I walked quickly, avoiding the countless beggars chasing tourists and the ubiquitous rickshaws –carts pulled by bicycles that function as the cheapest transport in India– because it seemed to me ethically unacceptable that another human being would have to work so hard to take me anywhere. When I was trying to get to the Gandhi Memorial Park, one of the rickshaws approached me, with the peculiarity that the driver spoke perfect English and seemed convinced that he would eventually break my will, as that was the case. The truth is that I was lost. We negotiated a price and, not without some squeamishness, I boarded the carriage.
I praised his skills with English, and he said he had the opportunity to practice regularly while working in Calcutta helping Mother Teresa. The mere idea that someone as poor as my driver had inclinations to help others even poorer made him a saint or the greatest rogue I had ever met.
He considered himself very fortunate for having a wife and because he now could work driving a rickshaw in Delhi. Previously, he had worked in Calcutta, but there the rickshaws were not pulled by bicycles but by the feet directly on the dirt. He believed that the good karma of helping others was what had allowed him to now enjoy his good life, having a good family and a good job in the capital. His dream was to save one hundred dollars to buy his own rickshaw, since he still had to rent it.
I asked him about his idea of karma, to which he replied that, unlike most of his fellow Hindus, he considered himself a Buddha. At that point I interrupted to say, “you mean Buddhist…”
“So, so, Buddha, Buddha…” he replied, as he stood on the pedals to use the entire weight of his thin little body to move the cart. He seemed not to understand the difference… or was it me who did not understand?
We finally arrived to the Gandhi Memorial Park, and instead of going away, the driver parked the rickshaw and offered himself as a guide. Obviously, it wasn’t the first time he did it, since his explanations were well documented and very interesting. Besides, he knew I would give him a better tip.
At the end of the visit I asked him for a favor: to change places. We smiled, and he gave me some explanations about how to maneuver the vehicle. Jokingly, I asked him where he wanted to go, and, continuing the joke, he replied, “to my house! Would you like to meet my family?”
With nothing better to do, I agreed. The vehicle was difficult to handle and heavier than I guessed before getting on it, but I was enjoying the situation.
The buildings and the asphalt were gradually replaced by huts and dirt roads crisscrossed by fecal waters. I was surprised by the multitude of naked children playing everywhere, always smiling and joking in Hindi, laughing out loud at the vision we provided. We finally reached his hut, made of cartoon, plastics and all kind of left over materials. His sons were four young kids with shaved heads –I guess to avoid lice– who immediately surrounded us, embracing his father but keeping some distance from me, since I doubt they ever had the chance to go out of the slum and seeing a westerner. I turned down a cup of “chai” –black tea with boiling milk, the preferred drink among the Indians– and asked to go back before it was too late. We again exchanged positions and, while we returned to “civilization,” my driver gave me a piece of advice: “Change your clothes. You stand out too much.”
He took me to a shop where he obviously got a cut from the transaction, and I bought one of those typical Indian costumes with a long shirt reaching almost to the knees and matching trousers, black and the simplest of the collection, much to the frustration of the seller who, when he saw me falling into his web, thought I would be a bigger morsel.
Back at the hotel, I gave a good tip to my guide and counselor. In my room, I smiled when I recollected my reading of the Bhagavad Gita some years ago, where Krishna, holding the reins of a chariot, leads Arjuna to the victory in the battlefield. My experience of that day could well be a parody of such famous sacred history. Was he a Buddha as he said, or the eighth avatar of Vishnu, or, more likely, a rogue who took advantage of my naïvety to get a few extra rupees? The fact is that after meeting him my perception of India, and about what we consider necessary to be happy, changed completely.