Raju was a gregarious man. He had questions but he asked them not because he wanted to get to know you. He asked them because he wanted you to know him.
“Sir, why are you traveling alone?”, he asked as soon as I grumpily got into his rickshaw.
“Because I like traveling alone.”
“You should find a girl, marry her and take her everywhere you go. I’m telling you, it’s a lot more fun.”
“I’m sure it is. But if I get married and travel, we will be taking a comfortable taxi, not your auto rickshaw.”
“You don’t know, sir, nowadays women are smarter and more daring than men. She will insist that you take a rickshaw even if you arrange for a taxi.”
“I am yet to meet someone who would prefer going 100 kms in a rickshaw as opposed to a comfortable car. Let me know if you find one.”
“I shouldn’t jinx my life by saying this but because of God’s grace, I have a beautiful wife. She works as a teacher and goes alone to work every day. Then she comes home and cooks food for me. I don’t want to brag but I can confidently say that she makes the best dal in the world. Her meals are simple but very filling. And when I return home after a long day’s work, she massages my legs. Do you know any woman who does this in today’s time? Nowadays women have become so smart that they want men to do both all the work outside and all the work in the house. I talk to so many passengers every day and when I tell them about my wife, they say I am very lucky. Don’t you think I’m very lucky?”
“You’re very lucky.”
“She’s also miserly with money. Never lets me spend one rupee more than I should. One day, I was taking this couple from Ahmedabad for a tour and at the end of it, they were so happy to hear about my family that they gave me an extra 500 Rupees and asked me to take my wife for dinner. I had made up my mind to take her to an expensive restaurant in Bhavnagar but when she heard my plans, she gave me a scolding saying there was no need to waste all that money on one meal in a restaurant. With 500 Rs, she said, she could buy supplies for an entire week. Tell me, where do you find a woman like that these days?”
“You’re very lucky.”
“What do you do, sir?”
“I’m a photographer.”
“Oh, do you work for a newspaper?”
“No, I shoot weddings.”
“Acha, some days I think I have driven this rickshaw for too long. I started in the year 2000 with money borrowed from my uncle. Then, with God’s grace, I had passengers every day and I was able to return the money in 2 years. I worked hard. Day and night. I’m happy I married my wife before riding the rickshaw because without her care and support I would never have been able to do this. Now I’m exhausted and I’m thinking I should invest all the money in something I really want do.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I was thinking of getting into the dairy business. My father has 3 cows but he’s too old to care for them. I can buy more cows with the money I have and I would be set for life. I could go back to my village and live a calm, peaceful life. I won’t be rich but why do I need to keep working like this for money? A man should only work as much as he needs to. I see all these rich people working so hard. What do they do with all that money? There’s only so much space in your stomach. They may eat a little more than I do but I’m not going to starve. So why do I have to spend the rest of my life breathing the polluted air of Bhavnagar when I can go to my village and live in better health? My father is 90 years old. You think he would have lived to 90 if he lived in a big city? That’s why I want to go back to my village. I also want to live to 90.”
“What would your wife say?”
“My wife trusts me completely. She would understand. And it’s not as if I’m going to stop working. I’m going to milk my cows and sell it to people. We could have more time to each other. I hardly ever get the time to speak to her. When I go back home I’m so tired that I can only sleep.”
And thus conversing, we reached a town called Sihor. Here, Raju parked his vehicle beside a row of brightly painted trucks idling outside a temple. The truck drivers were chilling on the charpoys of a dhaba nearby and invited Raju to join them. They were talking to each other in Gujarati but even to my untrained ears, it was clear what was going on. The drivers wanted Raju to take swigs from their bottles of desi liquor (Gujarat is a prohibition state) . He looked embarrassed and kept glancing in my direction to see what I was thinking. I shook my head and looked away to indicate my profound displeasure with the turn of events. He giggled and laughed and pointed to me and told them, “I have a customer. He’s a tourist. Maybe later tonight…” But the drivers refused to listen to him and teased him and made fun of him. One slimy guy tried to shove a bottle down Raju’s throat. Raju kept looking in my direction to see how I was reacting to these scenes and when he saw a look of anger and annoyance with a pinch of uneasiness, he managed to wriggle himself free off the truck drivers.
“I will see you people tonight”, he stuttered clumsily.
“You better”, replied one of the drivers, laughing loudly.
When we resumed our ride, Raju sought to explain why he hung out with the drivers. He felt I had been judging him too harshly.
“They’re good people. They may look strange to you but you have to understand that they lead a hard life. You people in big cities live comfortable lives. It’s not easy for you to understand why people like us do certain things. Their company makes me feel better. I don’t usually drink but sometimes in their company, it’s hard not to. Because when we drink and talk and laugh, all the pain goes away.”
“I thought your wife’s massages did that job very well.”
Raju laughed so hard, I was afraid he would lose control of the vehicle.
“Yes, yes, nothing makes me feel better than when she presses my feet. But you know, you can’t talk to your wives about everything. There are some things only men understand.”
“I have no problem with anyone drinking or having fun”, I said, “I only have a problem if you drink and drive the rickshaw I’m sitting in.”
“Nothing happens to us if we drink, sir. I can drink 5 bottles of desi and still drive smoothly without a problem. But I understand, you’re from a different world and it doesn’t look good.”
He then asked me what the time was. It was 4.30, I said.
Then he took a sharp left off the Palitana highway into a narrow, dusty road. I was spooked by this sudden detour into the desolate countryside.
“Is this the Palitana road?”, I asked nervously.
“Haha no, this is not the Palitana road.”
“So is it a shortcut? Why are we taking this route?”
“There is only one road to Palitana. This is going somewhere else.”
“So why are we on this road? Please go back to the main road”, I said, angrily, “I would like to reach as soon as possible”, I said, trying to hide my desperation and fear as well as I could.
“Don’t worry, sir. You’ll reach Palitana soon. It’s not so far from here. But be patient for a few minutes. I want you to see something.”
Scenes from a dozen backwoods brutality films began running through my head. No detour in the boondocks ever ended well. Just as I wondered whether to jump out of the moving vehicle and begin running, the rickshaw came to a screeching halt.
Raju had a gleaming grin on his face as he pointed to what lay before us. “That’s Brahma Kund”, he said, “One of the oldest temples in the country.”
Brahma Kund was a majestic ancient stepwell with delicate carvings attached to a millenia old temple whose existence was entirely unknown to me until Raju had embarked on this wild journey. This was a desolate place with not a single soul in the vicinity and suddenly, all my desire to reach Palitana quickly had evaporated.
“Isn’t it beautiful?”, he said, “Only local people know of this place. It is over 5000 years old and the water here can cure any illness. When you told me you were a photographer, I thought you would love this place.”
It’s only when he mentioned “photography” that I took my eyes off the monument and rushed back to the rickshaw to get my camera. But when I took it out, I found that I hadn’t charged my batteries and the camera wouldn’t turn on.
It was perhaps a blessing because the two of us spent an hour sitting quietly on the stone steps of Brahma Kund with only the sounds of the temple bells and the chirping of the birds for company. It had been 9 hours since I had left my hotel in Bhavnagar but I felt like I had been traveling for days and I was yet to reach a town that was merely 2 hours away.