I’d been told the village I was headed to would be 25 or 30 kilometres from the kasbah, where my family home was. I could take a bus, they said. Well, two buses. Or a series of autorickshaws.
It didn’t sound so bad. What was 30 kilometres? I had forgotten though; 30 kilometres in metropolitan cities is a whole different kettle of fish. Mumbai’s local trains may be akin to a tin of sardines, but I don’t have to be in the tin for longer than an hour. On rural Uttar Pradesh roads, it’s like having fish pressed into a series of tins over the course of two-and-a-half or three hours, and being shaken violently all the while.
The autorickshaws I found were modified vehicles. They are smaller than tempos, which seat eight or twelve people, but slightly longer than the three-wheelers in metros, and not much wider. The passenger seat can properly seat only three, but four adults are squeezed in. The driver’s seat is replaced by a long seat. Here too, four adults sit, including the driver. Behind the front seat is affixed another narrow seat. Here perch another four passengers, facing the four who occupy the seat that’s originally meant to be the passenger seat.
Behind the passenger’s seat, there is a narrow space where two tiny seats are affixed, facing each other. Two adults sit there. Two more passengers are taken on and they sit on the strip of metal that serves as the body of the vehicle at the back, which is open to the elements.
That makes for sixteen adult passengers, every one of them more patient and in better humour than me. I’d begun to crib as soon as four passengers were found, telling the driver to get moving. He politely ignored me until he had all sixteen wedged in tight.
There is an equally tight budgeting system for local autorickshaw drives, and equally narrow profits. I paid just ₹20 for the longest stretch of my journey. Most others paid 10, or five. There was one passenger who got on and off mid-way, travelling a distance of two or three kilometres. She paid only two rupees. Or tried to. The driver cursed and humiliated her — “You think you can get into a vehicle for two rupees?” — and made her fork over another rupee more. She parted with it reluctantly.
It has been years since I last saw someone haggle whilst trying to hold onto her dignity for a rupee. In Delhi and Mumbai, both passengers and the cab or auto driver routinely shrug off a few rupees for the lack of change.
No wonder, I thought, people move to Delhi or Lucknow or Mumbai. This, the heartland, the homeland, squeezes you too hard.
The elderly woman on my right laughed and bantered a lot though, and kept trying to strike up a conversation. I kept saying, apologetically, that I didn’t understand. She spoke a Bhojpuri so far removed from Hindi that it may as well have been Bangla or Marathi. She asked where I was from. I caught the word “ghar”, home, and understood. I said, my family belongs to these parts, actually.
The elderly woman gave me a sideways stare. After a while, she resumed her one-sided conversation in Bhojpuri.
I gathered that she was trying to tell me the names of the crops standing in the fields on either side. I told her, I know a mustard field when I see one. She let out a small laugh that suggested she didn’t think I knew anything at all.