The station exit was buzzing with auto drivers. I had to go to Dwarka Mor in west Delhi to drop off my things with an acquaintance. After that I wanted to look for accommodation in Mukherjee Nagar. A neighbourhood in North Delhi, this was located fairly close to Delhi University (DU) and was the hub of UPSC coaching centres. While making my plans in Patna I had thought that living near these centres would make my preparations for the exam easier.
The auto drivers were asking for three hundred and fifty rupees. I was stunned. My journey from Patna had cost me the same amount. When I said this to the driver, I was told, “It’ll be three hundred and fifty rupees...nothing less. If you can’t a afford to travel in Delhi, you’d better go back to Patna.” I could not understand where this was coming from: was it sarcasm or the arrogance of a metropolitan city?All the other autos quoted the same price. Seeing no other way out, I agreed. My feeling of triumph was quickly beginning to turn to confusion and irritation. This was the nation’s capital and people came here from all over the world. To my eyes, it was full of mystery and intrigue. Even if one were to come here three hundred times it would still be a challenge to figure out how the city worked.
The feeling of being defeated by the big city intensified. Sitting in the auto, I discovered that the man I had made the deal with was different from the man who was actually driving the auto. I asked the driver who the other man was and he told me he was the tout whose job it was to settle the fare with customers.Passengers with too much luggage couldn’t leave their belongings just anywhere and go looking for an auto. And the auto-wallahs couldn’t leave their autos to go looking for passengers. And so this man did the needful and took a hundred rupees for every deal.
I also discovered that I hadn’t been especially clever about using the trolley puller at the station. In his spare time, he often did this and carried the luggage straight to the tout. He also knew that the passenger couldn’t go very far with so much luggage. From the trolley puller to the auto driver, everyone was playing his part to perfection and swindling me in the bargain.
Thus I came to understand how vested interests and businesses forged a nexus to keep prices up.
Customers were swindled at every stage but the arrangements were such that you never realised you were being taken for a ride.But my bitterness melted away when I learnt that the auto driver was from Muzaffarpur in Bihar. I felt a closeness towards him in the strange place. More than half the auto-wallahs in Delhi are from Bihar.
That evening, I went to Mukherjee Nagar. I was keen to find a room of my own as soon as possible. This time I took a DTC (run by the Delhi government) bus. After being tricked twice in a day, I was determined not to be played a third time. Public transport options like DTC buses and the Metro do not usually swindle passengers.
Living in a city like Delhi, I’ve come to believe that in this country the struggle to keep the public sector alive is a fight for the rights of Dalits and the poor. That day if I had been in a private bus I could well have been swindled once again.
I got off at the GTB Nagar Metro station. From there I had been told to take a shared auto headed for Batra cinema, a landmark in the area. I didn’t know that every passenger had to pay a fixed amount of five rupees. Getting off at Mukherjee Nagar, I routinely asked the driver how much I had to pay.
He looked at me in a calculating manner, realising I was new to the area. I could see he was wondering if he could use my ignorance to cheat me. Luckily I saw all the others paying five rupees each and, doing the same, I walked away.
I had been advised that the best way of finding a room in Mukherjee Nagar was through a property dealer.
I saw several of them advertising their business. I found one thing strange, though. Why did someone who facilitated getting rented accommodation call himself a property dealer? Where was the property here? Most of us in this neighbourhood were looking for a simple room to rent. At best they could be called shelter dealers.
I approached a dealer. He wanted to know my budget. I could pay up to two thousand rupees. He said rentals in this locality were higher and suggested nearby areas like Gandhi Vihar, Nehru Vihar, Indira Vihar and Bhai Parmanand Colony.
He took me to Nehru Vihar. When people from Bihar set out for Mukherjee Nagar, they end up in the sewers of Nehru Vihar in the clutches of property dealers who offer uninhabitable places at unbelievable rates. But I didn’t know this at the time.
While looking at rooms in Nehru Vihar, I noticed some advertisements. I love reading ordinary-looking advertisements pasted on to walls. These are the billboards of the poor. Most of the flyers were of tuition classes but I was intrigued by some that said "Need a room partner" or "Need a girl room partner". I wondered if the first one meant that both boys and girls were acceptable, and I thought this hinted at a very liberal environment.
One advertisement caught my eye. It was the only flyer that also mentioned the rent – three thousand two hundred rupees. I thought that the person who had written such a notice must be sensible and direct. I made some excuse to the property dealer and as soon as he left I called the number on the poster.
"Hello, bhai sahib, you need a room partner?" I asked.
The man on the other end asked me to speak in English. I thought he must be a very educated person as he spoke only in English and felt excited. After a day of being robbed and exploited, I had finally stumbled on to a good deal. In my broken English I fixed up a meeting with him at his room in the next fifteen minutes.
His room was not at all what I had expected. There were a few books, a table, a single chair and a mattress. That’s it. There was a map of India on a wall. The kitchen was empty. There was a toilet but for bathing there was a tap outside. I figured my future roommate spoke in English not because he was from another social class but because he didn’t know any Hindi.
He was from Kerala. Sharing the rent with him meant I had to pay him one thousand six hundred rupees a month. This included the electricity bill. I was happy with this arrangement and said yes.
Returning from Nehru Vihar to Dwarka that night, I was very pleased with myself. I thought I must be the first person in Delhi who had got a room for himself without a property dealer. Later I came to know that this was not entirely true but I spent my first night in the capital feeling that I had begun to master it. They say there is no knowledge greater than experience. In Delhi, I was gaining this knowledge.
Excerpted with permission from From Bihar to Tihar, Kanhaiya Kumar, Juggernaut Books, available in bookstores and on the Juggernaut app.