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Updated: Aug 9, 2022

The first time I visited Delhi after the Nirbhaya case, it was as if I had touched down on a landmine filled area. The very atmosphere felt sinister, and a sense of dread became my constant companion as I navigated the city with great trepidation. It was as if there was someone waiting to swoop down on me any moment; such was the paranoia. The fact that I live in Dubai, a place renowned for its high standards of safety for women, made it doubly difficult for me to let my guard down as I walked the streets. It is a good trait, of course, to be cautious, but when caution turns into phobia it can be a severe burden. It kills the enthusiasm for life, it robs us of our freedom and above all, it changes our world view. It makes us sceptical and deeply suspicious of all things. It induces stupid biases in the head. So it was when I landed in Delhi after the Nirbhaya case. Although with a couple of more visits, the degree of fear lessened significantly, I still had to gain confidence to take Ubers and rickshaws. The chance of getting waylaid is more when you are alone in a vehicle, you see. Or so I believed. Every time I booked an Uber, I would first assess the driver by his name, not that it gave away much, but the brain prompted me to do all due diligence before hiring the ride. Once inside the vehicle, I would look at the dashboard and assess how neat the interiors were. I knew that it is foolhardy to think that the dashboard reflects the driver’s moral standing, but somehow it was my first metric to assess his character. A religious, God-fearing man will not rape a woman. I had to reinforce my confidence with such assumptions. Else, my fear would paralyze me and make me a hopeless sissy. There was a time when I would indulge in small talks with people that I came across randomly, but not anymore. I made it a policy not to talk anything more than what was essential to anybody, especially as a cab rider. Every single time, I felt a tremor in my body through the length of the journey. The fact that I did not know the routes made me a tad bit more jittery, but I gradually learned to stay composed, and began to have a more positive attitude. The world might be getting nastier, but not all people are partners in its crime. Goodness still has to be given its due, despite everything. I was in Delhi last February, after a long gap. As it is, the pandemic period had completely ripped me of my erstwhile fervour for travel, and the fact that we were spending our first days of the India trip in Delhi triggered old fears. I gently put them down by saying a lot of effluences have flown down the Yamuna since then and the past has now been obliterated by time. Brandishing my bravado, I took my first Uber ride in the city with Arvind. A man probably in his mid-fifties, he didn’t seem the trouble-making kind. What’s more, there was a sticker with ‘Press’ and a Doordarshan’s logo on it on his windshield which added to my confidence. A man who ran for the government couldn’t be a creep and I needn’t be stand-offish in my attitude. These are the many ways we manipulate our emotions to tide over our fears and anxieties. We need to keep auto-suggesting, infuse dollops of encouraging thoughts in order to sail in a hostile-looking sea. A few minutes into the ride, I realized that I wasn’t wearing my mask, and I exclaimed, ‘I have forgotten to take the mask.’ It was a sudden realization that got voiced aloud. ‘It doesn’t matter, madam ji. It’s not mandatory anymore,’ he reassured me. ‘But I hear there is a fine of 500 Rupees,’ I expressed concern. ‘Don’t worry, nobody will catch you,’ he reiterated. ‘Covid is gone. It’s over.’ The confidence in his voice made me sit back in the seat with relief. It suddenly occurred to me that men like Arvind were right in the middle of it all when the pandemic was at its peak. I wondered how badly these men must have been affected financially. How did they make a living? How many of his people must have died? The odds were entirely against people like him and the fact that he had made it safely to this side of the catastrophe was a happy thought to me. ‘Is everything well in your family?’ I asked with genuine concern. I chided myself soon after for extending the conversation. I had vowed not to speak unnecessarily. But then, it’s hard not to spare a thought for fellow human beings. No matter who they are. ‘Yes, all are well in the family,’ Arvind said, desultorily. There was no spark in his voice. It was as if he thought it was obligatory to reply in the affirmative. I didn’t probe further. A few honks around and some manouvering on a busy road later, he said as an after-thought. ‘Madam ji, sorry if I am bothering you. But I want to tell you a story.’ And then he went on to narrate a parable to me that uncovered some profound thoughts about the shallowness of human relationships. How no one we consider as ours are ours in reality. How people love themselves first and the other person only next, even if is the family. His spiel meandered through excerpts from the Gita, and other spiritual texts. I listened to him with intrigue, amidst his frequent apologies for being so talkative. At one point when he apologized, I said, ’Don’t apologize. It is not often that one comes across people like you. I am listening. You have an amazing perception. You are a spiritual man.’ ‘Madam, it is unfortunate that people think all cab drivers are drunkards and criminals. That they misbehave and are morally bad. It is not so.' His statement felt like a punch in the face, and I winced inwardly. I was guilty to the claim he was making. In one stroke, I felt all my prejudices fall limp on the ground. As we reached the destination and he began to look for change to return, I said, ‘Keep it. It was the best ever cab ride of my life.’ My journey for the day must have been over there, but I realized that I still had a long way to go before knowing the truths of life. I had light years to travel before I can proclaim, ‘I know life up close and personal.’

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