Power to say “NO!”

He stood there in front of me, hands folded, a smile on his face. The smile a facade, the face betraying utter surrender to me. I was the alpha, the one with the money and the one who had been rendered a service, which I claimed unsatisfactory. “Sir…please…if you don’t pay my boss will make me pay from my pocket” he pleaded. There was no sign of tears, no sad stories. They had probably been all shed.

The auto ride from Ankola to Gokarna was long, slow and rickety. 300 was the amount agreed upon. I had switched autos once to this one as the first one, the owner’s auto had stopped soon after it had started and he had refused to let me go, making me wait for another of his autos to take me here. It was a long wait and I had already lost part of my cool about it. This one was running close to the end of its fuel and the nearest fuel station was closed. Driving along, Aswin had called up from Gokarna, that the hotel checkout time was up and he was being asked to vacate the room. I still hadn’t packed and asked him to hold it for as long as possible.

We were less than 10 kms from Gokarna now and I felt the auto might just make it. I was already livid about being late and Aswin having to deal with the hotel and clear my unpacked stuff out. No thought of how the driver will get back if he runs out there. It was not my problem. It was his mistake to take me in when he had no fuel. He had a choice, didn’t he?

We passed a station and the auto driver said he’ll stop. That was all the trigger needed and I let loose a volley about being wronged and ‘taken for a ride’ by them and that the hotel guy would throw my stuff out. He said nothing, giving me a look of helplessness and continued along. The auto stopped after a few sputters a quarter Km from the station. He got out with a can. “Please wait here sir…I’ll be back with the petrol.” I screamed at him again. He pleaded. I said nothing. He ran along. I knew I could just walk away from there, take another auto or just walk along. But I stood there waiting for him. After a long 10 minutes I saw him running to the auto with his can. I walked along now, a pretense about putting my foot down and running away without paying him. He emptied the can into his auto and followed me in his vehicle, begging me to get in. “please sir..please get in sir.” he pleaded. I offered him a 100 rupee note asking him to go along. I knew he wouldn’t take it. After a couple of minutes of that absurdity I got in. There was no other vehicle coming or going on that road.

This part of the journey was done in silence. Him, hoping he’d get all his money. Me, thinking about all the numerous occasions in my life when I had been soft on people and been ‘exploited’ and ‘taken for a ride’ ‘ungratefully’. The feeling of what would they do if I didn’t help that had been my weakness all along. “Am not paying him a penny over 200 this time!” I resolved and sat there seething. We reached Gokarna 15 minutes later.

“Sir, please sir..please sir” he asked me. I handed out the 200 rupees and turned my back. I walked towards Aswin who was sitting there in the lobby with both mine and his stuff, surprisingly calm. I looked back and he still stood there, all expression wiped out from his face, just looking at me. I packed my stuff in and apologised to Aswin about having him pack my stuff. “No need” he said “I just got your stuff out as-is, no packing”. I stuffed my stuff into my bag and stood up ready to leave. “Let’s go, am really hungry” said Aswin. I looked at the entrance. He was still there, looking at me. “Stay strong” I told myself as we made our way to the counter and settled the bills for the night.

His expression changed as we approached him. I glared at him, telling him again that I wasn’t going to pay him a penny more and he could go talk to his boss. ‘Sir, sir, sir’ he pleaded. I knew this was it. He showed no intention to follow us. Either I pay him now or he’d go his way to face his boss and pay the 100 that was owed.

And there as I passed I felt my hand reaching out and giving him a hundred. I walked fast without turning back.