In a city like Delhi, mistrust seems to be part of that polluted air we breathe. Our trust-meters reveal, on average, dangerously toxic levels of fear, suspicion and rage. Its women unsafe, its children at risk and the city's poor at the mercy of fine laws which may exist on the statute books but usually fail to help under not-so-fine conditions, Delhi can be a cynical city - and not without reason.
Yet, this is what happened a couple of days ago. Walking to work, I realized I was a bit late for a seminar. So I hailed an auto rickshaw temptingly parked at the cross-roads. Now, I'd be on time, more or less, hooray! But disembarking in a hurry, I did the stupidest thing. I left behind my handbag stuffed with the sort of documentation that makes up a middle-class life - work ID, passport, cellphone, credit cards, a bit of cash, spectacles, keys, etc. - on the back seat of the auto.
It wasn't long, just a few minutes, before I discovered that my bag wasn't hanging from its familiar perch on my shoulder. I'd remembered to take my heavy jhola full of books with me and the change-purse that I'd taken out to pay my fare was still in my hand, but I'd plain forgotten my smaller, much more valuable, handbag in the auto. What rank idiocy - expletives, curses, panic!
Anyhow, there I was moments later, staggering as fast as I could back on to the street, yelling "Auto! Auto!" at the top of my wheezing lungs. Ridiculous and absolutely no luck, of course. A few minutes is more than enough for a three-wheeler to roar out of sight at 9.30-ish in the morning - peak passenger time.
Meanwhile, another auto-driver depositing a far calmer passenger at the IIT campus notices my incoherent distress and gallantly offers to chase after auto-driver No. 1. We drive at a galumphing speed round to the nearest IIT exit through which the first auto driver might have disappeared - the "Mother Dairy" gate, as it is charmingly known, with a bustling temple to Shani Bhagwan on the right. Glancing distractedly towards its line of bell-clanging devotees, I know full well in my sinful bones that help is unlikely to come the way of someone who's been so consistently cavalier in the past.
Instead, we turn left onto Aurobindo Marg where an amazing crush of stalled traffic - cars, two-wheelers, buses, autos, cycles, thela-garis - waits pell-mell for the traffic lights to turn green on Outer Ring Road. Now here's another opportunity, I think smartly to myself, so let me lose no time. "Ek minute!" I imperiously command my auto-rescuer, as I hop recklessly off his vehicle and dash down the road peering crazily one-by-one into a long line of waiting autos, hoping against hope to see my innocuous brown bag lying abandoned in the back seat of a random auto. More classic foolishness.
Then the traffic begins to move ahead again, spewing fierce dragon-like exhaust fumes into my face. I scamper hurriedly back against the flow to my auto-man. "Mila, got it?" he asks tersely. "Nahin" I confess. "Ab toh nahi milege! Kahan chale? (you won't find it now - where should I take you next?)" he asks cheerfully. "Police station" I declare with a confidence I'm far from feeling. "Kahan padta hai police station?" "Hauz Khas." "Wahan le chalen? Shall I take you there?" No, I decide. "Pehle IIT Main Gate chaliye (let's go to the IIT Main gate first)." "Tees rupiya (thirty rupees)." "Theek hai (okay)", I agree, uncomfortably aware that I'm fast running out of change - and options.
The Main Gate is secured with a barricade and a posse of guards. I breathlessly repeat my tale of woe to them. Has anyone deposited a small, brown hand-bag? No, but I can download the Delhi Police App and report the loss online, they advise. They'll make a note of it but I should go right away to the Main Control Room and seek help there. So off I dash to the IIT Control Room. Some of the mustachioed guards are smiling as I turn away. Clearly, this is the triumph of hope over experience!
In the Control Room, everyone is concerned and sympathetic, but they are divided on the matter of whether the handbag will be found. This happens a lot. Most of the time, one guard says, the auto driver isn't even aware that a bag has been left in the back of his auto and another passenger takes it away. Another guard is of the opinion that the auto-man may just throw the bag away after taking whatever is useful to him. A third guard called Jawahar is sweetly optimistic: Good people ("acche aadmi'') he says, reap good karma. What I'm not at all sure of is whether he thinks I belong on the side of the forces of good. They are all certain of one thing, though: I should consult their supervisor and then file an FIR.
When I meet the supervisor, he asks the obvious question. Did I note the number plate of the auto? No, I mumble, but I do remember the face of the driver. Of course, this isn't very helpful information at all. But the supervisor is a kind man. He says consolingly, "Mil bhi sakta hai (you just might get it back)." So should I file that complaint? "Thora sa ruk jaiye ( wait a bit"), he repeats, "mil bhi ja sakta hai."
And it is at this point that the miracle happens.
The man whose weather-beaten face I remember walks through the door.
"Yeh lijiye, Madam, aapka bag. Check kar lijiye (here's your bag, check it to see that nothing's missing)." Well, the supervisor has been proved right, while Jawahar now feels entitled to triumphantly repeat his thoughts on good karma. Briefly, fortune smiles.
The auto-driver's name is Kishan. While we stand around celebrating my good luck, he reveals something surprising. I'll tell you the truth, he says. It's not that I did not think of taking the bag. I did. After all, it contained a nice cell-phone and such things. But then I said to myself, "Aise na karo, Kishan (don't do this, Kishan). Tumhare do bacche hain, tum khush ho, apni chain ki neend khatam na karo. Bag wapas le jao (you have two children, you are happy, do not ruin your untroubled sleep; return the bag)."
I am suddenly, poignantly, reminded of an incident almost ten years ago, once again outside the IIT Mother Dairy Gate. It was an evening when, unusually, it poured non-stop in Delhi. On that blindingly rainy evening, some wild young men on a scooter actually tried to snatch up my daughter walking home from her music class onto the back of their vehicle. Were it not for her struggling fiercely, the scooter falling sideways in the muddy scuffle, and an unknown man emerging from the shadows to help my daughter, I do not want to think of what might have happened. We did report this at the Hauz Khas Police Station - but in the absence of a license number for the scooter, the miscreants went scot-free.
Delhi remains a dangerous city. Yet, the actions of people like Kishan and the unknown man who came to the rescue of an unknown young girl a decade ago show that there is real hope. If Delhi's ''self-improvement'' schemes in the face of its many problems succeed, it will be because of their grit, honesty and support. There's no denying that awful ills beset our capital and our country at large but, equally, a limitless resource that we can bank on without hesitation has to be the collective conscience and individual good sense of India's ordinary citizens.
(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books.)
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