I came to think of 6581 as a friend

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.''

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.

6581 had infinite patience. He was perfectly content -- no, eager -- to drive me through the crowded, steamy streets looking in shop after tiny shop for batteries or blank cassette tapes.

On one such excursion it started to rain lightly, and young men came out onto the sidewalks to shampoo their hair. On another occasion, I saw them performing this cosmetic ritual in a gracefully splashing fountain in front of the Houses of Parliament.

My days were filled with journeys from one appointment to the next, with 6581 waiting -- usually for hours -- until I finished. I always tried to estimate how long I would be so he could go off and get something to eat if he liked. But 6581 wouldn't hear of it. ``No problem, no problem!'' he would exclaim. And when I came out, there he always was -- one evening it was after 10 -- and I never knew him to eat at all.

6581 left the question of payment up to me. Although we were in a country where all foreigners can be made to feel their sole purpose is to dispense money, 6581 seemed to want to disprove the stereotype of the rapacious Indian. Once, when I needed a medium-sized bill to tip someone, he lent it to me.

In many developing countries city prices are almost as high as in the West, but in India there seems to be a zero missing. Four hours in a taxi, which you expect will cost $20, costs $2. When I finally got this straightened out, I gave 6581 what amounted to modest sums for me, but what probably supported him and many relatives for a very long time.

At any hour of the day or night, 6581 was ready to drive for me. One day I had to be at the airport at 4:30 a.m. for the flight to Ahmedabad. 6581 assured me he would be ready to leave for the airport at 3:30, and indeed there he was. When I thanked him for getting up so early, he hastily replied, ``No problem! You work -- I am work.'' And off we sped through the deserted, tree-lined avenues.

Well, not quite deserted, even at 3:30 in the morning. In India, there are always people everywhere, and families on their rope-strung cots, called charpoys, could be seen sleeping peacefully on the sidewalks under the trees. A few joggers were also enjoying the cool of the night. And when I arrived at the airport, there were two women in vivid saris stretched out on the floor of the ladies room. They apparently spent the night there so they could rise at 5:00 to make coffee for departing passengers.

``When come back?'' 6581 had asked as we pulled up to the airport curb. I told him I expected to be back the following evening at about 6. ``No problem, no problem. I meet,'' said he.

But there was a problem. Indian Airlines had neglected to advise me that the flight from Ahmedabad to New Delhi stops in the Rajasthani cities of Jodhpur and Jaipur. It was almost midnight when I finally made it back to Delhi, sure there would be no one to meet me at that hour.

``Madam!'' I suddenly heard as I headed for the exit. 6581, whose name is Lacchaman Singh Harni, and whom I will always remember gratefully -- first as a friend, second as a taxi driver -- rushed out of the crowd to carry my bag to his taxi. He seemed glad to see me too.

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