Birender stared at the tollbooth operator.
The operator stared into the distance.
Behind us, cars began to honk.
I normally pay attention when we approach the toll, and pass money to the driver before we reach the window. I also normally ride home in a beat-up Tata Indicar. I’m also normally driven by one of the employees of the taxi stand. But on this day, I found myself sitting in the back of a hulkingly new Toyota Innova, driven by the owner of the taxi stand himself, who had pulled out a massive wad of cash and was already handing the tollbooth operator forty rupees before I even realized it was time to pay.
The tollbooth operator handed Birender nothing back.
You can’t blame the guy for trying. Birender doesn’t dress like a driver — he dresses like a businessman. The tollbooth operator, seeing the wad and the finery and me in the backseat letting my driver pay for me, must have assumed that a rich driver driving around a rich passenger isn’t going to care about five measly rupees.
So the tollbooth operator said he had no change.
Birender looked at him and waited.
Behind us, traffic began to pile up.
There was no anger on Birender’s part. Nor did the tollbooth operator pantomime an elaborate hunt for change. One simply stared at the other; the other simply stared straight ahead. Behind us, cars packed into gridlock and leaned on their horns. Would this turn into one of those riots you read about in the paper, where the Indian mob exacts swift and bloody revenge on whomever it decides is responsible for whatever travesty they’ve beheld? Would they surround our Innova, rock it, overturn it, ignite it, and dance in the light of our flaming bodies? Or would Birender’s silver tongue convince them that we were the victims, turning the mob to pelt the tollbooth operator with stones the size of five-rupee pieces while the khaki-clad cops leaned on their beating sticks and watched him suffer?
As it turned out, the tollbooth operator broke first. Five long minutes later, five rupees magically materialized, and we were on our way.