Now for a funny anecdote from this week. I was driving around the quaint village roads of this coastal town I’m in and I had a flat tyre. It was brought to my attention by a bunch of middle-aged men who had parked themselves at the junction where the puncture (must have) occurred. As I was making the turn, they started shouting, “Arre! omlette… anda… omlette!” while pointing to my rear tyre, slapping their forehead, and rushing to my car, some 7-8 of them.
They were being so dramatic, I was convinced it was a scam. Had they had placed nails at the turning? Were they pulling a fast one on me? As someone who grew up in middle-class suburban Mumbai, my natural predisposition is to always assume that everyone is out to fleece me. This attitude, although helpful in cities, can have the exact opposite effect where the primary currency of exchange is trust and not money, like in rural India. I would go on to learn this the hard way, through what followed.
As soon as I stepped out of the car, the men started speaking to me in an assortment of languages trying to find out which language I would understand. (My license plate gave away that I wasn’t from the state.) I stuck to Hindi and saw that the tyre was indeed flat.
It was my first week of having a car. It was my first time driving in this place. It was the first time I had to deal with a flat tyre of a car. Add to this, 7-8 men surrounding me, directing me and asking me questions all at once—I was overwhelmed.
Amidst the commotion and instructions of “neutral mein laga”, “hand brake daala hai na?”, “kaisa reverse karta hai re, chi!”, “jug kidhar hai?” (Put the gear into neutral. Have you pulled the handbrake? What a terrible ‘car reverser’ you are. Where’s the jug?), I had to quickly decide whether these men were genuinely trying to help me or were out to get me.
My wife, too, got down and some of the men started chatting up with her in friendly broken English. She was happy to chat up with them with her occasional ‘haans’ (yesses) and nods. After the compulsive ‘Hello madam, which country?’, I saw that they were trying to make her laugh. I noticed the pattern—they were going to be friendly with her and aggressive with me. I wasn’t surprised and was relieved they were nice to her.
Meanwhile, they kept asking me for ‘jug’, which, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand what it was. So I simply proceeded to get the stepney out. I had a lot of stuff in the dickey that I was carrying. As I took one item after the other out, they started with the commentary.
“Tch.. chi chi kitna saaman hai re! tera hi car hai na?! poora ghar hai isme.” (Sheesh, how much stuff you have! Is this your car or somebody else’s? You have an entire house in here.)
Some of it was funny and some annoying. I ignored the annoying parts, laughed with them and got the stepeny out. One of them said, “aaah, idhar hai jug!” (Ah, here’s the jug!). That’s when I realised by ‘jug’ he meant ‘jack’, car jack.
The men immediately got to work. They asked me nothing—if they could start changing the tyre or if I needed any help with it. (To be clear, I have never changed the tyre of a car and I definitely needed help.) They only saw me be confused and clueless, and decided to take matters into their own hands. I decided that they were indeed helping me and slowly let go, just observing from the sides.
One of the items I was carrying in the car were a pair of dumbells that had been left on a compound as I shifted things around. And one of the men, who seemed to be in his fifties—lets called him Mainman—had joked to my wife, while doing bicep curls with them, that he would take the dumbells home to his kids. And my wife had laughed, as she does easily. At some point, I put those dumbells back in the car. I didn’t want our stuff scattered. That would turn out to be a mistake.
All hell broke lose.
Mainman, who seemed to be the leader of the pack, found my act offensive. He instructed the guy who had started loosening the flat tyre—let’s call him Sideman—and his others associates, to stop working.
He spent the next twenty minutes, trying as best as he could, to embarrass me.
“Tera dumbell chori karega kya main?!” (You think I’ll steal your dumbells?!)
“Abhi laga jug, kidhar lagaega?” (Now place the jack. Where will you place it?)
I tried to reason with him that he had misunderstood me. I pulled my mask down, thinking it made me seem unfriendly, and flashed a smile. No use.
“Mask nikala toh kya? Ambani ka ladka hai tu?” (What if you take the mask down? Are you Ambani’s son?)
He wasn’t having any of it. He had decided to get upset. Everyone had backed off.
I took the jack, loosened it, knelt down, tried to place it, and fumbled. I had no idea where it was supposed to go. At best, resolution to this was a YouTube video away; at worst, a call to an expensive service centre away. But with all of them standing around and making comments, I conceded. I wanted this ordeal to be done with. I realised Mainman’s feathers had been ruffled. “Since you know all about it, please instruct me and I will place this jack wherever it has to be placed”, I asked of him politely.
“Laakhon ka gaadi chalata hai, jug kidhar dalneka maloom nahi hai” (You drive a car worth lakhs and don’t know where to place the jack.)
He went on and on. Cars honked as they got stuck at the narrow turning, traffic gathered, and people from surrounding shops peeped to get a glimpse of the ruckus. Meanwhile, my wife was completely clueless as to what had ticked Mainman off.
I patiently waited for him to display all his feathers and do his dance for the neighbourhood. Once his ego was satisfied, he asked Sideman to get to work again.
“Jab tak main nahi bolega na, idhar traffic bhi nahi hilega” (Till I instruct, even the traffic won’t move here), he decreed, as cars honked angrily and cursed us all making their way out.
As Sideman, a rather quiet chap, was finishing up switching out the tyre, I was thinking of ways to remunerate him. I knew offering him money would be insulting. He promptly refused to take any money. So I insisted that he must tell me what he drinks, so I could bring him a bottle of it. After much resistance he said, “get me anything you want, but not before you get your flat tyre fixed first”. He didn’t like all the attention he was getting. I decided to get the tyre fixed and bring him a bottle of Whiskey.
Meanwhile, Mainman seemed to be content with the incident and strutted around, explaining to people what ensued. Funnily enough, when everyone had dispersed, he did a complete 180 and apologised to me! “I’m sorry if I spoke too much.” I was so confused. Mainman was undergoing the entire gamut of emotions—joy, anger, regret—in quick succession.
While fixing the tyre at the nearest service station, Sideman rode up on his bike. “I’m leaving. I just came to check on you guys.”, he said.
“I won’t let you go without you accepting something in return”, I insisted. He refused to take anything and was in a rush.
Before zipping away he made sure to add, “And don’t go back there. That guy was drunk. He usually creates some scene or the other. I’m leaving now, so don’t go back there.” We thanked him for his generosity.
He he knew who was going to receive the Whiseky bottle on his behalf.
We continued on our drive laughing about it in hindsight. As my wife quipped, “It was like being on the school playground all over again.”
Group dynamics are complicated and often funny, be it amongst friends, family, society or nation-states.
I’ll see you next week,