So there I was, a young twenty one year old small town girl discovering freedom and independence in the big city of Bombay through my 2 month college internship stint. Fortunate enough to work at the ‘happening’ linking road, I generally take an auto to the Bandra station from where I become one of those millions who hang on to the steel handles of the Borivili fast local. But this day was different. I had just heard news of mayhem in Chembur, buses being burnt, two wheelers set ablaze and the like. My well wishers asked me not to take the train but travel by auto instead. However, I was too stubborn and adventurous to miss my favorite train ride with the wind in my hair, and the tracks at my feet.
But when my auto halted at the Bandra station, I realized I don’t have the much needed chutta (change) and it was predictable insight that the auto walla didn’t have it either. So I hunted frantically and asked girls in weird Om Shanti Om inspired hair bands for “sou ka chutta” but they didn’t have it. I asked everyone who passed by only to be disappointed. Then there came this simple looking lean-built, middle class man. He only had a Rs. 20 note with him. Another disappointment, but I made my thanks, anyway face. But this man offered to pay the fare and suggested that I could buy him a Pepsi from nearby instead.
This idea startled me. Being taught not to trust any strangers especially with the Chembur drama around, I said that it was alright, thanks! I would take the coveted chutta from someone else. Meanwhile my auto walla cum silent spectator to chaos was getting impatient. Apparently he was parked at a no parking and he started complaining that he couldn’t stay there much longer.
This untrustworthy stranger, with the simplest and humblest of human expression I have ever seen said that he would pay the money, “chalega”; he said. But I couldn’t accept it, how could I? But there was no way out! He had already shelled out his twenty, I muttered a confused and baffled thank you and before I knew what had happened he had walked away after paying my fare.
I was amazed, I was confused, I was baffled I was surprised. I ran inside the station and asked some bhajiya wala if he had the still coveted chutta, but he didn’t either. Now I knew that there was no point running back and trying to give him back his money because he would have already disappeared in the Mumbai shehar ki bheed. The favor had already been done.
I caught my Borivali fast local and also became one in the Mumbai shehar ki bheed, but with a tear in my eye. I realized that amidst a backdrop of fear, hatred and violence there are still strangers who will surprise us with their humility and kindness. Amidst stories of rapes, murders and suicides there will also be a story of hope, help and humbleness. Mumbai still confuses me. Is it bold and selfish or kind and humble? Is it rash and rich or poor and begging? Is it hip and starry eyed or is it silent and coy. Whatever it may be, Mumbai as a city will always make me smile when I think of my auto rickshaw odyssey.