The peril from toll gate to toll gate
Entry toll gate
I dropped my wife and son at the RGI Airport in Hyderabad for an early morning flight. I saw them off at 4:45am and drove out of the airport from there still nodding yes. The nodding was a hangover from a few moments ago, when she was telling me what I need to do once I return home from the airport. After exiting the airport I reached the Shamshabad toll gate, that is the entry point for me to get onto the Outer Ring Road (ORR). My journey back was to get on to the ORR and drive on till Gachibowli and then go to Kondapur.
When I reached the Shamshabad toll gate there was just one car in front of me picking up the toll pass from a teenager, standing right outside the booth. As it was nearly 5am in the morning the entire place was deserted. The driver said something and waved in dismissal to the kid and drove off. Looked strange, as if the kid was trying to sell him something and he refused. I moved my car to the previous car’s spot and the kid gave me the pass.
I saw a man inside the booth but this teenager handed me the toll pass (the pass given prior to entry) and then came closer and said, “Sir, are you going to Gachibowli?”
I was a little surprised to hear that. Normally the toll booth operators don’t ask this question. Since I had made a mistake of going in the opposite direction after taking the pass, at the same toll booth,
I replied, “Yes, I am”.
I thought there was probably a detour or something that this kid would tell me.
Instead he said, “Sir, can you please take them with you to the Gachibowli booth?”
He pointed to two teenagers standing next to him. I was pretty taken aback. I did not expect this reply. Now I know what he had asked the driver of the car before me. I looked at the kids. One kid was about 14 and there other like 16. Both looked innocent and seemed to be from a humble background.
The voice inside me said, “Stop, you don’t know these boys. It is 5 am in the morning, pitch black sky. No one knows what they are capable of. You could be inviting trouble”
Me (thinking): The kids look honest enough. It’s just a few toll booths, 15 kilometers from here. I don’t think they mean any harm. The kids might be stranded here. It seemed like the car before me had refused them or probably was going in the wrong direction
I waved to them to get into the car. The kids smiled gratefully at me and climbed in smartly. The 14 year old sat next to me and the 16 year old got into the back seat. The 14 year old had a small flat box on his lap with a red cloth covering it. I drove off leaving the toll booth behind. The car stereo was still playing music.
Me (thinking): Hmm, Both kids seem to be quite comfortable. I think they have hitchhiked before.
Grilling the guests
I turned off the stereo thinking that I would have to remain alert about my new found guests. You never know what they might turn out to be and it was too late to go back. I struck a conversation with them hoping to know their reason for boarding my car. The entire conversation took place in broken Hindi.
Me: Do you want to get off at the Gachibowli toll booth?
14 year old: Yes sir
Me: Why are you going there?
14 year old: We will work there
Me: Oh, so you work there, is it?
14 year old: Yes sir
I got a little suspicious now.
Me (thinking): If these kids work at the toll booth then the company owning the toll booth takes care of transportation. They would not have asked me to drop them. Also, I have never seen kids this young employed by any company. It is against the law to employ anyone below 16. I think they are lying to me. I need to probe further.(Aloud) How long have you been working there?
14 year old: I …. I …. Don’t understand ….. Our Hindi is not good. Sir, I speak Telugu. Do you speak Telugu?
Me: I’m afraid, I do not know Telugu. Just Hindi and English.
16 year old: Our Hindi is not good
14 year old: Sir … we don’t know English
Me (thinking): This seems like a good way to avoid direct and uncomfortable questions. No, I won’t stop asking. (Aloud) That’s ok, you can speak in broken Hindi. (trying somehow in broken Hindi) How long have you been working at the toll booth?
Both: We …. do … not understand. We only go to the booth.
Me (thinking): Man, how do I explain this? They couldn’t understand the simple question. Now I’ll have to try and explain in another way (Aloud) Ok, you work at the toll booth, right?
14 year old: Yes
Me: What do you do there?
14 year old: Sir, we sell Allaraba and then we make some money and after that we go home
Curiouser and curiouser
Me (thinking): Now these kids are really throwing me off. What do they mean by Allaraba? The only thing that someone can do at a toll booth is to hand out passes and collect money from the vehicles. This seems to be more suspicious. I need to question carefully. If these kids are up to something, then I could be in trouble. (Aloud) Ok, do you have your duty at the Gachibowli booth?
14 year old: Yes sir
Me: What are your duty hours? When do you go and finish your duty?
14 year old: We … are going now …. And we finish by 10:30 in the morning
Me (thinking): It is now 5am. These kids are saying they are going to finish at 10:30. 5 and half hour duty! Which company allows that? They are not even talking about doing anything at the toll booth, yet they want to get off there. (Aloud) Oh, so you finish at 10:30? And what do you do in these 5 – 6 hours?
14 year old: Sir, we sell Allaraba. These … (pointing to the covered box on his lap)
Me (getting even more perplexed): Very well, where do you live?
16 year old: We live in a village near Pocharam on the way to Srisailam
Mental wrestling while danger lurks
I have heard about Pocharam. If I did understand them correctly. It is a town about 30 km from Hyderabad. The kids are claiming to be from somewhere near that town. Fine, this means they must stay somewhere in Hyderabad if they actually work at the toll booths here in Hyderabad. I need to find that out. I also started speeding towards the Gachibowli toll booth because I did not feel safe anymore as the kids’ answers did seem congruent.
