My friend V and I were going home in her car, after attending a seminar on children’s literature. It was an ancient Fiat and her driver was new — she had hired him only the day before. About a kilometer away from my house, there was this terrible knocking sound. My heart missed a beat. Had the axle broken? Had the wheel come off? Had the engine burst? The driver kept driving without reducing the speed and it took two women screaming at the top of their lungs to make him pull over.
It was a lonely and dark stretch. The time was about 7 PM. To make matters worse, dark clouds gathered swiftly and threatened to pour any moment. Two middle-aged women, an incompetent driver, a faulty car: that was the score. We asked the driver what the matter with the car was. He shrugged. Turned out that he had no clue about Fiats. V was getting tenser by the minute cursing herself for having hired the fellow. Back home she had a nonagenarian uncle-in-law, who was alone at that time.
We got down to inspect the car, not that we knew anything except maybe a spot burst tyre — when the first drops began falling. And a scooter screeched to a halt behind our parked car. A man in his late 30s got off the vehicle. “Having problems, madam?” he asked briskly as he went to the car. This is all we need now — a con man or a thief, trying to make the most of the situation when two women are alone on a lonely stretch, I thought. V said nothing — her look said it all — ‘We don’t trust you.’
He told us that he was a mechanic and he knew Fiats as well as the back of his hand. “I was coming behind your car from the traffic lights and heard the knocking. It is the so-and-so of the car that is defective. We need a replacement for that,” he told us matter-of-factly. We both looked at each other. He looked a decent sort of person, but then you can never tell with con men, can you?
He told us that he could get the required spare part from the auto market which was some distance away and that he could repair the fault in no time once he got it. We had no choice. V wanted the driver to go with him. “Madam, you can trust me. I’m a family man and am not out to cheat you. I’d suggest the driver remain with you since you are alone. You ladies sit inside the car and lock the doors.”
How much money would it cost, V wanted to know. “It would be about Rs.300,” he said. She handed out the money and he kicked his scooter started, telling us that he would be back soon.
We sat inside the car; it had started to pour by then. We began talking about how this man turned up like the answer to a prayer and how he went out of his way to help us. But unspoken, just beneath my words lay my doubts. ‘Wasn’t it lucky that he was a Fiat mechanic and happened to be just behind our car?’ we asked each other. ‘And look at how he offered to even go and get the part,’ we marvelled.
Though I was speaking normally outwardly, I didn’t’ let on that I was nervous. I didn’t say that I half expected the man not to come back. He had made a cool 300 bucks hadn’t he? But I didn’t’ say any of these things, as if by keeping my fears unspoken the fear wouldn’t come true. Besides I didn’t want to sound like a doubting Thomas. I suspected that she was having similar doubts too but neither of us voiced our innermost feelings.
She worried about not being able to contact her uncle. The battery of my cell phone had just croaked; she didn’t have one. We talked about the seminar, about the interesting papers that had been read out, about the story telling sessions that had been enormously enjoyable – everything, but the mechanic.
No, it wasn’t the money that worried either of us. It was a small amount in itself. It was something more than that. We had trusted a man, albeit reluctantly, and if he didn’t come back he’d have betrayed that trust. We talked some more, but soon began voicing the unspoken fears that that had lain just beneath or spoken words.
“I think he’s just gone home. Why would a man be foolish enough to come back in this rain?”
“Three hundred rupees for an evening is good money. I think he just made his profit for the day.”
As the minutes ticked away, the words and their indictment also grew harsher.
“I knew the moment he offered to help, that he would try to swindle us.”
“It was too much of a coincidence — the man behind us was a mechanic and a Fiat mechanic at that!” We laughed mirthlessly.
It was nearly three quarters of an hour since he had gone and the auto parts market was just ten minutes away. It never occurred to us that he might have had to search for that particular part (remember I told you it was practically an antique car?)
I told V that I’d try and ask someone in the taxi stand some way on the opposite side of the road. Since it was raining, I took an auto that was luckily passing that way. When explained our problem one of them said he could try to fix it. I asked to come with me.
When we approached the car, I saw that the man was back! He was under the car on the muddy road, fixing the fault. Guilty as hell, I quickly sent the new mechanic on his way in the same auto, pressing a 50 rupee note into his hand and paying the auto fellow too. I fretted that the man under the car would discover our distrust of him. That was something I didn’t want on my conscience added to my mistrust of him!
Wasn’t it funny? All this time we had been agonizing and condemning him as being unreliable, a con man no less and when he proved our assumptions wrong, I didn’t want to offend his sensibilities! Needless to say, I felt wretched.
Here was this good Samaritan, lying on the rain soaked road without even a sheet under him, working in the flickering light of a torch light so that two women could reach home safely. We looked at each other guiltily and shamefacedly.
What had prompted him to do it? After all, spending the money for the petrol and the spare part wouldn’t have left him much for his service. That only meant one thing. He was a genuine human being who wanted to help another in their hour of need, regardless of the return he was going to get out of the gesture. When we offered him another hundred bucks, he politely refused, his shirt all mud spattered and his hands black with grease. Only after de drove away did we realise that we hadn’t even asked his name. I felt rotten.
The whole incident left not only a sense of humbleness but also one of disquiet. We have heard so much about con men and cheats, that when we meet a sincere and honest person, we not only fail to recognise him or her for what they really are, but also attribute ulterior motives to their actions, doubting their sincerity and integrity.
On the other hand is it prudent to trust anyone who is ready to help?
I don’t know the answer to this one; do you?