My wife Swati and I were in Dubai last week, attending a conference. This piece isn’t about the conference; it’s about a disturbing conversation that we had with a taxi driver in Dubai.

He was a short, slim, nondescript man wearing a white shirt and a loosely knotted tie. I asked him his name, and he replied, “Shakeel."

“Where are you from, Shakeel?" Swati asked, and continued, “Pakistan?" Most of the help in Dubai are South Asian—mainly Indians and Pakistanis.

“No, India."

“Kahan se, India mein?" I asked, switching to Hindi. He relaxed visibly, and the rest of the conversation was in Hindi.

“Hyderabad, sir."

“Do you like Dubai?" Swati asked.

“Haan, madam. It’s a good place. Very safe. You can walk around with a lakh of dirhams in your pocket and nothing will happen. If you leave something in a taxi, you need to make just one call and the item will be returned in 15 minutes."

“So why did you leave Hyderabad?" I asked. He was non-committal, saying he had family problems. “Do you like the life here, or are you here to make money and return to India?" we asked, given that many others had expressed this sentiment.

“I am happy here. I will keep working here, no problems." He glanced in the rear-view mirror at us, to emphasize his commitment to the city.

We pushed him on why he liked to stay in Dubai when many of those doing the manual and service-level jobs had said they didn’t really like the quality of life.

“What is not to like here? Things work very well. There is no crime, everyone is subject to the same laws, you can even go up to the Sheikh and shake hands with him. Can you do this in India?"

“But what about democracy?" we asked, “Don’t you feel...daba hua, oppressed...that the city has someone called a ruler, or that you can’t criticize him?"—the standard argument about places that “work" better than India, but compromise on civil liberties and free speech. We were cruising down one of Dubai’s modern highways, with manicured green belts ribboning the sides.

“Kya democracy, saab? What is the purpose of democracy if people don’t feel safe?"

As we pushed him on his arguments, he suddenly fixed his eyes on us and said, “Dekhiye, main aap ko batata hoon, main India mein khoon karke aaya hoon. I have killed a man, stabbed him to death."

I felt the air rush out of me. Sitting in the back of the quiet taxi, it seemed unreal that this unassuming driver could really be a killer. I didn’t turn to see Swati, but I could sense that she was also in shock. Breaking what was becoming an awkward silence, I asked, “How? Why? Whom did you kill?"

“It was a family feud, there was some disagreement, so I killed him," he said somewhat matter-of-factly.

“But why would you kill him, wasn’t there some other way out?"

He shook his head, as though mulling some thoughts, and after a few moments, said, “OK, let me tell you, I was a goonda in my area. We would commit all kinds of crimes, we were part of a bigger gang. I was in charge of my neighbourhood. At election time, we were the ones who took care of the voting issues as well. I can admit it now, I was a rowdy-sheeter with the police.

“After I killed the man, I was in trouble. I needed to leave the country, but I couldn’t get a passport and visa. But India mein, paise se sab chalta hai. I paid money, bribed people in various departments, got my papers and came away to Dubai. Now, I go back to India every year—I can stand in front of the same police people, and they can’t lift a finger to touch me. They just look the other way. What democracy! When you can bribe for everything, when you can get away with anything?"

“But this is strange, are you blaming India’s democracy for you being a criminal? You are the one who committed the crime. So they should have caught you and put you behind bars, is that your complaint?"

“Yes! How can people get away? Here, if I had done anything similar, I would have lost my life. Maybe if they had caught me when I was doing petty crimes, I wouldn’t have slid down this path. Dekhiye, we all want to live good lives, but majboori hai. We need to know that the system works. Bura insaan bhi sudharna chahta hai. Everyone wants to reform and live a clean life. But if the system allows you to remain bad and actually makes things worse and forces you to take the wrong path, where is the hope? Here, I live an honest life, drive the taxi, get my wages and tips, and I am happy. No crime around me, no crime for me. Tell me, if democracy can’t guarantee that, what’s the point of having it?"

Of all the debates we have had about the challenges of democracy, few have been as disquieting as the one we had with this Indian taxi driver in Dubai.

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. Comment at