Kindness, the Indian Kind

Given how much focus there is on sluggishness and disorder in India, it might be worth considering how people here do make things happen in spite of staggering difficulties. Some commentators group these miracles under the distinctive Hindi term jugaad—solutions built in situations where one would usually think solutions don’t exist. Often these solutions are of a crafty, industrial kind; a single screw strategically jammed in an enormous machine otherwise ready to fall apart, or cardboard nailed across the gap between an air-conditioning unit and a frame a couple of inches too large to snugly and securely hold the unit.  However, I have seen far simpler examples that many outside (and maybe even inside) India might be shocked and inspired by — perhaps even learn a little bit from. This is the first of many such examples I’d like to share, stories of brief kindness that illustrate how a simple going out of one’s way for another can make a world of difference for both.

One hot, smoggy summer day in Delhi, the auto-rickshaw I rode began slowing down as it struggled to climb up a “fly-over” and then became inert, along with the rest of the coalescing traffic. I might have had every reason to be anxious and agitated as the appointment time for my interview was growing near. The driver had done little to emulate his fellows on the road burrowing their way through the cracks in the traffic, between so many vehicles (and animals) sitting, waiting, belching into the already heavy air. My driver was a kind fellow from the outset though, quoting a fair, rare price without me having to negotiate. No reason to get upset with him. He was the kind of stoic driver hard to find in Delhi, wearing a peaceful expression throughout our stressful journey and not even shouting a single gaali at those who had rudely cut in front of him, even by this city’s standards. But it escaped me why he barely pressed his foot against the pedal even as the traffic began to quickly pull away.

I began to understand only once he turned around, gave me a questioning glance as if asking for approval, and gestured ahead of us. There was a skinny, bronzed man in a tank-top and torn boxer shorts struggling to push his bike up, pulling along a cart that carried a tower of flattened cardboard boxes precariously stacked to such height that they shouldered nearby trucks.

“Is it okay?” the driver asked.

I was not sure exactly what he was asking, but nodded right away as his tone implied urgency. The man pulling the boxes looked as if he might fall back, dragged down by the force of the boxes’ weight, amplified by the steep incline of the bridge. If he were to to collapse, the sea of cardboard would fall down with him and become the nightmare of commuters for the next hour or so.

The driver swung our auto backward and then ahead to the poor man’s right. He secured his foot into a kind of water-bottle or tiffin receptacle near the bottom of the bicycle. He whistled at the biker, pointed towards the box-tower and then to the roof of his auto, sketching out what looked like a piece of jugaad I never would have imagined.

The box-tower leaned gently to the right against the roof of our auto, and the biker mounted his vehicle after wiping the sweat off his brow and shooting a smile to both the driver and me. The driver began to push down on the gas, his foot transferring the auto’s acceleration to the bicycle-cart.

I would not have been surprised had the bicycle-cart and auto suddenly fused together and sprouted wings to fly off and away from the bridge, given how smoothly they both made their way up. As gravity again took over to complete the last half of the trek over the bridge, the now elated biker locked eyes with the auto-driver for a brief moment and gave an expression of gratitude so refreshing to see on roads otherwise riled with tension and rage. The auto-driver closed his eyes and leaned his head a couple of times to the left and to the right in response; the classical Indian head-shake, the meaning of which can range from giving one’s approval to expressing a deep-seated pride, anxiety, or sorrow.

As the driver explained to me later, in this context it meant: “Don’t worry about it, because had I not helped, I probably wouldn’t have gotten over the bridge either.”


With heart, even autos can move mountains.
With heart, even autos can move mountains.

Zain's interest in his heritage and passion for the subcontinent was awakened in a course at his university almost a thousand miles away from his home and family in suburban Georgia. While studying the history and geopolitics of South Asia in that course, he recalled vivid memories of his grandparents' recounting their family history: a relatively peaceful and content existence in Lucknow‰ÛÓthe only home they ever knew‰ÛÓdisturbed by Partition. These were the seeds that grew into his senior thesis which explored Partition, the storied Indian Muslim experience, and the uniqueness of his family history‰ÛÓa history marked by migration, loss, and diasporization since 1947. With help from the Davenport Grant for study of public affairs, as well as the Tololyan Fund for study of diasporas and transnationalism, he was able to traverse the subcontinent and interview family members. The experience confirmed his love for stories and their potential to build compassion, a love that will find continued expression in the historical, archival, and educational work he will pursue during his time with AIF and the 1947 Partition Archive in India. Given his previous work in the subcontinent, Zain's match with the archive and its mission to facilitate greater understanding and cooperation through narratives is particularly serendipitous. Aside from his academics, Zain is a music enthusiast who has played guitar in a variety of punk and electronic outfits, and served as President of the Eclectic Society, a hub of artistic and musical activity at Wesleyan. In past summers, his dedication to social causes has taken him from working on reproductive rights campaigns with the ACLU to strengthening the case for workers seeking to unionize their hotels in New York City. He most recently organized a lecture by a Syrian-American college student on his year with the Free Syrian Army after meeting the student on a humanitarian trip to refugee camps in Antakya, Turkey. The work of finding stories, sharing them, and giving them new voice has come to define much of Zain's career, and now, under the auspices of AIF and the Archive, he hopes he can shine new light on a past deeply deserving of remembrance and reflection.

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