Remembering Mr. Singh

By Paul Mastromatteo ’11 / India

I’m the kind of person who enjoys the company of other people—most of the time. I also know that it is necessary to spend some time alone. The two activities for my alone time that I enjoy the most are running and swimming. They give me time to reflect on things, develop story ideas for my writing, and they serve as forms of meditation.

Travel, depending on the purpose of the trip, presents opportunities for solitude as well as social interactions. A trip might be related to school, work, or a visit to family or friends, in which case there will be social interactions. At other times, we may go to a place we have never been and where we don’t know anyone. With that comes a greater likelihood of solitude. 
 My Thunderbird trips were of the first type. I went on a study abroad trip to India with three of my classmates from Geneva and more than 20 class- mates who were studying in Glendale, Arizona. In addition to the time in class and group projects, there were site visits to local businesses and plenty of opportunities to share meals or have a nightcap in the hotel bar. 
We arrived at the Le Meridien Hotel in New Delhi on Janpath Road at about 9:00 p.m. on April 27, 2010. It was a bit late to do much, but some of us met for dinner in the hotel lobby and hurried off to bed soon afterwards.

We had to be ready for class at 8:00 a.m. the next morning. 
Within our packed schedule, I realized there was an hour-long break between the end of class on “Cross Cultural Negotiations” and a field trip to a private hospital later that afternoon! I could get some alone time. I thought

I’d venture out of the hotel compound for that hour to take a walk. 
As I neared the hotel door, on the way out, the security staff greeted me. Their role is similar to that of airport security personnel, complete with a metal detector and x-ray machine to scan luggage and other personal items. One of the hotel staff, who was wearing a uniform, gave me a proper salute, which I returned.

When I stepped outside I was immediately struck by the contrast between inside the hotel and out. Gone was the sweet scent of jasmine, the artificially cool air and the gentle sound of the fountain inside the hotel lobby. They had all given way to another side of Delhi—stifling heat and smoke filled air.

The transition from the hotel to the streets outside was made as gradually as possible. I walked along a curved pathway that sloped gently downward to an entrance, which was also a security checkpoint for incoming vehicles. Along the way I was surrounded by finely manicured lawns, flower gardens and tall hedges that went around the perimeter of the hotel grounds concealing a brick wall that was perhaps 12 feet high.

A security guard smiled and nodded at me as I stepped through the gate and out into the real Delhi. He had a look on his face that suggested, “Are you sure you want to go out there?” I smiled back at the guard as I walked around the barrier used to stop incoming cars for inspection. To my left the sidewalk led to a roundabout with a park in the middle and I began walking in that direction. I hadn’t gone more than about ten feet when a rickshaw driver approached and asked if I wanted a ride. A rickshaw in the Delhi sense is a green and yellow three-wheeled scooter with the driver in the front, and a small bench behind him designed to carry up to two passengers. Later in the week, I would see such rickshaws carrying six or seven passengers.

“Good day sir,” he said. “May I give a ride? I’ll take you to a bazaar. Very close... only twenty five rupees.” I was a little uncertain about currency con- version from rupees to U.S. dollars, but a rough calculation in my head made me think that he was charging approximately sixty U.S. cents.

I explained I didn’t have that much time and really just wanted to walk.

“How much time?” he asked. “I can get you there in five minutes. I’ll wait for you and drive you back.”

“I just need a walk, thanks,” I answered.

He made a couple more offers to me. I listened politely, but kept saying, “No thanks.” I turned to walk in the other direction. The street appeared to go for quite some distance. Before I had gone too far another rickshaw driver made a similar sales pitch, and I gave him much the same story as I had done with the first driver, who seemed to be keeping an eye on my newer round of negotiations.

I kept walking while I spoke to the second driver. I had barely turned my head to face front again when a third rickshaw driver stopped me.

“I wouldn’t go down that way,” he said. “There is not too much to see. You will find only beggars and people asking you for money. They will bother you and throw dirt on your shoes. You don’t want to go down there.”

While I was interested in wandering and exploring, I also wanted to be practical about it, so I turned back and resumed walking in the direction of the park and roundabout again. The first driver must have thought I had reconsidered his offer because he quickly let me know he was still available.

“No thanks,” I said, “I think I’ll walk to the park there.”
“Okay,” he said, “I will go with you.”
I guess I wasn’t going to be able to be alone. 
He left his rickshaw near the hotel entrance and we walked side by side, toward my original destination. On the way we exchanged typical pleasantries such as name, his name was Mr. Singh, where we were from, and whether we were married, had children, and so on.

