In Colas Nagar, you can pick up an auto at the end of the street. It’s a posh neighborhood, so the drivers wait on the main road. Lately, I’ve been picking up autos there. The drivers line up for passengers.
This morning while I’m only halfway down the street, the first driver starts waving his arms. Imagine a wave for flagging down a ship from a beach. I wave back, and he hops in the auto, crosses the busy street, and meets me for the pick up.
“Mission and Aurobindo,” I say, adding “Intersection” as an afterthought. He nods, head moving sideways. I nod back, and get in.
As we turn the corner, he twists around in his seat, saving only one hand for steering, and smiles. “America!” he says.
“Yes,” I reply, surprised. No one has guessed yet. In Pondicherry, people assume if you’re white, you’re French. I’ve learned to reply to bon jours. I tell him he’s the first to guess.
He gestures to his throat and smiles, proud to have correctly recognized the accent. For a moment, he looks at the road. Then he spins around again, offering a huge smile and enthusiastic thumbs up, saying, “Trump coming!”
I frown, turn a thumbs down, and say, “No Trump.” He laughs. I ask, “You like Trump?”
“Yes. Businessman good,” he says, turning once again to the road, but before we even reach the cross street, he’s spinning back again, managing a double thumbs up while driving with his knees, and saying, “Hilary Clinton coming?”
“Coming to India?” I ask. confused. He furrows his brow and looks at the road, and I realize what he means. “Winning?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, laughing, and we both relax into the the pause of mutual understanding. I ask if he watches the American news. He tells me reads a little every day.
I say, “Bernie Sanders winning.” He looks confused. So I say, “the socialist.” He laughs hard. It’s clear to me he’s sticking to Trump.
“Trump say Muslim get out,” he says. “They cause a problem. Always fighting. Trump.” Another thumbs up.
I ask, “You’re Hindu?” I already know the answer from the dashboard of the auto and his tilaka, white lines on his forehead.
“Yes,” he tells me. Then he pauses, turns, and gestures to me, “Not Muslim?” he asks, concerned that he’s committed a faux pas.
“No,” I say, “Buddhist.” But my American pronunciation throws him and he shrugs. I say it a few times more and more slowly. “Buddh-ist, Bud-dhist, Bu-ddhist, Bu-ddha,” before he understands. He laughs again. This time even harder than when I said “the socialist.” He seems sheepish, relieved he wasn’t insulting my religion.
The situation is too much for any shared language we have: thumbs-up, thumbs-down, names pulled from the headlines, and a list of some of the major religions of the world.
After all, I am the one grabbing an auto to ride to the posh section of town called, “White Town,” so I can have a high-priced (by Indian standards, but incredibly cheap by Alaskan standards) cappuccino and croissant. Between us we don’t have he words to discuss that either.
Maybe that’s why he laughed so hard when I brought up the socialist and Buddha.