We did not own a car during our time in Delhi. Autorickshaws sufficed for getting around the city, miserable as they were in the summer sun, stuck in traffic, fumes roiling around us, coughing into our handkerchiefs as we prayed for the light to change. The only automobile need we had was for my daily slog to Gurgaon; so instead of achieving the Indian dream of car ownership, we just outsourced it to the local taxi stand.
I would call them every morning. For the first month or two, I’d have to explain who I was and what I wanted and when I wanted it and where I lived. But soon the rhythm established itself. “This is Mr. David,” I would say. “Pickup, please.” (This phrase became Jenny’s unofficial alarm clock: me bellowing “This is Mis-ter Da-vid!!!” when the voice on the other end didn’t understand, a far worse way to wake up than the car horns or the loud pigeon sex on our air conditioning unit that would have roused her otherwise.)
For the first year, I was picked up by a different driver every day, one of the dozen or so who worked and slept and ate and bathed at the canvas taxi stand on the other side of Aurbindo Marg. The boss, Birender, had a private room with a cot; everyone else slept on mattresses on the common room floor. Some of the drivers spoke no English at all, while one or two were fluent enough that Birender reserved them for tourists taking trips to Rajasthan. If Sanjay was my driver, I knew Birender hadn’t booked any assignments driving foreigners around the Golden Triangle. The oldest driver—I never knew his name—tried and failed for sixteen months to beat me out of 35 Rupees for the incoming border toll Birender never required me to pay. He even tried on my very last evening coming home from work. Persistence!
My rotating cast of drivers ended last November, when I began to get Ajay almost every day. Ajay is 22 and hip. His hair is longish, slicked back, and heavily oiled. He sports an earring in one ear, a mobile phone far more expensive than mine, and a stylish jacket that looks like a name brand until you read what the logo actually says: “Important Brand.”
Ajay was trouble. I don’t think he respected me. He was always late. He would always argue with me about the route, insisting that MG Road was too jammed and that the highway was wide open (and while the highway was indeed smooth sailing, the offramp to Vasant Vihar more than ate up the time we saved)—not because time and jams were his concern, but because I think he felt cooler driving on the highway. He was clearly unhappy to be slogging to and from Gurgaon twice a day (a sentiment I completely understood); I suspect the other drivers foisted the hardship duty on him because he was the youngest.
Usually after a long day’s work, I’d get in the car, pop in a DVD, put on my headphones, and ignore Ajay as he talked on the phone or to himself. (Which he did. A lot.) At first he would surreptitiously put a single earbud headphone into the ear he thought I couldn’t see so he could listen to music off his mobile (my mobile isn’t even color!); but once he realized I didn’t mind, he would just put the mobile on speaker, and the quiet moments my shows were broken by the tinny sounds of Om Shanti Om or Bilo Rani.
Sometimes I’d play music out loud on my laptop. Ajay would sing along after every line, even though he didn’t know the words, and even though he didn’t know English. It’s hard to mimic even simple lyrics to an unfamiliar song in an unfamiliar language, so The Beatles singing “I think you’ll understand” became “Aye tee oo huh nuh stuh”.
One day, during a miserable jam, with Ajay staring glumly ahead, I decided to introduce him to the best my country had to offer. Stretching my Hindi as far as it would go, I told him, “Yeh ghanna subzi acha hai,” which I hope meant “this song is the best.” And then I put on Guns ‘N Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, sat back, and smiled with pride at introducing this fellow to the very greatest rock album America has ever produced.
It was during the lull between Nightrain and Out Ta Get Me when I heard the tinny sounds of Pappu Can’t Dance coming from the front seat: Ajay had turned his mobile as loud as it could go to distract him from the monstrous din coming from the back seat. I got the hint, put on my headphones, and turned on my DVD. He was much happier to be ignored.