An evening with Sant Lal: the auto driver who loves theatre
When I travel, I'm full of questions. I want to know how long the taxiwallah in Mumbai has driven in the city, how the shopkeeper in Spiti survives the winters, how the farmers in Sikkim make fertiliser from potato ash. Conversations come easily to me when I travel, and most trips are remembered by the stories I hear from ordinary people.
I return to Delhi each time thinking about how I can incorporate and apply that slowness, that curiosity, that quality of listening in to my life in my own city, but all too often I lapse into a blinkered getting-from-place-to-place.
One evening in Delhi...
So when my friend Vivek and I try to hail an autorickshaw at Connaught Place one busy Monday evening, we are deep in our own conversations, paying little attention to the stories that surround us. It is rush hour and one auto after another quotes exorbitant rates. Each time we bargain only to let the auto go, we wonder if we should have taken it after all.
Just as we're starting to tire of this game and grow anxious about making it in time for the play we are going to see, an auto rolls up; a twinkle forms in the driver's eye when we mention Kamani Auditorium - home to several of the most prestigious theatre events in the city. He smiles and says, "40 rupees". We get in, relieved.
Our autowallah, whom I now know as Sant Lal, asks what is happening at Kamani. "Naatak," I tell him simply. Yes, yes, but which one? I tell him it's META week. "Mahindra Awards," he nods, and then wants to know if we're artists. Vivek tells him I write. He asks which plays I've written; I tell him I'm a poet. He nods appreciatively.
Until this moment, I have assumed that his first question was borne out of a mild curiosity, the kind I have experienced from autowallahs driving me to the Jaipur Literature Festival or the Delhi Queer Pride parade, a curiosity that has often felt like an awareness of the separate worlds inhabited by them and their passengers.
The auditorium parking lot is for cars, the road for plying autos. Where should a man who loves theatre park his auto?
Something tells me there is more to this particular inquiry. I ask if he watches plays too. Sant Lal smiles in the rearview mirror: "Naatak dekhte bhi hai, madam, aur karte bhi hain" ("I watch plays, and I act in them too"). He rattles off the names of dozens of plays in which he has acted, some that have toured, and the playwrights he loves. Seven to 9 pm is for theatre rehearsals, he tells us. It's how he relaxes after a long day of driving. It keeps him going.
What we saw from the cheap seats
In the meantime, another friend who was to join us for the play texts to say she is sick. Vivek and I look at each other. The play, Kaumudi, is in Hindi. We offer Sant Lal our extra ticket, and he happily accepts. As we look for a place to park his autorickshaw, I see these spaces afresh: the auditorium parking lot is for cars, and the road for plying autos, so where should a man who loves theatre park his auto? We finally park by a chai stall and request its rather confused owner to keep an eye on the auto as its driver crosses the road to watch the play.
As we wait for the play to begin, Sant Lal tells us about a personal crisis he survived by journalling. Every afternoon for two years, he parked his auto from noon to two pm, sat in a park, and wrote a diary. Slowly, he tells us, the redness in his eyes gave way to a calm he hadn't known before; life began to feel lighter again. Soon after, a random meeting led him to the theatre, where he found his passion, his junoon. He has since done hundreds of shows. No one else in his family - saat peediyon tak (for seven generations) - has ever practiced an art form.
As Sant Lal tells us his story, I am aware of two things: that people are staring at this man in an auto-driver's uniform sitting in the theatre, and that Sant Lal actually knows and owns the space more than most - he has performed here. He talks animatedly about taking his three children to rehearsals, then enrolling them in summer camps at the National School of Drama. His oldest, a boy, is giving his Class XII board exams and is a trained Bharatnatyam dancer. The younger two will never know a life without the arts either.
People are staring at this man in an auto-driver's uniform sitting in the theatre, but Sant Lal has actually performed here
Sant Lal thinks that's part of his responsibility as a father - just as a potter carefully measures quantities of water and clay, knowing an ill-balanced piece will break easily, so must a parent carefully measure what goes into their child or else the child, once an adult, will break easily. For him, that measuring means saturating his children's lives with what saved his: Art. He tells us he could make an extra 200-400 rupees each day by plying his auto between 7 and 9 pm, but he cannot imagine his life without time for theatre.
During the intermission, we exchange notes on the wonderful play we are watching. He fills in the blanks of my very limited knowledge of the Mahabharata and helps me understand Abhimanyu and Eklavya on stage. Later, we exchange phone numbers and promise to continue the conversation. He does not want the money we owe him for the auto ride; we do not want the money he offers us for the ticket. He asks if he can drop us elsewhere, but we choose to stick around and say hello to a few friends. We say goodbye.
An unforgettable night
Over chhole bhature and garlic chowmein at Bengali Market afterwards, Vivek and I can't stop talking about him. We're amazed by the way a story can discover you and transform a regular evening into a magical one. I am reminded of the stories I encounter when I travel, when I am patient, and of my own constant, flailing resolution to discover the ones that populate my own city.
For me, this moment is not just about one man's passion for theatre but also about how much more people are than a profession, a set of tasks, a stereotype. It's not just about the space one man has created for the imagination in the middle of a hard day's work, but also about the possibility of imagining a stranger across from me as a whole person, full of stories.
Over the next several weeks, I look differently at the autowallahs I encounter. I ask myself what stories lay beyond those dusty grey uniforms, so much a part of the landscape of my daily life in Delhi. It doesn't matter that I seldom discover specific answers; the ever-present question changes my relationship with Delhi, adds openness and a sense of possibility. And in that possibility, I fall in love with my city all over again.
Sant Lal is 40 years old and lives in Vikram Nagar. Born in Badaun, he has lived in Delhi for the past 30 years.