Just a Small Tip

No matter where I am in the world, the people I have the most conversations with are inevitably taxi cab drivers. Maybe this is because talking is part of their job; they think that if they ask you enough questions, you will give them a big tip. Maybe driving around all day on the same streets bores them, and they chat merely to pass the time. Or, for Indian drivers, maybe they are interested in you as a white videshi (foreigner), disembarking from airplanes in the same way that an alien might beam down from a different planet.

My taxi driver, Raj, was one such driver. Like most chauffeurs, he asked if this was my first time in India.

“It’s my fourth,” I said in Hindi.

“Your Hindi is very good, sir,” he said. “Very Shud (pure) Hindi.”

I never quite know why they say that. My Hindi is always “Shud” Hindi, which now I cannot help but take as an insult. Shud Hindi implies a high, Sanskritic register of Hindi most average Indians can’t understand. Like globalization, bhumandlikaran, or representation, pratinadivta. Normally, by this point in the conversation, all I’ve said is, “I studied Hindi in school in America,” “I spent my last summer in Lucknow,” or “how is the weather?”

I don’t get it.

Some might critique me for my lack of originality in my small talk. But mundane questions are necessary for progressing to the more interesting topics. Trust is established, personalities and eccentric behaviors assessed—like two dogs sniffing one another to make sure everything is okay.  He set my bags in the back seat, during which time I circled around to the front of the car. I saw the steering wheel in the right door window. Oh yeah, I thought to myself. Other side. The driver slammed the trunk and approached the right side door, pulling his keys out of his pocket. He blinked at me when he saw me standing there. The British drive on the left side of the road. I thought, lowering my gaze at his smile and shifting over to the other side of the car. The steering wheel, also, is on the right side. Right.

We pulled out of the Indira Gandhi International Airport parking lot onto the highway. I arrived in the afternoon. In what seemed to me an impossible way, the highways near the airport were deserted. The sun lit up the light, dusty fog, so that the Indian afternoon appeared to be illuminated by a cloud of pale yellow pollen. New Delhi slid into view. Red government buildings stood along the side of the road, their square rooftops peeking through palm trees and over black metal gates. Guards sat outside the gates in plastic chairs in their khaki uniforms and black berets. Registry books rested in their laps and the straps of rifles slung over their shoulders.

Over red-painted brick and concrete walls the palms of the fronds drooped, and the vines dropped and coiled down the wall beneath the leaves. I watched the shade the canopies cast on the sidewalk, under which the occasional man slept. I am impressed by the lushness of it all. For some reason when I remember India, I imagine it as a parched, dry, dusty place—fields outside of train windows stretched taut and baking in the sun—and am therefore constantly surprised and reminded that here the jungle exists as well.

Raj, the taxi cab driver, wears a pressed collar shirt and slacks. He has a boyish face, with sharp cheeks and skin that shines in the light of the window as if covered in oil. I ask him about his life, his family, how he came to work as a taxi cab driver in New Delhi.

“My home state is Madhya Pradesh,” he said. “I’m from a farming family. We grow sugarcane and wheat. I went to Delhi for business school. Now I am working for the hotel.”

“Do you have siblings?” This is always a safe question to ask Indians. The answer is almost inevitably yes.

“One younger brother. And two sisters. My brother is studying in school now. He wants to become a space scientist. But not an astronaut. That is too dangerous. He wants to study in the United States.”


“Many people want to go to the United States. Life is easier there.”

I recalled my conversation with Kumar in the Chicago Airport, and his explanation that many Indians imagine the U.S. to be a promised land of milk and honey.

“It isn’t just fun in America, you know,” I said, attempting to dispel any illusions he might have acquired from the TV. For some reason I always think of American Pie when I think of American media. “People here have to work very hard.”

“People have to work very hard here as well,” he countered. “Fourteen, sixteen hour days.”

“Yes, that is harder.”

He smiled. He turned his attention back to the road. His eyebrows furrowed at the windshield. “But here, people do not appreciate hard work like they do in the United States. Tourists tip very well. Indians do not tip much at all. This is why some people do not work hard. I work very hard, and yet nobody thanks me.”

