I sat in his autorickshaw.
When I left, he said his name was Asif.
When I sat in his autorickshaw, what struck me and amused me tremendously were the two identical photographs of film actor Preity Zinta stuck right on his photo identification which every autorickshaw driver in Bangalore has to display in the vehicle. Preity was dressed in a bridal outfit and stared prettily from the photo identification (in both the pictures). Amused I thought to myself, ‘urban closet desires’.
I was headed to National Market. Asif knew that National Market was somewhere close to Majestic, but he was unsure of the exact location. At one point he asked me which route I would like to take to get there and I gave him my preference. Then I asked him, ‘So you have Preity Zinta’s pictures on your photo id?’ He smiled and said, ‘Haan, woh Preity Zinta hai!’
As we crossed Corporation Circle, Asif started talking to me. ‘You know, there is an autorickshaw strike tomorrow.’
‘Why,’ I asked.
‘Because the traffic police have now instituted yellow lane lines on the roads and autos are expected to run within the limits of the yellow lane lines. If an auto jumps out of the lane line, then the driver is fined two thousand rupees. Now, is that not unfair?’
‘Hmm,’ I nodded.
After a while, Asif spoke again. ‘You know, the other day a cop beat up an auto driver very badly to the extent that the driver bled to unconsciousness.’
‘Why did the cop beat the driver?’ I asked.
‘Berahami! Merciless, these cops can be merciless. They like to target anyone. Behrahami!’ Asif concluded.
Asif spoke to me as if he were talking to a journalist. He kept referring to me as ‘madam’. I asked Asif if the auto belonged to him or was it rented.
‘How can we own an auto? We are poor people!’ he said. ‘This is a rented auto. I pay Rs. 150 per day to the owner. Some day I earn a thousand and I pay Rs. 150. On some days,
I earn barely a hundred and yet I have to pay Rs. 150.’
‘Since how much time have you been driving this autorickshaw?’ I asked.
‘9 AM to 9 PM madam. I am a family man,’ Asif said.
I was a bit amused when he uttered the phrase ‘family man’. I meant to ask him since how many years he had been driving and he misunderstood me to mean timings in the day when he drives. I rephrased my question and Asif said, ‘Six years now. I want to tell you madam that I have not been an auto driver all my life. I was a craftsman. I used to do machine embroidery for garments. There was big demand. Then the Bengali migrants came into Bangalore. They began to offer the same embroidery at five rupees, six rupees a piece. There we were offering a piece for Rs. 10 and here these people were bringing down prices to so much lesser that it was becoming unaffordable for us to stand the competition.’
I heard him out keenly. In that moment of conversation with Asif, I realized that migration operates at different levels and is hurtful to different segments of the population in similar ways. Competition, economics, territory – perhaps these are the sharper aspects of migration which hurt the natives.
Asif continued, ‘I am a hardworking man. We believe in working, not in sitting at home. Tomorrow if my embroidery work resumes, I will go back and give up this driving.’
I asked Asif which are the areas in Bangalore which are hubs for embroidery. Asif mentioned it is Shivajinagar, areas around Mysore Road and Majestic area.
Asif then asked me about myself. ‘What do you do? Where is your native place?’
I answered that my native place is Bombay and that I had come to Bangalore to pursue my studies.
‘What do you study?’ Asif asked.
‘I am doing my doctorate,’ I answered.
‘Oh yes, medical is good, very good,’ he said.
I was amused but did not say anything.
‘Where do you live? Is your family here?’ he asked.
‘I live in a hostel,’ I fibbed.
‘Who pays for your expenses?’ he asked.
‘I manage it myself,’ I replied.
We were nearing National Market. Asif said,
‘Madam, this world is very bad and the times are even worse. At every step you have to be very cautious. You never know what people’s intentions can be.’
I did not know in what context to place these words Asif had just uttered. Did he mean to say that the world (or the city) was unsafe for women? Or was he hinting with suspicion towards my wanting to get to National Market (which when I reached there I realized was one of the spaces for prostitution in Bangalore)?
I paid him the fare. While leaving, he asked me,
‘What is your name?’
‘Zainab,’ I said.
‘My name is Asif,’ he said.
‘Khuda hafeez,’ I said.
‘Khuda hafeez,’ and he drove away.
That day I discovered Bangalore City anew – anew, through the eyes and words of Asif!