One of the things that’s either really interesting, or really annoying (depending on your attitude) about living in India is that very strange things happen here almost every day. In fact, just by leaving the house I can pretty much guarantee that I will witness something – or someone – odd.
Such was the case last week when I was trying to take an auto from Saket to Green Park.
In front of the Saket PVR there’s always a row of autorickshaws, but, as usual, most of the drivers were asleep (in various contorted positions) on their back seats. The one driver who was fully conscious refused to take me to Green Park for less than a hundred rupees; a ridiculous price for a fifteen minute journey. I began to argue, but stopped suddenly when I heard a voice behind me.
‘Excuse me, my child,’ the voice said. I turned around and found myself standing face to face with none other than Jeff Goldblum.
Okay, it wasn’t actually Jeff Goldblum, rather an Indian guy with strange glasses and an uncanny similarity to the American actor of Jurassic Park fame. But at least now you’ll be able to picture him in your head. He continued. ‘Beta. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe you think that this driver is trying to overchange you.’
‘Yes!’ I cried. ‘He’s charging a hundred rupees to go to Green Park!’
Jeff placed his hand on the top of my head in sympathetic blessing. ‘Which country do you belong to, child?’
‘Scotland,’ I replied. The bemused auto driver twiddled the corner of his moustache.
‘Ahh. The United Kingdom,’ said Jeff in a mist of nostalgia. ‘London. A magnificent city. I lived there once.’
The auto driver and I glanced at each other. Jeff continued. ‘I have lived in many places. Paris, New York, Louisiana, Washington, Barcelona, Amsterdam. And of course your city, beta – London. But anyway. Back to the matter at hand. One hundred rupees. Do you really believe the driver is trying to cheat you? What do you think the correct price should be?’
‘He should use the meter!’ I said, raising my eyebrows at the driver. By now a few passers by had stopped to listen to the conversation, and the man who makes paranthas had left his stall and wandered over.
‘God bless you, my child,’ said Jeff, placing his hand on my head again. ‘This is India. This driver man has very little money; perhaps he has a family to care for. One hundred rupees is a very small sum, really.’
‘But-‘ I protested, ‘but, I know a hundred is too much! He’s cheating me because I’m foreign!’
‘Oh, my child. You are new in this country and you have much to learn. Indian cities are very different to your London. It is not common to use the meter, for example.’
Exasperated, I had no choice but to stir things up. ‘In Mumbai they use the meter!’ I wailed. The crowd around me uttered a small cheer. The auto driver started laughing. Only Jeff Goldblum remained serious.
‘Listen, beta. I will now speak to this driver in Hindi. You will not be able to understand.’ Jeff then switched to Hindi, and politely requested the driver to use the meter, promising that I’d pay twenty rupees extra. The driver seemed satisfied with the offer.
‘Twenty rupees extra?’ I shrieked in Hindi. ‘That’s like foreigner tax!’
Completely unshocked at my change of language, Jeff only shrugged. By this stage I was really quite late, so finally I convinced the driver to take me to Green Park for sixty rupees and sat down in the rickshaw. Jeff sighed and adjusted his glasses.
‘Remember, child, this is India. Not London!’ said Jeff. Slightly confused, I nodded solemnly and told the driver to get moving. He started the engine.
‘God bless you, beta,’ Jeff raised his hand in a limp wave. The crowd (now taking up most of the pavement) grinned and waved enthusiastically as we drove off. A minute or so later, the auto driver caught my eye in the mirror. He looked just as baffled as me.