Delhiwale: A cab driver’s pandemic exodus
He is all cloistered within plastic, as if in an echo chamber of his own.
This sight perfectly encapsulates the surreality of the age of coronavirus. Cab driver Dharmendra Partap Singh is sitting on his driving seat, sealed from the rest of the car by a cabin-like wrap of plastic; the side-window of course is free. “This (plastic) is to protect the customer in case the driver has the infection,” he says, referring to the ongoing pandemic.
He doesn’t say it, but the sealing might protect him too, if it is the passenger who is shedding the virus.
In his 20s, the masked Mr Singh is driving a client around the Millennium City, though he himself lives in Delhi’s Janakpuri. Parked for the moment outside a Gurugram market, he speaks about his dramatic acquaintance with the pandemic. Like thousands of people in the city, he too quickly left for native home in the countryside. But he started his exodus not in a car, as one would expect of a driver, but on foot. “Like so many others, I urgently wanted to go home when suddenly everything shut down, and we became jobless,” he recalls, explaining that he himself didn’t have a car of his own.
Just before the lockdown began in late March, Mr Singh’s employer, a cab rental agency, was forced to relieve some of its drivers because of the sudden lack of work. Living in the city since 2011, he barely had savings to pull through. Besides, “mata ji (mother) in the village was worried about me... and I was also scared.”
During the entire recalling, Mr Singh mentions the pandemic in cataclysmic terms by calling it “corona kaal”. His home is in a village near Allahabad, a night-long train journey from Delhi.
“My long journey began on 27 March. There was no transport available in the city. First, I walked all the way to the Delhi-UP border, then I found a place on the roof of a bus but it was so packed with public that I got down a short time later.” Fortunately, he spotted an acquaintance from his village, riding a bike. Together they drove in turns, reaching the destination 22 hours later. His wife, mother and sister were anxiously waiting for him. “I first took a bath, and then had dal-chawal... home is home... one can never depend on a big city.”
Mr Singh still needs the big city, though. He returned early this month, in the cab of a friend who was driving back to Delhi after dropping a client in Allahabad. “This time it took me 12 hours only to cover the distance.” He is again working for the same firm.
Looking restlessly about the plastic wrap, the driver shakes his head, asking, “When will corona kaal end?”
His quizzical eyes suggest that his question is not rhetorical. He expects an answer.