The cellphone text message informed me that I will be met by "Driver Chacha" at the Aurangabad station, and that he will carry a sign with my name on it. Another bit of detail about him: doesn't speak English.
Over the years, I have gotten used to having delightful conversations with taxi drivers who speak little to no English. (But then perhaps my students also think that I speak little to no English, eh!) Even after all these years, I can still picture in my mind the taxi driver in Italy who took us to a quaint restaurant outside of Florence. I knew no Italian, while he at least knew a few words in English through which he described "beautiful California." I was excited he had been to California, which is where I lived back then. "No, saw on TV" he replied.
I got off at Aurangabad after the train stopped there at pre-dawn hours. There was an older man, a couple of inches even shorter than me, holding a piece of paper that said "Mr. Sriram." Aha, this was Driver Chacha! He had on a white Islamic skullcap, and gave me a polite smile as I stopped beside him.
Over the two days, we "talked" a lot as he drove me to the fantastic destinations that I had planned on visiting. Sometimes, Driver Chacha suggested we go to a certain touristy place, and we did even if I told him I was not keen on it. He was hell bent on making sure I had a great time.
"Ellora ke paas ek mandir hai (near Ellora is a temple)" is all I understood before he added a lot more in Hindi. I told him that I didn't want to go to Shirdi--I worried we were going to make some serious detours and end up skipping things from my list.
He smiled big time. "Shirdi nahin. Ellora se dho kilometer ... (Not Shirdi. Two kilometers from Ellora.)
It was quite an interesting scene: a Muslim driver keen on taking an atheist to a Hindu temple.
I wanted to head back to the car, but went in only because Driver Chacha was so keen on me going there.
Am glad I did, though. For the first time in my life, I saw devotees performing the puja themselves, without going through an intermediary--the priest. Even more fascinating it was to see that it was mostly women doing the puja, while the accompanying men stood or knelt down with folded hands.
I didn't go inside into the inner sanctum because of the requirement that men had to remove all clothing from the upper half, and I was not ready to be a topless tourist there. Once was enough for this trip--when I went with my sister and brother-in-law to the temple at Sucheendram :)
I reached the car after chugging down a cold soda to rehydrate myself on that hot and humid afternoon. I handed Driver Chacha a cold Coca Cola I bought for him. "Thanks, sir" he said. And then added in Hindi that he would have that later with dinner at home, with the kids. It was yet another reminder to me that drinking a Coke can be a special event to many here in India.
He gave me a long detailed explanation in between a couple of sarcastic chuckles, which I understood as: "they are the grave sites of a father and son, one of whom worked as the Regional Transport Officer. They made money (illegally) and had built these for themselves. While the Emperor Aurangazeb lay in a simple tomb, these small people want such huge memorials!"
Most people, be they small or big, seem to walk around with a mistaken notion that they are far too important, not understanding that the cosmos couldn't care. As for my end, I visualize that the remains after my cremation will be scattered in the Willamette River. I will become one with the cosmos.