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wisdom of the ages
By Dennis Batchelder 22 may 2005

Prashanth is my driver for the ten days I'm in Hyderabad. He drives a Toyota Qualis, which is big enough to haul around nine people - maybe fifteen if you pack them in tightly, like they do on the buses and auto rickshaws here.

Prashanth is a very good driver. He follows the rhythms of the elaborate Eastern driving dance that takes place around the clock all across India. A dance that I can appreciate, knowing that I'll never learn the moves. I've been driving in the west too long, I guess, and that's made it tough for me to make u-turns against oncoming traffic without looking, or to honk at a traffic cop and drive around him when he's trying to make you stop.

Prashanth has been working some long hours lately. I'm here to help the local team get the next version of our software tested and released, and we stay at the office until 3 AM every day. He spends a lot of time waiting outside the office for me, sleeping in the shade of a tree in the 108 degree heat. He drives us to lunch and dinner, but he refuses to dine with us, preferring to eat at dhabas (roadside food stands).

On the way back from Sri Sailam, we had some super hot Thali at a local restuarant (seven of us ate for eight bucks). The combination of the hot spices, the long hours, the empty roads, and the hot sun worked its magic, and we dozed off. All of us, including Prashanth. I woke up to Swarup and Amit screaming in terror as we crossed the road and drove off the opposite shoulder. Prashanth spun the steering wheel, overcorrecting, and we swerved back and forth for a few seconds as he brought the car back under control.

I ordered Prashanth to pull over, and asked him to take a half hour nap. He refused to sleep, so I took his keys, and I drove to the next dhaba. That was fun - I had been wanting to drive in India, and although Prashanth protested, I had the moral upper hand. We all loaded up on strong chai, because nobody wanted to sleep the rest of the way home. Then I reluctantly gave him the keys. When we reached the hotel, Prashanth apologized profusely for his "big mistake". That earned him a big tip.

For the next couple of days we commuted in silence, but eventually Prashanth got over his shame. Now it's later in the week, and we're back on the crowded city streets. Prashanth is dancing to the city rhythms, and we're speaking to each other again. I point at the long green sticks the roadside vendors are carrying, and he says they're selling fresh-extracted sugar cane juice. Prashanth asks if he could buy us each a glass.

Of course he can, and he makes another death defying u-turn, and stops in front of the vendor. Prashanth orders, and I'm approached by a Yogi, who shows me some pictures, pointing at some people, and saying lots of stuff, but the only word I can make out is "Swami".

When Prashanth comes back with the cane juice, I ask him to translate, and he tells me that this Yogi wants to give us a blessing and a palm reading in exchange for a donation. I pull out 100 Rupees, and the Yogi goes through a big ritual that ends with me getting dabbed with some red powder on my forehead. Prashanth gets his palm read, and he's told that he'll marry next year and have two children, and be very happy.

I ask Prashanth to buy some cane juice for the Yogi, as a reward for the nice fortune and the red dot. The juice is really nice - a background sour taste like lemonade, but thicker in consistency. The Yogi rattles off some more blessings, and chugs the entire glass in two seconds. He wipes his hands on his robe, and starts talking to me again.

Prashanth translates. "Sir, he wants you to know that he is privileged to have been taught by his Swami the wisdom of the ages, and that he'll share it with us for another donation of five hundred Rupees. He says it will change our lives, sir." That's about twelve bucks, and seems like a bargain for what I was going to hear, but I am skeptical, and I ask Prashanth to tell the Yogi that I didn't want to learn the wisdom of the ages, and that I preferred to learn it for myself as I make my own journey.

This gets the Yogi agitated. He starts jumping around, yelling at us, but then settles down and speaks earnestly to Prashanth. "Sir, he says that once offered, to not accept the wisdom of the ages will bring bad luck to us and our families." I smile at the wisdom of this Yogi, but Prashanth looks troubled. So I pull out five hundred Rupees, pass it over, and the Yogi whispers something into Prashanth's ear.

Prashanth looks at the Yogi and shakes his head. The Yogi shakes his finger at Prashanth, and then at me. Prashanth gets into the car, and we drive off. He doesn't want to share the wisdom with me, but I remind him that I paid for the knowledge, and I want my life to be changed too.

And what was this wisdom of the ages, that would change our lives? "Sir, the wisdom is that we should never shave on Thursdays."

wisdom of the ages - india