I had taken an auto-rickshaw to office that day, as my car was at the servicing centre. At a three-way close to my place, the auto paused at the traffic signal and a man approached and asked the auto-wallah, ‘Bhaiya, which way are you going? Will you go via Dharamshila hospital?’
I looked at him closely. Wearing soiled clothes with a pair of worn out slippers, he was 35-40 years old. A string around his neck supported his left hand.
Before I could say a word, the auto-wallah replied dryly, “No, we are going the other way.” He pleaded, “Bhaiyya, give me lift for some distance. Drop me anywhere near Dharamshila. There is some problem with my hand. I am a poor man and the buses are really crowded. The slightest jerk makes my hand hurt.
Suddenly, memories came flooding back to me. I was still new to Delhi when I had encountered an old woman at a government dispensary. She had told me that she had come down from Hisar, Haryana, for medical treatment. As all her money had been spent on her treatment; she didn’t have a penny to return home. Moved by her story, I had decided to part with all the money I, then a mere student, had in my pocket, Rs 70.
Four days later, I was to learn how people can skillfully cash in on sentimentality when I bumped into the woman once again at another place, telling a different story. A few months later, I was duped again.
These two episodes, and similar complaints from my friends, convinced me that it was a new technique crooks in Delhi had adopted. Perhaps, the auto-wallah shared my woes as he sat looking ahead stone-faced like me. In a few seconds the signal would go green. The man again pleaded, “Bhaiyya, I am also a conductor on route 511. Trust me, I really have a problem. It will be a great favour. No other auto is ready to go for such a short distance.” For reason unknown, I suddenly spoke up, “Alright, get in. Tell me where you have to get down.” In an instant, he was sitting beside me and I began preparing my mind to deal with him once he started to beg.
As expected, he was ready with a freshly spun yarn. “What do I tell you, bhaiyya. Life is tough. Three months ago, I fractured my arm in an accident. I went to ESI hospital where doctors negligently inserted a rod in my arm which is used for the leg. It went from bad to worse. I had to get an operation done at a private hospital, which cost me Rs 30,000. But it didn’t help. Even a touch causes excruciating pain. Doctors say that another operation might be required.”
Both I and the auto-wallah nodded expressionlessly once in a while as he went on with his tale: “My only family is my old mother. I am the sole earner.” I was trying hard to keep my face cold, and not betray any sign of emotion. I was only waiting for him to conclude his tale and ask for money.
We reached Dharamshila hospital. The auto-wallah said, “Here’s your stop.” He replied, “Bhaiyya, it’s a little further. I’ll tell you where to stop.” By now, I had no doubt of his intentions. His story went on. “I can no longer afford treatment. I have heard about a vaidh nearby who can cure any sort of pain. I thought I’d give it a try. That’s it, bhaiyya. Right here.”
He stepped out of the auto and started to say something. I braced myself for the final shot.
“Thank you, bhaiyya. It was great help or I’d have to walk all the way in this heat. I don’t have much to give but….” Saying so, he hesitated and pulled out a ten rupee note and handed it to the auto-wallah.
I was dumb-struck with unexpected turn of events. So was the auto-wallah who said, “Arre, what are you doing, it’s ok.”
With his eyes brimming with gratitude, the man turned, crossed the road and disappeared into a lane.