Wednesday, March 28, 2007

He, who asks nothing

I didn't ask his name, but now, I wonder. In Benaras, this man was unusual. He was one of those who had a chance but didn't ask for my name.

It ought to be easy - anonymity in a city of millions, which also has millions of visitors, domestic and international. A city used to faces of all colours, tongues of all timbre, wardrobes of all vintage. Why should it care what I am called?

My silence is precious to me. Especially in strange places where talk is no obligation, where there are no acquaintances, when I know I must listen and talk and listen and ask and listen all through the next few days... Why should the town care what I'm called?

But in Benaras, they all ask.

Starting from the garrulous pre-paid auto-driver at the station, who wanted to know not just my name but my surname, my address, my work-place, my knowledge of Delhi's roads, my family, their names, etc. In exchange, unasked, he offered little factoids about himself - his name, the number of years he spent in Delhi, the number of siblings who live in Delhi, their addresses, their professions, his parents, his parents' sickness, his return to Benaras, the kind of car he used to drive, his philosophical take on old parents and responsibility, his kids, their exams, his plans for the summer, holidays in Delhi and Mumbai and if he can afford it, Goa.

After numbing me suitably, the auto-wala tried taking me to a different hotel. I insisted that I already had a booking.
He wanted to know how much I was going to pay per night.
I told him and he clicked his tongue and offered to get me a cheaper deal.
I protested and insisted that I had a booking.
He began to insist that I look at the alternative hotel.
I refused.
He insisted.
I pointed out that it wasn't right - to get someone to make a reservation and then not show up.

He said he'd get a commission if he brought me to the other hotel.
I refused.
He sulked.
Too bad, I thought, and went on to where a booked room awaited.

Later in the evening, at the hotel, when I expressed a desire to visit the Annapoorna temple, the travel desk summoned this rickshaw-wala.
All he said was, 'sixty rupees' and didn't speak again until we reached the place.
A constable blocked our path, saying rickshaws were not allowed into the lane. I got off and started walking, but within a minute, the rickshaw was at my side again, asking me to sit.

I asked him how he got past the cop. He told me - by paying ten rupees.

Outside the temple, he waited while I pushed through the two-way crush of the narrow Vishwanath lane and when I returned, too soon, he asked if I wanted to go to the ghats.

'I don't know... Is there anything nearby?'

He pointed towards the Ganga.

Nothing to do and a little daylight still clinging to the sky: I stepped down to the ghats and was swallowed by a sequence of cries and whispers in three languages - all offering to sell something, ask something.

I wanted to sit alone, in peace, but there seemed to be no way of escaping except into the river. A boatman beckoned; we struck a deal so that I would not have to share the boat.

The rickshaw-wala saw me go, and said nothing except that he'd be at the stand (a parking lot for cycle-rickshaws).

When I returned - having recounted my name, birth-place, family details etc to the garrulous boatman - he stood waiting at the shore.

He asked if I wanted to wait for the maha-aarti.

'Is it was worth waiting for?'

He shrugged. 'People come to see it.'

I sat down on the steps. A boy stopped by, selling tea in tiny kullads, as small as diwali diyas, for Re 1. He asked me my name. A boy of about twelve came up, selling booklets. He asked me my name. I sighed, and told him. A young man of about twenty parked himself on my right. He asked me my name. I smiled, and did not tell him.

Noticing a protective shadow hovering on my left, I turned to find the rickshaw-wala standing there, making no attempt at conversation.

I told him he could sit down if he wished. He did so.

A few minutes into the aarti, the smoke got too much for me. I stood up and followed the rickshaw-wala out to the stand and rode back in complete silence but for the rough sound of wheels rumbling over stones, through potholes, and the swishing of the pedals in the dim dusk.

Back at the hotel, I paid him almost twice the amount agreed on. He accepted with a wide smile. And did not, god bless him, ask my name.


iz said...

How you write Annie. I find myself having read through lines and lines and then feeling so rewarded at the end!

Vi said...

I wonder if all those people would remember your name, or if they asked in passing.

WillOTheWisp said...

Ever asked people who ask for your name the reason why they do so?


annie said...

iz: much flattered
vi: probably, the latter.
willothewisp: sometimes. but in india, that would be construed as being deliberately rude, and i rarely risk that.

Anil P said...

So maybe people should finaly stop asking 'What's in a name after all?' :)

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