Here I am, dropping off a firang friend at Paharganj, leaving him with some cash to tide him over until he gets some more money from home.
The auto driver has been glaring at me through the rearview mirror all this time.
When the firang friend has gone, he turns to me - "So, he's your master, is he?"
This takes a long time to sink in, so I stupidly say, "Master... master?"
The driver impatiently repeats, "Your maalik, isn't he?"
By now, I have vaguely begun to understand that since this is a reference to me being a possession of some kind, it is possible that the driver is insinuating that my friend is actually my pimp, or my owner.
But my long silence and obvious incomprehension has made the driver sheepish, so he rephrases his curiosity -
"Is he your man? Your husband?"
I'm still on the truth trip, so I say - "No, not my man. He's a friend."
"So, he's your master, then."
"No, he's not my master!"
"So, who's your man?"
I give up. The truth, clearly, will not help - "My man is this man's friend. They're friends - my man and he... He's visiting and I'm dropping him off to his hotel, because my man asked me to."
"Ah! I see... so, where's your man, then? Why are you dropping him off?"
"Because my man's abroad. That's how he has the firang friend... My man works abroad."
The driver stares at me a long, long time, in the rearview mirror. Then he demands to know, "How many kids?"
"No kids yet."
"What? No, why should I be lying?"
"You got to have kids. I'm sure you do."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Because, why else would your man leave you?"
The logic of this is beyond me; I said so - "What's that got to do with kids?"
"Well, your man would leave you once you had kids. That would explain his being abroad."
I didn't know what to say to that, so I just applied the old rule that applies to all married-single women in India -
"Oh, but my man loves me... He is busy making money abroad. When he can afford me, he'll fetch me and we'll live together happily... in a foreign country."
This apparently satisfied the driver. He nodded sympathetically.
Then, he started again, "So, this man will come back to see you?"
"I don't know."
"Will you go back to his hotel?"
"Will you both go back to your place? At night? I can wait for you, outside, until evening... if you like."
"No, I don't want you to wait," I said, and paid him off.
But of course, he wasn't done dealing with me. He refused to give me any change back, saying I owed him extra. What I owed him for, he chose not to explain. He kept saying - "You're not being fair... you should give me more."
The presence of a traffic cop right across the road saved the day for me. A few threats, some cajoling, some scolding and I wrested back at least some of the money.
Later, my friend and I had a good laugh about this, but I'm still trying to figure out the 'why' of the whole episode.
Why do I have a master? Because I'm seen handing over some cash to a man?
What if I did have a 'master'? What do I owe to an auto-driver, anyway?
Why do I have to be abandoned if I have kids?
And how do women survive in this city, without 'master' or 'man'?
How long before we can tell the truth? How long before we'll be believed?
[Auto drivers in Delhi often provide me with much amusement and food for blog, despite the exasperation; here's Automaton - 1, 2 and 3.]