R's cabdriver yesterday was a talkative, and in many ways interesting, middle aged man. Among other things, he told her that he had great plans to celebrate the new year, including taking his family to Marine Drive and the Gateway of India. The tsunami killed his plans. He thought it was not a time to celebrate, within a week of a disaster of that magnitude.
R and I also did not have anything special for the 31st December. But then the new year eve was like any other day, except for a few extra phone calls that we receive, on the previous occasions too. This time, a friend had suggested something that can be called a celebration, but I dissuaded him, saying that the Government has cancelled all celebrations and let us not have any special event either. I did not mention the word "tsunami", as it's incorrect to imply, and was indeed incorrect, that I understand the misery of the affected people unlike him and I care more for them. It's just that, like most of my friends, he too thought there's really no need to connect a private beer-music-dance affair with a public disaster.
If there's a professional category of people, whom I uniformly like, it's that of cab/auto rickshaw drivers. There may be politicians whom I like more, but there are definitely politicians whom I heavily dislike. Beggars -- I think I never liked a single beggar. I think of my favourite professors, but soon some faces pop up whom I very much disliked. I think of the unemployed poor youth of our villages, I never found any of them interesting enough to talk to. Of course it's well-known from Upanishadic times that an empty stomach doesn't like philosophical discourses (and glib talk for the same reasons?). I do this experiment with several groups, I find that only cabdrivers I like uniformly. They are rich enough and informed enough, enough to talk about Ambani brothers or Kofi Annan or Schwarzenegger or even Anisha Baig. They are poor enough and simple enough, enough to feel somebody else's pain and hunger or cancel their new year celebrations in the wake of a natural disaster.
Unfortunately auto rickshaw drivers are loathed by many. You finish a superb dinner at a posh restaurant, you tip the waiter generously, on the way back you quarrel with the rickshaw driver for five ruppees. You see your spouse off at the airport at an odd hour (and should be thankful to the sleeping cabdriver for agreeing to drop you wherever you want), and you indulge in cheap bargain. Over a late night coffee at Barista, friends pompously talk about how the other day one of them in fact did not pay the customary late night extra charges for a cab. I usually keep quiet in these circles, not to displease my friends.
True, rickshaw drivers do bargain for extra fare, and some times they have valid reasons for that -- road is full of potholes, wouldn't get any passenger on the return trip, etc. Some times they may bargain without any reason. But at least you can negotiate with the cabdriver. You can't do that with a Chartered Accountant or a physician. I know of a CA who charged Rs.750 for an hour, and talked about his daughter's merits for full one hour. Doctors charge Rs.250 just to say that you are keeping perfect health.
My liking to the auto driver starts with an incident that took place twenty years ago. I was getting into an auto, and I fainted in the vehicle, perhaps for a few seconds. The driver immediately got a cup of tea for me. When we reached home, my father paid the driver the fifty paise for the tea with the actual fare. The driver wasn't willing to take that. He said it was his duty to take care of me as I fainted in his auto! I used to think of that incident as an isolated nice gesture from a nice individual. Now I think a majority of rickshaw drivers would have acted the same way.
I can think of several such instances involving cabdrivers, instances of good-heartedness, sometimes instances of efficiency. Once I would have definitely missed a train at Chennai, if I did not get the help from an auto driver. When I got into the auto, the driver asked for three times the normal fare, and promised that I wouldn't miss the train. He took me through all possible shortcuts, stopped the vehicle very near to the station, and took my luggage and put it in my coach. If he didn't do any one of those three things, I would have missed the train!
I would guess that porters, small businessmen, vegetable vendors who earn enough for an okay living, all would be like cabdrivers. I do not have much experience with them. They have enough space in their minds to genuinely bother about others' problems. I think it's their wisdom that votes out an Indira Gandhi who curtails freedom of expresssion, or a Chandrababu Naidu who loots a state. The worldview of the richer and the sophisticated tends to be selfish and self-centred. I'm not saying that all the rich people are like that, but I think exceptions are often outcomes of conscious decisions. The poorest, for instance the tribals in India, may also have a self-centred view. They can't afford to be otherwise.
Have you ever wondered why a cabdriver feels a personal loss in a public disaster, whereas an educated professional can easily compartmentalise the private and the public domains?