(Between 2009 – 2013, I was a Lecturer at Delhi University, teaching the Romanian language. My 4 years experience in India resulted in a book, published in 2014: “The Monsoon Time: 4 Years in India”. I translate now into English passages of my book. Several years have passed and I think many of the real characters of my book can now safely read about themselves and the experiences we all shared while I was in India. For those of them whose image might be affected by this translation, I apologise in advance.)
In India, the public transportation accurately reflects the Indian social stratum. Like in the former European Communist countries, but on a much larger scale, the mean of transportation says something about you; it clearly indicates where you are placed on an imaginary social hierarchy. For poor Indians, there is the bus. In Delhi, with just 5 rupees, one can take the so-called bus. Without doors, overcrowded, with passengers literally traveling on top of the vehicle or hanging on both sides, the bus sometimes stops in the middle of the street. In traffic jams, passengers and even the driver chatter calmly with other bystanders; then, the monster, the heavy pile of rusty metal slowly moves forward toward the next bus stop.
I avoid taking a bus… the smells inside are hardly bearable. Although it`s only October, the temperature in Delhi is quite high. Buses are packed. There is an alternative: the rickshaw (with its more sophisticated version, the auto-rickshaw). The rickshaw is a bicycle followed by a sort of sidecar that can easily provide space for three or four passengers. I take the rickshaw. I have an awkward feeling. From the sidecar, I can clearly see the struggle of the Indian rickshaw driver (he and his saddle seem to be one) pedaling through the infernal Delhi traffic, for a price next to nothing.
I am about to find out that this mixed feeling (empathy and pity) arises in many foreigners visiting India for the first time. I constantly feel the need to go down and help the driver, to push the rickshaw uphill. I do it several times, facing the amused look on other people`s faces. But, in time, India toughens you up. Its extreme poverty, as unavoidable as death itself, leads to an excessive cynicism. In India, maybe more than in any other country, the poverty is so visible that, in order to mentally survive its ubiquitousness, you are obliged to ignore it.
These people pedal one full day and spend, at the end of it, just a few euros for feeding themselves (best case scenario). As long as they can cheat you, they do it without any remorse. Once you know the prices, though, they accept the payment without protesting. Not once, I`ve made this major error; I`ve asked how much it is. The question itself is enough to generate a never-ending negotiation. I`m asked a ridiculous amount of money (30 times more than the normal price).
When they ask you 1000 rupees for a ride worth just 30, it is not about negotiating. It is their way of telling you that you don`t belong, you`re not integrated into their own world. In India, you can`t deceit anyone… they see the way you look around, the way you move, the way you express amazement and they know that you`ve just arrived.
For longer distances, I usually take the auto-rickshaw. A three-wheeled vehicle, powered up by an engine, the auto-rickshaw has a meter rarely used. I stop the auto-rickshaws in the middle of the street shouting in English, as loud as I can, “autooooooooo”. Many times, I need to shout for minutes until one of the drivers stops; some other times, I get lucky… All I have to do is to walk slowly a few meters and auto-rickshaw stops next to me; then, a rickshaw-walla (a driver) stares at me from inside of his vehicle. He doesn`t speak… He simply suddenly moves his neck up, for a second his chin facing the sky. This means: where do you want to go?
In Delhi, moving from point A to point B requires a long time and an equally long mental effort (after all, this capital city has as many inhabitants as my whole country). So, if you take an auto-rickshaw for longer distances, the odds are you have to wait for the driver to fuel the vehicle (20 to 30 minutes if that`s not your lucky day).
As for the taxis, they are pretty expensive and hard to find, especially when you badly need them. In front of my hostel, there is a taxi stand; 3 or 4 old, black minivans. The drivers and the owners sleep there, in a make-up tent, on dusty bamboo beds. When I need their services at night, I have to tell them in advance. Nonetheless, it doesn` t really make any difference whatsoever. I tell them the time but, when the time comes, I need to go under the tent, to lift the closest blanket and to wake up the man who sleeps under. I try to be as authoritarian as I can when I shout: Bhaya! Bhaya! Bhaya! In Hindi, Bhaya is just an informal way of saying brother. Shouting is not enough; I need to shake the man firmly.
From afar, the most comfortable mean of transportation I use in Delhi is the metro. Well organized, cheap, the metro covers most parts of Delhi. When I use it for the first time (to go to the Romanian Embassy), I have the feeling that I`m not in India. Inside the metro, no one spits, no one throws the waste on the floor. Obviously, I can`t escape the unbearable Indian noise. Due to the lack of space, we not only touch each other but we all lean on each other. Breathing properly might be an adventure in itself. The Indians are speaking loudly on their phones, clearly indicating they don`t give a damn about the private space.
But, more on that later. I feel it`s too early to speak about certain issues.
(to be continued)