[Issue 13 / 1 May 15]

Dear Passenger,

You might have never met me. Even if you did you might not remember. But you will definitely meet someone like me at least once in your life. The fact that I’m writing this letter to a potential stranger may mislead you into believing that I have a way with words. Actually, I’m not much of a talker. Instead, my gift lies in listening.

You may ask how can an auto wallah possess such a skill, particularly if he spends most of his time driving down familiar roads? The answer is precisely because I spend most of my day driving down familiar roads.

I know where I’m headed, so I don’t have to think about it. This leaves my brain with lots of space to think about other things. Since most of my time is spent with passengers like yourself my mind is filled with your conversations—the back and forth between you and the others in the backseat. Initially, I felt I had no choice but to hear your idle banter. I realized that this was the wrong mindset. Soon enough, I began to enjoy these conversations. I even began to look forward to them.

I’ll let you in on a secret—I probably know more about you than you’d imagine. The sneaky flirtation that you don’t know I can see, the jealous spouse, the scolding parent, the nagging girlfriend, the spoilt child... I’ve seen you all. I’ve heard those secrets that you only tell your best friends. You forget that now I too have become privy to who cheated on whom. I’ve seen your affair with the wife of your best friend. I’ve been a part of each conversation that took place in my auto, from your plans to bunk class to how your day went. Not that any of it matters; more often than not, I don’t know the people you talk about. Still, the next time you sit in the back of an auto, do spare a thought for the chap in front of you, whose ears capture all the voices coming towards him.

I understand if you’re feeling shocked or angry. Don’t let my admission change your behaviour. The reason I am writing this letter is not to deter you from having those conversations. We both know that a silent auto ride will never become the norm, because it is human nature to fill nothing with something, to fill silence with sounds.

The reason I am writing this letter is to thank you. First, for the endless hours of entertainment you have given me. I am saving considerable money now that I no longer go to the movies. Your conversations ensure that I will never get bored doing my job!

Second, you have made my life brighter. Last week, the fight with my wife didn’t seem so bad after hearing your threats of divorce. Just yesterday, my lesser income seemed adequate when I heard how miserable you were because you didn’t know where to spend your money. Unknowingly, you have changed my life for the better.

Three, you talk about what’s happening in the world and convey your opinions with such conviction that I have no choice but to be persuaded. Before I continue, you should know that I crave attention, but the life of an auto wallah renders me largely invisible. That’s why I claim your words to be my own when I talk to my friends. I realize this isn’t the most moral thing to do, but people in my community think I’m smarter now; this in turn has increased my self-confidence manifold. Surely, you must understand my weakness to have committed such an act. Here, I confess and I hope you find it in yourself to forgive me.

Four, you have elevated me from a stranger to an unidentified confidante of your random chatter. In this way you have included me in your close circle of family and friends. For those few kilometers that we are together I become a willing participant in your life’s story. You might find it interesting that I have developed a peculiar habit of imagining my role in each conversation. With a quarrelling couple I am the mediator, a silent judge of whom to blame. In the idle English gossip of college girls, I am the curious boy next door, eavesdropping while casually reading the paper. You’ll be happy to know I’ve picked up quite a bit of English by driving around campus areas (Of course, I understand more than I speak). My favourite conversations are those that take place on a phone. I don’t have to find a role for myself, because it already exists—I am the other person on the line.

This has become a long letter, longer than I had imagined. It’s alright if you’ve lost interest. I don’t expect you to be interested in a person whose life is mostly spent driving on a road. I don’t expect you to write back either. You’ll notice I’ve put the return address on the envelope, but don’t interpret that as a sign of subtle coercion. You’ve already done more than I could ever hope for—you’ve listened to me. And by listening, you’ve become a willing part of my life story. Thank you for this conversation.

Sincerely,

An Auto Wallah

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Pragya Bhagat spent the first 15 years of her life bouncing from one country to the next.  In these formative years, her first love was words. She continues to paint pictures with words in her head and on paper, and she is inspired by the diversity of individual stories. With a Bachelor’s in Biology and a Masters in Social Work, Dalit and Tribal Studies, Pragya lives life one day at a time. Other than writing and reading everything under the sun, she is a fan of Bollywood, the violin, and cold milk.