“My wife and two children live in Calcutta,” he said. “I have been here for sixteen years. She is in IT.”

I assumed his wife earned a good salary since she worked in IT, and I’m sure he could as easily have done the same job in Calcutta. I was curious about why he lived apart from his wife and children, but I didn’t think it was my place to ask.

“What brings you to Delhi, Mr. Paul?”
I explained I was here taking a business course. 
“Where do you work, Mr. Paul?”

“I am new to Geneva and looking for a job while I do this program.” He stopped and pointed skyward. “God will grant you a job, Mr. Paul!” I was touched by his kindness and impressed by his conviction. 
We reached the curb at the end of the long block and had to find a way to navigate across the road to the park. It appeared as though there was room for three lanes of traffic. But as there were no distinct markings on the road, it produced a chaotic randomness with at least four and sometimes up to six lanes. Cars, trucks, motor scooters and rickshaws came in a steady stream with no indication it was ever going to let up. 
“Come with me, Mr. Paul,” he said, “Stay on my left side. That way if anyone gets killed it will be me.” Shortly after invoking God to intervene on my behalf he was prepared to lay down his life for me.

We inched our way across the street moving into openings as they be- came available between the vehicles. Sometimes while waiting for the next opening, the space we were in suddenly became a new lane of traffic. The cars managed to avoid us by a few inches. By virtue of the drivers’ expertise, we made it safely across the road to the park.

As we walked the perimeter of the park we exchanged more details of our lives. I told him that I had lived in California for about eleven years be- fore moving to Geneva. His ears perked up when I mentioned California. I was about to ask if he had ever been there, but he spoke first.

“I have friends in California,” he said, “San Diego. They help me out. They sent me these shoes!” I glanced down at them. He was wearing a spiffy pair of deck shoes that appeared to be a Wal-Mart version of Sperry Top Siders. I felt a little happy and sad for him at the same time. It was good that he had a nice pair of shoes, but sad to think of how many rickshaw fares he would have needed to buy them, had they not been a gift.

There were perhaps twenty five people lounging in whatever shade was available under a few scattered trees. A few of them, based on how they were dressed, looked like they were office workers and were seemingly taking a lunch break. Most of the others wore ragged clothes and their unkempt appearance gave the impression they had nowhere else to go.

As we turned to head back towards the hotel, the rickshaw driver un- expectedly reached behind my collar and brushed away an insect. For all I know he may have helped me avoid getting malaria. We made another perilous road crossing. This time he was at my left, once more willing to take the bigger risk.

When we reached the security gate for the hotel, he reached into his pocket and gave me his business card.

“Will you be free later today, or tomorrow?’ he asked.

“Tomorrow maybe,” I said but I knew that I wasn’t. I felt badly giving him an answer that I might give to a telemarketer in the U.S. who calls during the dinner hour. He’d been good to me and all I’d given him was a little conversation; not even the twenty-five rupees that he would’ve received if I were his passenger on the rickshaw.

“Please call me tomorrow when you are free and I will pick you up and take you anywhere you’d like to go. I trust you are an honest man, Mr. Paul.”

“Thank you, Mr. Singh. It was nice talking with you.”

I wonder how long he waited for me to call and if he still trusts I am an honest man. I admired his determination to sell his services, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it was also motivated by sheer need. I still have Mr. Singh’s business card. I think about him from time to time. I imagine he is still plying his trade. I wonder he ever thinks about me.

There are more than a billion people in India and more than eleven mil- lion in New Delhi. Many of them are barely surviving. At least for the time being, a visitor to India is likely to constantly encounter people asking for help or selling something.

In India, I realized, one is never alone.

When our studies were finished, I left Delhi at 5:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning and arrived in Geneva on the same afternoon. At the airport, I went through Switzerland’s passport control, and handed over my passport and residency permit. After a cursory glance at my documents and me, the man in the glass-walled booth returned them. Then with a barely perceptible nod, he motioned me to proceed. No “Good day, sir” like I had experienced in India or “Welcome home” like when I have been back to the United States.

As I left the airport and walked towards the bus for the final stage of the trip home, no one approached me offering a ride. No one had anything to sell. No one asked me for anything. Everything was quite orderly once again.

Suddenly, I felt very alone.

Paul Mastromatteo, a 2011 graduate of Thunderbird’s Executive MBA – Europe.  At the time of this writing, he was working as a Financial Consultant in Geneva, Switzerland.