please wait for me. I’ve got some changing to do.
Connie Stambush has lived, worked, and traveled in eighteen countries in six years. She lived for four years in India and rode a Royal Enfield Bullet solo around the subcontinent in 1997. She is currently working on a book about that journey. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, the Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Far Eastern Economic Review, and other publications. You can read about her travels on her blog at The Edge of India.
Photo India Streets: Shabbir Siraj Photo IndianTaxi:Â Mark Hillary Photo Dashboard: jackfrench This article is reprinted with permission and originally appeared in A Woman’s Asia, edited by Marybeth Bond.