“Maybe it’s because of the crowd,” I said, unsure how to say in Hindi, “the size of the population” in Hindi. “If you don’t work hard, then there is always someone to step in.”

“It is possible,” he said. A silence fell between us. I reflected on the way he phrased tourist. Paisewalle Log. The people with money. This, of course, implied that Indians were the people without money. It was hard to tell whether our conversation centered around culture or a scam to trick me into giving him a fat American tip.

“How much money do taxi cab drivers make in the United States?” he asked, suddenly.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “Minimum wage is between eight to eleven dollars. Waiters with tips can maybe make fifteen or sixteen dollars per hour. Like the waiter, it depends on the taxi driver…but they probably make around a waiter’s salary, slightly more.”

“But if you work hard in America,” he persisted, “you will become rich? Not like here.”

“In some cities and states,” I said, unable to make a generalizable statement. I remembered a book I’d read in Junior High, Death of a Salesman, about the death of Willie Loman and the American Dream. “There was a recent economic report on CNN that showed that hard work doesn’t always result in success,” I said, replacing literature with hard data instead. I wish I had followed more of the report, so that I could have given him more concrete information. He waited for more information, which I was unable to give him.

“Lutyen’s Delhi,” Raj said, signaling the broad avenues, roundabouts, and lawns of freshly cut green grass in Imperial Britain’s old capital city. The Indian Gate rose red and imposing at the end of the road ahead of us. It was a monument, an Arc de Triomph, like Titus’ Arch in Rome, which once housed a statue of King George the 5th—a symbol of a people’s colonization. It was now a sepulcher for the Indian soldiers who gave their lives in Afghanistan and World War One: a tomb of the unknown soldier.

India had chucked out the British to establish their own, free, democratic nation in 1947. Throughout the period of the independence movement, there had been peaceful protests, marches to the ocean, speeches, clothing, revolutions in language, poetry, and the arts, and high hopes for the future. But now, just as the British had once filed away papers in cabinets in the offices of Lutyen’s Delhi, Indian bureaucrats and politicians sat and did the same (with perhaps more stamps and more corruption) as Indians passed by the gate everyday on foot, bicycles, and autos, still waiting for the future promised to them 57 years ago—promised to them by contemporary politicians today. Some of them, tired of waiting for the gods or elected representatives, took their chances in America. Others, without the same contacts, finances, and familial backgrounds, could not avail themselves of the same opportunity.

“How much welfare do poor Americans get?” Raj asked.

I mentioned Medicare and food stamps. I told him about the stigma against the poor in America—that because of our ethos of hard work and economic growth, poverty was caught in a paradigm of personal culpability for one’s socio-economic situation or more effective investment of public funds in the private sector. I clarified that welfare was perhaps more politically controversial in America that it was here in India, since it did not command the same scale of votes. If you got welfare in America, people would say you were lazy, although welfare is currently necessary for many.

“My wife is pregnant,” Raj said. “We are expecting two children. Twins,” he added. “Like a beer at the mall. Buy one and get one free.” He smiled as he said it, and rested his eyes on me, as if expecting a certain response. His smile said that he was happy to have children—as most Hindu fathers are. A blessing. But given our previous pecuniary conversation, his eyes suggested something different: a curse. They shone at me, unblinkingly. His eyelids hung in suspense. Caught as he was between a smile and a glare, he seemed to want me to settle the ambiguity of how he should feel.

“Mubarak ho,” I said, in congratulations. He returned his attention to the road, the looming uncertainty of more work—how much? where will the money come from?—retreating from his eyes in the same way I retreated from the question. Meanwhile, the entire conversation retreated behind us in the open space and monumental remains of the mixed Mughal and classical architecture of British power in Lutyen’s Delhi.

“Are you married?” he asked.



“There was one,” I said. “But we split up.”


“We were going to different places.”

 “But surely you will keep in touch with her? Through facebook?”

 “Maybe,” I said with a shrug.

