He came on time to pick me up from the five-star hotel. Allowing a reserved smile to flit across his face as he took my bags, he asked, “Where to, sir?”
“Bandra-Kurla Complex,” I said and gave him the name of the bank we were headed to. Soon, I was lost in my thoughts, going over the talk on leadership that I had been invited to make to the new batch of emerging young talent. Absentmindedly, I noticed his lean frame—almost to the bone—and wiry fingers. Slightly frayed collar, short-cropped hair, young—in his mid-20s. Normally, I would engage in conversation, but I couldn’t rustle up the energy to get out of the cocoon of my own thoughts.
I gave the talk, querying the up-and-comers on their goals and ambitions, challenging them to think bigger—basically did my thing.
My hosts complimented me—the programme was a success, the new leaders were motivated.
As I got back into the car, I was happy to remain in my cozy self-congratulatory space. But I caught his eyes in the rear-view mirror and there was something about them that stirred me. The cocoon was cracked.
“Aapka naam kya hai?” I asked.
“Shahid, sir,” he replied, respectfully.
Over the next hour of my journey, Shahid and I spoke. He had come to Mumbai a few years ago to take up a driving job at the rental car operator. With Rs5,000 as monthly salary, a 90-minute commute each way from the one-room shack he shares with his uncle.
His mother lives in a village called Dubahi outside Allahabad, with his three sisters. His father died early and there wasn’t anyone else in the family, so when he was old enough, there wasn’t even a thought of any alternative to earning a living.
“You drive very well, given that it’s just two years!” I said.
“Thank you, sir. It’s actually eight years now”, he replied, “I started driving with my uncle, with his lorry—long distance—when I was 16.”
“Without a licence?” I asked.
“I would drive the night stretches, when my uncle slept. The police are okay with this—there are many like me.”
“So have you been to many places in India?”
“Yes, most parts of the country. But I didn’t see any places, just driving the lorry to the factories and back on the highway.”
“So what happened, why did you give this up?”
“It was in Bangalore, we were leaving town one night. Just outside the city limits, there was a divider on the highway. I was very tired, and didn’t see it. The lorry tipped over and crashed. Both of us were badly hurt, I went back to the village for a few months.”
“And what happened to the lorry?” I asked, drawn into his story.
“My uncle tried repairing it. But it kept giving us trouble after that. After a few years, he decided to sell it, and we came to Mumbai to start working as car drivers instead.”
“So do you like Mumbai? It is such a big and tough city,” I asked.
“This is where I was born and lived till I was five before we went back to the village. My father had a real estate business here. We had a nice house”—he described the house and the room he shared with his sisters—“but then he died, and his father told my mother that she wouldn’t need any of this. She was from the village, uneducated, never liked Bombay. She was happy to go back to her family. But there was nothing there, hardly any land to support all of us.”
He said all this in a very matter-of-fact manner, with no trace of bitterness. I thought of the youngsters I had just talked to, with their turbocharged careers and justifiable ambitions.
I wondered how someone like Shahid could engage with the world of opportunities that is emerging in the new India.
“What is your dream?” I asked, using the Hindi word ‘sapna’.
He looked at me in the mirror, puzzled. “Meaning what, sir?” The idea of a dream, of envisioning a future for himself, hadn’t even crossed his mind. He was just living his life out, day to day.
“What would you like to do with your life? You must have some dream, some plans for the future?” I persisted, trying to get him to think out of his cocoon.
He drove quietly for a few minutes. Then he shook his head and smiled apologetically, “Samjha nahin, sir.”
India’s growing aspirations are not being fuelled by that of all Indians. It takes a certain optimism to dream, and this doesn’t grow in a vacuum. For this, we need a collective vision, not a billion cocoons.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org