“You like whiskey?” Birender asked, motioning me through the doorless doorway separating his office from where his drivers sleep. “We no talk business. We’re friends. India, America. Good friends.”
Jenny and I moved to India vowing to go against our inclination to avoid weird situations. When a snake charmer in Jaipur tells me to pet his cobra, I pet his cobra. And when a taxi boss invites me in for whiskey when I come over to argue about a fare, I drink his whiskey.
Birender barked orders and handed a hundred rupees to a driver wrapped head-to-shoulders in a thick wool scarf. The driver scurried off. The other drivers, squatting around a pile of hot coals, their sleeping cots piled with blankets behind them, stared as Birender led me into his sanctum.
I sat on his cot. He has a home and a wife nearby, he assured me, scrounging around for some glasses. Birender shouted some Hindi. A driver appeared in the doorway, looking at me. Birender passed the glasses and waved him off.
We discussed the threads that fate has woven, with his line and my line coming to intersect at this moment in space, at this moment in time: I, from New York in America, living in a flat five hundred meters northeast of where his cars and his men slept; he, from a village in Rajasthan, proud owner of two taxi stands and a mobile phone business.
The cups reappeared, now washed. The whiskey arrived, accompanied by a napkin wrapped around cubes of paneer dusted with fresh green herbs. The driver-cum-errand-boy lingered at the doorway, staring, before vanishing. India, America. India takes whiskey with water, America enjoys it straight up. “We talk no business,” he said again. We toasted. “Now we’re good friends.”
“Tomorrow is a holiday,” he told me. “You come to my village. Free of cost. Tomorrow is a festival. No pay for taxi. Good friend!” Our planned trip to Agra the next morning? “You postpone.”
“America very good,” he said. “I have friend in America. You talk!” He pulled a yellowed paper from his wallet, microscopic names and phone numbers covering all available space on both sides. Unfolding was a delicate act—too vigorous in his movement and he’d have a pile of little yellowed squares instead of one big one.
A mobile appeared in his hand. He scrutinized the paper, found the wrong number, dialed, found the right number, dialed. He spoke rapid Hindi that degenerated into laborious English. I caught words: “Mrs.” “Birender.” “Driver.” “Friend.” “America.”
And then he handed me the phone.
“Who is this?” She sounded seventeen. An American accent. A 540 area code: Virginia. Her furrowed brow came in loud and clear. I’m an American in Delhi, I told her. Fate had woven together my line with Birender’s line, and now her thread was intersecting as well. Does her mother know Birender? Oh, Birender drives her mother when she comes to Delhi. Or is it that Birdender drove her mother when she came to Delhi? So why am I calling? “I’m as confused as you are,” I tell her. “But I guess Birender wanted me to say hi.” America, India. Good friends.