The drive to the station took unusually long thanks to the incorrigible Mumbai traffic. “Pardon me for asking you, you are a monk aren’t you” asked the driver. He smelt as if he hadn’t taken a bath in many days and his cab looked of a bygone era. I was in no mood to talk to him, and preferred to silently chant on my prayer beads when he persisted, “Where are you from, which place in South India?” I turned my face away in visible annoyance, also hiding my surprise at his guessing my place of birth. “I am from Karnataka” I said and being trained to be courteous, I asked, “You are from?”
“I am from Jonpur, near Varanasi, and we have your center there also…” as he babbled on I thought of telling him to shut up so I could be peaceful. I barely smiled when he said, “Do you also study Ramayana in your ashram”
“Hmm…“ I looked outside the window, hoping he would understand I am not interested and would leave me alone.
“Which one, Tulasi or Valmiki version”, he probed. “Both” I said, and sensing he’d be impressed I chanted a few Verses from the Tulasi Ramayana. But what followed next shook me to the core…
I was stunned as he too chanted a few verses from the Ramayana explaining the nine fold path of devotional service. I thought that was a chance, maybe that’s the only thing he knows. He went on to give a class explaining the verse. I was suddenly interested. He quoted another one and explained it philosophically, interspersing with quotes from the Bhagavad Gita and drawing life lessons. I couldn’t help it; I took out my phone and recorded his chanting of a few verses in a poetic meter that is characteristic of Ramayana sung in North India. He was inspired to chant more; now it was a full- fledged class he was giving while maneuvering the taxi in the rush hour traffic. I was glued to every word he spoke; it wasn’t any way different from the scholarly class I hear daily in temple from our esteemed monks, dedicated to studying and preaching the Vedic knowledge. Many of my colleagues at the ashram are from reputed engineering or medical colleges and also have a command over the scriptures. Here was a simple taxi driver who was equally if not more proficient in the Ramayana. His singing of the verses lent a freshness to the otherwise suffocating drive amidst loud honking of hundreds of cars at stop lights. A traffic cop came waving his cane, shouting expletives at different drivers and ordering them to stop or slow down. Even our driver wasn’t spared, but he was oblivious to the insult. He looked blissful chanting the glories of Lord Rama.
Half an hour later we reached the railway station, and as I paid the fare and got off, my heart was heavy. I wished we could have spoken more. I did manage to learn that he is Satender Singh, forty five years old and drives taxis for more than fourteen hours a day. He earns a meager income to take care of his family of wife, three children and elderly parents. Ironically, he was struggling to make a living in this big, bad city of go getters, yet was content in glorifying the Lord of his heart.
Ramayana is etched in the hearts of millions of Indians and regardless of their daily struggles and myriad suffering, people like Satender truly represent the tolerant and rich India. He taught me that hope and happiness would spring forth in a heart that is relishing the sweetness of this immortal classic.
Earlier rock music blasted from inside a black Jaguar next to us at the stop light, and that deafened even the pedestrians. I saw a young man chewing gum on its driver’s seat; his raucous friends hurled swear words at the traffic. The group looked miserable, and then again I glanced at my poor driver. It was clear to me; the wealthy one was driving me, his unkempt hair and rustic appearance adding to his beauty while the poor millionaires choked in the Jaguar.