Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Auto-biography: In Which a Linguistically-Challenged Woman Falls Prey to Avaricious Autos and Chivalrous Cops, and Readers Forgive Bad Puns etc

My misadventures in Delhi, as I persist in my stubborn resistance to a language I consider distinctly illogical, non-musical and devoid of literary figures of the quality that would inspire me to forgive its fatal failings, have elevated my opinion of my ability to fit in the mould of those storybook characters to whom 'things just happen'. (No, Honda's cheap pavement counterparts did not pay me for that.)

The latest of these took place yesterday. I had just watched a play with some great acting, beautiful music and lovely comic timing. As an aside, it's called Sangathi Arinhya! (Have You Heard!) and one should watch it if one gets the chance. It ended with M S Subbulakshmi's Kaatriniley Varum Geetham, and the music was still in my head as I got off at Indraprastha Station, having successfully completed my first journey on the Delhi Metro, under the able guidance of a friend who taught me how to use the ticket.

That's where the trouble began. I was besieged by autodrivers, who panted out exorbitant prices to take me to Noida. Two lobbied fiercely for my attention, which went to the one who quoted the lower price. I thought the day was done with, save for a peaceful journey home, where I planned to spend the rest of my evening singing Kaatriniley. (My landlords don't mind my voice piercing the night because I pretend to adore the one occupant of the height I am allergic to.)

Just as my autodriver was about to rev up, his rival pushed him aside, nearly tossing him out of the auto. He recovered with a jolt and a thrust of the hip that would have put the heroines of the sixties to shame, and which quite easily unseated his attacker. Undaunted, the attacker reached for what appeared to me, from the backseat, to be the nether regions of my autodriver's anatomy, and I modestly averted my eyes to observe the traffic outside. My autodriver managed to resist his advances the first time round, but the two of them were grappling fiercely. I was dimly aware the auto had started, and then realised the object that had caught the fancy of the two autodrivers was, in fact, the key. (And for those who know Farsi, I mean the English 'key' - absolutely no pun intended.)

The auto did a pirouette across the road, and it was my turn to play the sixties heroine and scream, "stop! stop! Stop the auto!" I'm quite sure I did the sixties straightening of the back, squaring of the shoulders and toss of the head as I announced I would find another auto. In the midst of my consternation, the translation tool in my brain went through an unfortunate malfunction and I snapped, "aap paagal hai, kya?"

Possibly jarred by the incorrectness of my grammar, the two stopped fighting. I noticed the number of men around me had doubled, and the mystery was solved when I realised two of them were policemen. The two cops turned to me, having banned the autodrivers from saying anything that would influence their judgment. To cut a long story short, they were convinced (and I must admit the confusion of pronouns, verbs and number, enhanced by disregard for gender, that frequently afflicts my Hindi, must have been a contributing factor) I was the intended victim of molestation. They constantly assured me I had nothing to fear, and urged me to write an FIR. I went on to insist I had nothing to complain of, save the late hour and my near death experience. I believe Khuda was a character in the explanation I offered them for my grievances. (Apparently, my Urdu is marginally better than my Hindi.) Finally, I was forced to admit I was not from their part of the world, and did not speak either of the two languages with the fluency that would warm Ghalib's heart. At that point, one of the policemen stepped forward, hammered his chest with his fist, stuck out his chin and said, with the air of a man about to step into war without armour, "madam, you tell angrezi!" I took his cue, and five minutes later, the two looked even more pained than they had after my Hindi explanation. It took a further ten minutes for the epiphany that these two were automen grappling for a savari to dawn on them.

The policemen finally promised me another auto, and after unsuccessfully haggling with two, were at the end of their tether. They found their zinda morgha in an autodriver of pitiably small dimensions. His face was barely larger than one of my hands, and his body corresponded to the diffidence of his skull. He slowed down when he saw two glowering policemen, and was soon hauled out of his auto, making a vignette that would have made Alan Moore's fingers itch.

One of them ordered him to take me to Noida for a price I named. I offered him a hundred rupees, as some kind of compensation for what he had undergone, at which point the cop who was trying to make small talk with me in angrezi, snapped at him, yelling about the bechaari woman who was being made to pay a hundred rupees. The Shrunken Autodriver appealed to my alleged molesters for help, and in a rare display of automen's unity, the three convinced the cops a hundred rupees' fare amounted to grabbing the food out of the mouths of their unborn children.

The policeman who was still holding Shrunken Autodriver by his collar, barked, liberally spraying his victim's tiny face with the remnants of his last meal, in Hindi, "this madam has gone through a lot today; I don't want anything to happen to upset her now! Do you understand?! Give me your auto number!" The Shrunken Autodriver did not raise any objections. "Mobile phone!" his interlocutor barked. He tried to whimper, at which point the policemen pulled at his trousers, eliciting a squeal and a mobile phone. "Licence!"

"Madamji, in go please," my angrezi-speaking comrade said, solicitously, "please my number you noting. Going home after, phone doing."

The half-hour that followed was populated by companionable silence arrived at by silent mutual consent between me and the Shrunken Autodriver. It was only broken when we arrived at Rajnigandha Chowk, at which point he was forced to enquire, in the politest manner I have been addressed since I set foot at the IGI Airport on October 13, 2008, which road he was to go down. Emboldened by my use of the polite plural in giving him directions, he ventured to ask what had happened. Two sentences later, he was forced to concede defeat as everyone I have spoken to in Hindi has been, and he nodded with a furtive glance at his mobile phone and the mirror.

Having dropped me outside my house, Shrunken Autodriver begged me to call the policeman and clear his name, reminding me they had his licence number and auto number. I promised him I would, and he thanked me profusely.

With the mix of satisfaction and disappointment that the day's adventures were at the end, I dialled the policeman's number, to hear:

Om Bhur Bhuva Suvah
Tat Savithur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi
Dhiyo Yonah ... "Hanhji?"

"Prachodayat," I said, simultaneously.

"Ji?" The nonplussed tone indicated he had not been called upon to illumine beings too often.

I identified myself as the woman he had seen into an auto at Indraprastha, and after I had successfully communicated (in Hindi) that I was home, he said, "madamji, excellent thing you calling. Be careful, ji!"

The ominous note ended a conversation which had begun with the Gayathri Manthram.

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