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I came to think of 6581 as a friend

By Kristin Helmore / February 24, 1986

THE Sikh doorman, in his red and gold turban, seemed to find it amusing. I could swear a smile flickered between his tightly bound beard and glossy, oiled mustache as, glancing my way, he would announce with professional suavity into his hand microphone, ``6581! 6581 please. 6581. 6581!'' It was a little embarrassing for me. Each time I emerged from the cool hotel lobby into New Delhi's breathless oven heat, the Sikh would bow smartly from the waist and intone, ``Taxi, Madam?'' and I would meekly reply, sotto voce, ``6581, please.''

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In a country where the slightest nuances of human feelings and behavior seem to be always observed, I felt exposed, even in the simple act of requesting a particular taxi and driver. The Sikh probably wouldn't have understood, but there was more to this preference than my convenience as an employer. Because of the kind of person he was, I had come to think of 6581 as a friend.

After a very few moments he would appear. Behind the wheel of his '50s-style Ambassador (India's prestige sedan) he would careen around the curve of the hotel drive, his head leaning so far to one side it looked as if the car was banking on two wheels.

He was small and very thin, with a closely cropped brush of gray hair and baggy, pajama-like khaki clothes. On the subjects of house numbers and times of day, his English was impeccable. On more abstract topics, it would falter, and 6581 would apologize.

He was a wonderful taxi driver. He knew his way unerringly through the labyrinth of residential ``parks'' that makes up New Delhi.

Sprawling south from the ancient citadel of Delhi, New Delhi is an elegant network of wide, tree-lined avenues, embassies surrounded by huge gardens, and salmon-pink British Imperial buildings, apparently designed with ceremonial parades in mind.

My part of town was near Lodi Gardens, a particularly lush, green area, with ancient Hindu temples of golden stone peeking through the dense jungle-like trees. Brilliantly colored parrots zoomed around in flocks, their green vibrating against the greens all around them.

Whether my appointments took me to Gulmohar Park, a chic enclave of small, modern houses and gardens, set aside exclusively for journalists; to the more populous maze of Chittaranjan Park; or to the exclusive quiet of a street called Golf Links, 6581 always knew exactly where to go. And although he drove in typical Indian style (not so much as pausing before turning a corner and barreling into the traffic on a busy street), I always felt perfectly safe with him.

6581 was a gentle man. Stuck in traffic behind an Indian family on their motorcycle one day, he carried on a long conversation of sign language and smiles with a tiny child sitting on its mother's knee. The mother, delicate in her pale pink sari, perched side-saddle behind her turbaned husband. An older child was wedged in front between the handle bars.

New Delhi is reported to have more traffic accidents than any other city in the world. One evening at rush hour -- after we had narrowly avoided untold numbers of pedestrians, cows, cyclists, dogs, three-wheeled ``scooter'' cabs, families piled on motorcycles, and a camel -- my friend Geeta, who happened to be with us, put Delhi's high accident rate down to its ``wide variety of road-users.'' I think she has a point.