My driver’s eldest son is eight years old. That sentence doesn’t tell the full story. It is true that he is eight years old and that he is the eldest of the three children in the house but he is not quite my driver’s son.
During the floods that raged last year, one of the casualties was 36-year-old Zaigham Ali, an autorickshaw driver. Ali hailed from the same village as my driver. Mishra certainly had done a lot better for himself than Ali. Mishra had a house - it was a shanty, but in Mumbai it was worth a palace.
Mishra worked as a driver, and his wife contributed a small income as a seamstress. Together, they could be described as one of the unseen upwardly mobile couples of Mumbai - their life was circumscribed by the slum, but their lot was far better than that of their kin in the village.
Ali lived as Mishra’s paying guest. Ali’s son lived with him, his wife had passed away a long time ago, and there was nobody in the village to look after him. Life seemed satisfactory enough. The slum was small and space scarce, but life didn’t seem so bad; the children played and fought on the street alongside, and went to the municipal school close by, where they failed most of their examinations together.
Then the rains came and the waters rose and wouldn’t stop rising. Ali didn’t return the next day or the next; so Mishra went looking for him in the hospitals - he didn’t find Ali, he found his body instead; nobody seemed to know how he had died.
He was buried in the Muslim cemetery, and then a group of elders (a system that could only be described as a slum panchayat) met to decide what would happen to the boy. Mishra told them not to worry about that.
Sometimes, a hero doesn’t always wear a cape. He doesn’t always save the world from intruders who come from outer space. Sometimes a superhero is a quiet, self-effacing, down-to-earth man, who works as a driver, lives in a slum and raises the child of his friend as his own.
- Published in The Times of India