“God willing, after a year, it will all work out,” he said. He nodded to himself, as if affirming that this should be the case. “Nothing is ever over,” Raj could have said. “The heart will find a way.” Relationships—their endurance, their seriousness, the ideal surrounding the meaning of love—meant two very different things between India and the United States. Or, at least, between me and Raj. Or me and other people.

“You have had many girlfriends?”

After I answered, the look he gave me was the equivalent to an American whistle.

“What are dating rules like here?” I asked him. “I’ve heard you can’t talk to girls in public?”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“Like if there’s a pretty girl sitting in front of me in a bus or on the metro,” I clarified. “I can’t talk to her.”

“Oh no,” Raj said. “That will get you into trouble. There is a law, actually. If you talk to her too long you can be sued for harassment.”

“So how do you meet Indian girls if you can’t talk to them?”

“You have to have some type of relationship first. Friend her on facebook. You become her friend. After this you can start to date.”

“Does that mean holding hands?” Raj detected my sarcasm. He laughed—which mean it did, in fact, mean holding hands. “This doesn’t help me,” I sighed. “How am I supposed to meet a girl if there is no one to arrange a meeting?” I immediately thought: arrange a marriage.

He shrugged, equally as lost on this point as I. By now we had reached Connaught Place. The traffic was heavier in the neighborhood. Our tie together was growing short. He glanced back and forth through the windows, anxious to impart a final story to me.

“Once I was driving some foreign girls,” he said. “I gave them my number. They called whenever they needed a ride. But they were very indecent. They did not understand how to act with men.”

“Where were they from?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “They would flirt and tease me often,” he said, and forwarded on, apparently unconcerned with their origins or nationality. “I would smile and not remain quiet. I am married. It made me very uncomfortable.” I pictured the girls recognizing his discomfort and feeding on his reserve for shits and giggles during their stay in Delhi. “Once,” Raj continued, “They all grabbed me from behind and began to hug me. I stopped the car. I told them that this was not right. I would not continue to drive them if they persisted in behaving in such a way.”

The gate of the Hans hotel drew up outside my window. The policeman nodded and waved us through the gate. Raj pulled the taxi up to the steps of the hotel. Immediately a bellboy jumped to open the cab door and grab my bags from the trunk. Someone else opened the door. I looked toward my bags possessively; I only brought a backpack, a blue Adidas gym bag, and a dock kit to India. I constantly worry about misplacement; I pack light, so others don’t have to deal with my luggage. I find fewer accidents happen when I take care of my own things. But my own possessive paranoia does not align with India’s culture of hospitalities. The bellboys (or bell men, really, with thick mustaches) seized my bags and deposited them at the top of the steps. Raj stood outside the front door of the cab, waiting for payment.

“Here’s my fare, plus an extra one hundred fifty rupees,” I said, clapping the crumpled notes into his hand. I gave a large tip; not an auspicious way to begin a year of bargaining endlessly with taxi cabs, autos, and rickshawallas. The weight of our conversation accompanied the weight of my hand as it sunk into my wallet. Undoubtedly, if I had told any Indian or previous Indian traveler, I would receive a well-deserved scolding for my soft heart. There is a Hindi verb used to describe when a driver makes a fool out of you: Bevkoofi Banaana. He never asked for a tip, but the expectation hung there between us in the air. One can never be simply friends with drivers.

 “Call me if you ever need a driver in Delhi,” Raj said. I noted down his number, and turned my attention to the glass doors, marble steps, and opulent entrance of the Hans Hotel. I saddened me that India should be such a places where I could not help but wonder whether nearly half an hour of conversation in the car—friendliness, kindness, discussions of relationships, cultures, and family—were mere ploys to take my money.  He informs me about Indian culture, and I pay 100 rupees. Or perhaps it had nothing to do with taxi cab drivers at all; perhaps it was merely a matter of taxi cab drivers chatting you up for a tip like they do the world over.  The guards stood by my bags and greeted me with a hospitable smile. Two more men waited to open the door.

What is one hundred rupees? Fifty rupees? Ten?