The George Saunders graduation speech currently making the rounds of the Internet reminds me of a failure of kindness of my own. I have committed many, of course, too many to remember or recount; I pick on this one, because, quite frankly, besides being memorable in all the wrong ways, it is a little less painful to recount than others in my oeuvre.
In 2005, I traveled to India for a vacation and arrived to find New Delhi in the grip of its usual summer baking. On my second day in the city, I hailed an auto-rickshaw and asked to be taken to a friend’s residence a few miles away. I knew where I was headed; I wasn’t lost; this was ‘my’ city after all, even though I hadn’t lived in it for eighteen years.
A few minutes later, I noticed we were driving away from the direction that I thought we should have been headed in. I held my tongue for a second, and then queried the driver–rather querulously if I may say so–‘Where are we going?’ The driver replied, briefly, ‘We need to go in this direction.’ I do not know why I did not bother to inquire further, to employ a principle of charity, and grant him the benefit of the doubt. For a second, I imagined myself ripped off, in my ‘hometown’, by someone who imagined me to be a hapless tourist. Perhaps I was tired of being told that I was ‘out of touch’ in many dimensions, that I had lost the capacity to relate to the realities of what had once been the familiar, perhaps I was overly keen to assert my ‘authenticity.’ Insecurities, every one of them.
I snapped. And began a loud tirade, mercifully brief, of how I would not be made a fool of, how I knew what time it was.
The auto-rickshaw driver, now with a pained expression on his face, spoke again, softly and perhaps even a little apologetically, ‘We have to go in this direction. There’s no exit permitting us to reverse direction for another half a mile.’ I looked around. He was right. The road I had traveled on many times as a teenager and even on my previous visits to the city had changed: there were new dividers, new sidewalks, new intersections. I was a stranger to it; I needed help getting around. And I was being given some. I just hadn’t seen it.
My indignation subsided, quickly replaced by a scorching shame. I mumbled an apology and attempted rapprochement. I asked him where he was from, sensing from his accent he was not a Delhi local. He wasn’t. He was a migrant, one of those many thousands that flock to the city to escape their impoverished homes, perhaps leaving families behind, resigned to scraping out a day-to-day existence on the margins of an indifferent urban landscape.
We chatted; I told him I was on vacation, in town to meet family and friends. He asked me where I was visiting from. I told him; he asked me a bit about my life elsewhere.
A few minutes later, I was at my destination. He had taken the quickest, most efficient route possible under the circumstances. I paid up, added a tip, apologized again.
There are times, even now, when I remember the tone of his voice, responding to me when I first accused him of ripping me off, and I cannot but feel just a little miserable.