‘Bhaiyya’ maange more

With my regular driver on leave, I decided not to hire another one — I thought it would give me the much-needed opportunity to re-familiarise myself with the public transport system of Bombay that brings with it its own insights as well as sights and sounds that the rolled-up windows of your own car completely shut out of your life.

And, in a week when Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi is receiving much flak for asking Uttar Bharatiyas how long they will beg for jobs in Maharashtra (largely misinterpreted by both politicians and sections of the media: he did not quite call the people of Uttar Pradesh `beggars’), I have re-learnt a thing or two about both the `bhaiyyas’ of Bombay and those who detest them.

I was brought up to always refer to every strange man as `bhaiyya’ (and `bhai sahab’ if he seemed older than me) and told by my elders that this should apply to all – whether speaking to a friend’s brother, a shopkeeper or even my neighbourhood garbage collector.

So it now comes as second nature to me and I am not even able to see whether the man is actually an Uttar Bharatiya or Maharashtrian (in which case it should probably be `bhau’ but that does not come quickly to the tongue), or belongs to another caste or even a different religion. Generally, no one has any objection.

But a couple of days ago, as I took a cab back home (of course, I had as usual addressed the man as `bhaiyya’), the reigning prejudices in the city and the stereotyping of people on the basis of their origins came back to me with great force.

The cabbie had not seemed to mind when I called him `bhaiyya’. But a few minutes later, as he stopped at a traffic sign, another cabbie behind us began to hoot rather vigourously. He seemed to be in a tearing hurry – which became obvious when the lights changed and he came abreast of my own taxi. Dozens of bags and suitcases were loaded into a half-open trunk and onto the roof of his cab and he began to roundly abuse my cab driver. “You could have sailed past that signal. You need not have stopped!’’ he yelled.

My cabbie broke into abuse, using the by now fashionable `D K Bose’ word -the other way round.

As we neared my home, he apologised to me. I did not remember him but he told me I had hired him a couple of times before and he had dropped me off “in that quiet lane that you live in’’. “I am sorry, Madam, I did not want to use bad words but that bhaiyya simply enraged me. His passengers must have been piling on the pressure, not wanting to miss their train, and so he wanted me to jump the signal and break the rules. But why should I? I am not a bhaiyya!’’

I was zapped. I sat silently for a few minutes ruminating on what I had just heard and I didn’t dare use the word `bhaiyya’ for him again. But since it slips so easily off the tongue, I addressed him thus again almost without thinking, as I directed him round the corner — and this time fond myself apologising. “My `bhaiyya’ for you is not because I think you are from Uttar Pradesh. It is as in a `brother’. So please do not mind.’’

Since he is a regular at the taxi stand near my office, both of us knew we might run into each other again and both of us were being extra careful to be polite. “Oh, but I did not mean `bhaiyya’ as an insulting term, Madam. But that cabbie was clearly one and they all break the rules all the time. I am sorry,’’ he said again.

I had not quite got over the incident when I set off for work the next morning. There were no cabs outside my gates, so I called a regular who lived in the (now redeveloping) slum opposite. “I’ll be there in five minutes,’’ he said.

I had always referred to him as `bhaiyya’, too. But now I dared not. So I called him by his name, adding a `ji’ at the end – I could see that he was mildly taken aback.

The formality of my address to him must have given him some food for thought for he was not his usual chatty self that morning. But he took a few minutes to give me an update as he stopped at my office and I dug into my bag for the fare.

“I have been wanting to tell you for a long time, Madam, since you are a journalist and might be meeting a lot of people…if any one needs any space, please refer me to them first.’’

I didn’t quite understand. “What? Have you started a marriage hall or a party hall or something like that? Didn’t you have a milk business, too?’’

“I still have it. My booth is just outside your gate. But that was not enough. Now I am into real estate. I have become an estate agent,’’ he told me both rather shyly and a little proudly.

“Oh!’’ I was completely floored. “An estate agent! Well, I would never have believed it.’’

He gave me a long hard look and then said without any rancour, “Bhaiyya hoon, Madam. Apna aur apne parivar ka pet paalne ke liye har mauke ke intezaar mein rehta hoon. Ek mauka bhi haath se jaane nahin deta. (I am a bhaiyya, Madam. I am always looking for better opportunities. Never let one slip past me).’’

As the slums where he lived went under the hammer in the government’s reconstruction/ redevelopment plan, he found his opportunity there as well. He now has some `spaces’ that he is looking to rent out or even sell. He wanted me to spread the word around.“ So you will give up your taxi and milk business if that takes off?’’

“No. I will hand them over to my brother to run and keep them going as a fallback. They are for subsistence. But I will greatly appreciate your help. I am hoping this new business will give my family a better life. Every opportunity counts.’’

“Oh, yes, it does,’’ I said, as I got off his taxi.

I am still thinking about him and the other cabbie – `bhaiyya’, quite obviously, means different things to different people. And no one, including the Thackerays (both Uddhav and Raj, who have made much this week of Rahul Gandhi’s comment), should really look down upon people who try to make the best of their opportunities to eke out a living, no matter what those opportunities might be and where they might take them.

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