I started feeling that the 16 year old seated in the back is brandishing a steel wire to choke me from the back, as I have seen in the movies. I thought the best thing would be to speed up to use the speed as a bargaining chip, in case they want to harm me. I moved the car to the high speed lane so that they would be unable to tell me to pull over to the side of the expressway. I kept cursing myself for picking these unknown street urchins. If something happens to me, my wife and son would not know about it. There won’t be anyone to blame but me. I was thinking if I could get a message out to somebody but these fiends would find out and it is definitely hard to fiddle with my phone and drive at 120 kmph!
In the meantime I thought its best to get as many answers I could from them and keep talking. Maybe somehow I could delay whatever plan they had in mind.
Grill guests to a crisp
Me: Where do you stay or live in Hyderabad?
16 year old: Sir, we live near Pocharam
Me: I understand you. That is your home. You work here, so you must be staying somewhere close.
14 year old: No sir, we come from our village
Me: Do you come from your village everyday?
14 year old: Yes sir
Me (thinking): This is something. These kids travel up and down everyday. Hmm interesting (Aloud) I see, …. sooo …. Since when did you start working … (No point asking this as they did not understand this last time) … ok, don’t you go to school?
14 year old: Yes we do. Both of us go to school. It is summer vacation now, so we are doing this job
I never knew a toll booth company recruits kids, that too for summer. Suspicion was growing even more. I wish the road would end and I get rid of these lying boys. The road sign says there is still a little more to go before I reach my destination.
Me: Oh you go to school. Then you must know English
14 year old: Sir, we are poor and we go to a poor school. We can’t speak English. They don’t teach us.
I thought English was part of school curriculum across the country, either as 1st or 2nd or 3rd language. I shrugged thinking that there are so many things one does not know.
Me: ok, which company do you work in?
14 year old: Allaraba company, sir.
I thought he was saying he was selling something called Allaraba. I’m seriously perplexed.What is it? Does something like this actually exist on earth? Are these kids taking me for a ride? I’m getting curious and terrified inside.
Me: Which class do you go to?
14 year old: I have finished class 9
16 year old: I am in class 10
Me: Oh, that’s really nice to know. So you will be working at the toll booth giving your …
14 year old: Sir, we work at the booth by selling these Allaraba. (patting the box on his lap) We are very poor and can’t afford to buy all the books. The school doesn’t handout text books. So we work at the booth every day throughout summer. The company gives us Rs 2 and keeps Rs. 8 at the end of the day.
Oh great! Now they have started talking about money and poverty. This means they could also be asking me for donation. If they do not mug me, they will play on my sentiments to get cash! Great! Nice situation I’m in.
Me: How do you come to this toll booth everyday? On a bus?
16 year old: Sir, We take a bus from our village. It is about 20 km from Mehdipatnam (Major bus terminus at Hyderabad). It takes us about 30 minutes. From there we take another bus to Shamshabad.We get off at the toll booth (That is where I picked them up). Takes 20 minutes. Then we try to take a bus from there to Gachibowli. If someone gives us a ride to Gachibowli, we take it.
Me (thinking): Pretty roundabout way to come to the Gachibowli toll booth. (Aloud) I see
Destination toll gate
By now the Gachibowli toll booth lights could be seen. I heaved a sigh of relief. I felt safe at last. I made it safely here and now it was just a matter of time before I dump these two.
Me: There is the booth. We are almost there. So you come to this booth everyday to sell your stuff.
14 year old: Yes sir, we have to. We have to come here in the cheapest way possible. We are very poor and this is the only way to get some money to buy books. No one helps us out. This is the only way we can at least make Rs 2 per day.
Then I realized that he was speaking the truth and the story dawned upon me. They have been trying to explain to me that they come to the Gachibowli toll booth everyday, starting as early as 3:30 – 4 am in the morning. They stand next to the toll booth as peddlers to sell their Allaraba. Since the Gachibowli booth gets the morning rush hour traffic with thousands of cars going to Financial District of Hyderabad, they finish their day by 10:30am and probably reach home by lunch time or post lunch. This is the way these school going kids raise some money for buying books. We reached the toll booth. The kids got off and thanked me politely in English. I felt bad that all this while I did not believe them. As I was making the payment at the booth window from my car, the 14 year old was handing something to me.
Me: What is that?
14 year old: Take it sir
Me: What is it?
14 year old: Allaraba
I did not want to take that as it would mean reducing his stock which in turn will affect his sale. If I wanted to pay for it it would seem rude. I did not have the heart to refuse it. So I took it from his hand and thanked him in a feeble voice and wished him good luck.
I looked at what he had given me and finally got to know what Allaraba is. Here is a picture of the item, taken after daybreak.
So Allaraba is actually a local candy!!!
After I left the Gachibowli toll booth, I was thinking of the incident. What did I start thinking about them and what I eventually learned. I’m not sure whether they live in Pocharam, or whether they actually make only Rs. 2 per day or they would actually buy textbooks with the money they earn. One thing was for sure, that they do come every day and they do peddle their candy at toll booth as they were very poor. Due to their extreme poverty they were willing to travel 30 km one way, everyday, waking up early morning when even the crows sleep, changing buses or vehicles thrice, hoping that someone gives them a lift at some point in their journey. All this, just to earn a few rupees, so that they could buy textbooks!
They had said they were poor, many times during the conversation and could have easily asked me for a few rupees or could have asked me to buy a few of their candy bars. But, no! Instead they returned the favor by giving me an Allaraba! Even though they were kids, they knew how to maintain their dignity.I was also happy that I put up my guard they moment they boarded my car. Happy that I found out that the boys were genuine at the end of the journey. It would have been really bad had it been the other way around. Will I do this again? I’m not sure, but I think could, depending on what I feel at that moment.
I hope I find myself pleasantly surprised in other situations later on in life …