JLF’15 was all planned out and spoken about- my train had almost arrived and I dialled his number from my phone. “Pick me up from my hotel at 11.45,” I told him. He said he would have to shift around a bit of time, but it could be managed- I nodded satisfactorily.
Standing tall, Vishu walked towards us in a dapper, sky blue waistcoat, white trousers, brown loafers and glaring blue aviators. He walked with a gracious smile, a little pomp in his strut, a little spring in his step, as if almost anticipating our reactions, and especially waiting for the first-timers I had gotten along. As our mouths fell open, he held out his hand, and in his characteristic laugh, greeted us with a Welcome to Jaipur.
In 2014, at the time of my annual pilgrimage to Jaipur for the literature festival, on a cold day buttered with warm sunshine, I took an auto, from Diggi Palace, where the festival is held, to my hotel. Call it what you will, it was just my luck that of all the autos running in this tourist-y city, I had to take the one driven by one of the coolest people one could ever come across.
Vishu drives an auto around Jaipur, an auto which he likes to call his Ferrari. He speaks in a manner that would put most talk show hosts to shame, and has a high-pitched, taunting laugh, which gets even more scornful if he doesn’t approve of something. He speaks almost fluent English, and has picked up a lot of phrases from other languages courtesy the foreign tourists who frequent Jaipur. “I’m a celebrity,” he tells me, and when I first make the mistake of giving him a sceptical look, he hands me a magazine, the page opened to an article in which he has been featured. I look at him in astonishment; he smirks.
He tells me I’m very lucky to have gotten a ride in his auto, and I agree with him- he carries around that magazine everywhere, to disprove people who dare doubt him. He keeps his auto immaculately clean, drawing and fastening the curtains on each side, so as to protect his customers from the Jaipur nip. “All my foreigner friends point at me and say good things when I walk in,” he says and I nod along. He says he prefers foreign tourists in his auto- “Indians are always late, you know.” If you tell him to reach at 11.45, he will more often than not, reach five minutes earlier. Vishu too registers himself for the literature festival and holds a participant pass. While driving his auto, he scoffs at auto drivers who break traffic rules unnecessarily- “He’s a stupid”, he tell us. He knows all the shortcuts in the city and will drop you at the point where it’s most comfortable for his customers.
Last year as we were exiting Diggi Palace, Vishu spotted Kabir Bedi standing near the gate, and turned towards us. “Look at that!” he said. Instead of the usual excitement that other people might hold, Vishu burst into laughter and upon being asked why he was laughing, he said he found it funny that Kabir Bedi was standing all by himself and people passed by him without giving him a second look. With confidence, he stopped the auto near him and said, “Hello, sir”, and my friend and I waved frantically from the back, trying to diffuse the awkwardness. He also treated the two of us to tea, considering we spent a lot of time with him, and laughed incessantly at all his jokes. Once I returned to Delhi, he called me regularly, every few weeks, to keep in touch.
This year, I was excited to make my friends meet Vishu, and once everyone finally overcame the surprise and got settled in his auto, we began discussing which talks we might want to attend that day. As soon as we reach, we will check out the schedule, I said and Vishu, overhearing my remark, promptly hands me the schedule, which he carries around for the ease of his customers. Once we reach, he also makes us meet his father, who is anxious and proud for his son, at the same time hoping he would fit in the festival without trouble. He need not have worried.
On one of the nights, after all the literary festivities of the day were over and we had settled ourselves in front of a live band, I went to get some beer and pizza and while waiting, looked over at our table: there was Vishu, sitting coolly along with my friends at our table, his legs crossed as he appeared to be listening intently. He caught my eye and I waved at him, laughing. I brought over the pizzas on the table and asked him to help himself- he thanked me politely, and took a slice, chewing and listening to music. We could be proponents of all sorts of equality, but in a society like ours where certain professions are so stigmatized, you would need a robust kind of confidence, and a strong sense of security to remain so relaxed.
Vishu, for me, is endlessly fascinating not because he breaches the socially acceptable codes of conduct, or attempts to rise above his ascribed class, and not even because he tells me I’m getting a photo with a celebrity, when I ask him for a picture. He is fascinating because within himself, he represents the aspirational values of the entire country. I want to join politics one day, he had told us, and it would be foolhardy of me to doubt his ambition.
Rajdeep Sardesai said in his talk, “Aspiration is the one thing that unites the whole of India”, and Vishu is the perfect example of that. He has dreams, ambitions and aspirations, and he tries to achieve them by emulating people of a class he deems higher, and by learning to speak English- that is the great beauty, and the great curse, of our democracy and capitalism. It has created a country of youth filled with aspirations, but without adequate platforms for their fulfilment. It has created the greatest working class population, but little opportunities for them to work. It has created people hungry for change, for dreams, for a chance to work and optimize life- but at a loss to understand how to go about it.
He is India, in all its glory, in the millions of beating hearts, an India which strives to go make its mark. And just like Vishu, we might end up realizing, that this is a place where it is easy to be left behind, so we must train ourselves, groom ourselves, and more importantly, love ourselves in an effort to atleast strive towards our aspirations, come what may be, and in the process, perhaps charm a person or two.