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Of Ola Cabs, Hugs, and COVID-19

“The human touch can't be quantified. It can't be analyzed with statistics. We can’t place a number on it. It’s the best, the most direct, the most lasting way of affirming another person’s humanity,” said a lawyer with Asperger Syndrome in Season 4 Episode 12 of Boston Legal.

The episode premiered on Jan 22, 2008. Something happened this week that took me back to it. I was burnt from a show I played over the weekend. It’s nothing new. My shows always take a lot out of me. But now that I’m just a month shy of 45, I take longer to recuperate. I was in no mood to drive but had a business meeting to attend. Thank God for Ola Cabs. Moazzem Hossain confirmed my ride in no time. As I stepped into his white Swift Dzire, a soothing voice greeted me by my first name. The voice sounded welcoming, lady-like, and hardly machine-generated. I told Moazzem that skilled engineers may have written the code for the Ola app but someone non-technical must have come up with the idea to add that personal touch. These are the things that make a difference. Moazzem nodded into the rear-view mirror and from his eyes, I could tell that he hadn’t had a conversation like that before. Just then, I heard the voice again. It said I could play my music if I wanted to. I was home. For the next 47 minutes from Kandivali to Andheri, I was home in the company of my heroes. My playlist included Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, AC/DC, and Guns N’ Roses… bands that I have grown up on. I maintained a volume lower than my usual of course. (You see, I wasn’t at work but Moazzem was.) But somehow, the opening bars of Sweet Child O' Mine caught his attention. When he asked about the song, I mentioned Appetite For Destruction and Slash. And guess what? He said his son was really keen to learn to play the guitar. So I directed him to this link and wished him luck. Then as we neared Lotus Petrol Pump in Oshiwara, one of my own Bollywood mashups played. And in the mirror, I saw Moazzem’s eyes light up. He tapped the volume button until the music visibly pulsed in his veins. When I told him that it was me singing, Moazzem could barely drive looking forward. What was left of the ride zipped by in a flash. But it was long enough for us to learn that our grandparents were neighbors. I told Moazzem that I was born in Agartala, Tripura and he told me that he was born in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Just as we really connected, the dulcet voice announced, "You have arrived!" Everything happened so fast that I missed the chance to pay online. Now if there’s anything demonetization has taught me, it’s to carry little or no cash. I dipped into every corner of my wallet but still fell short by Rs. 25. Moazzem said it wasn’t a problem and that he was glad we met. I just gave him a hug. The coronavirus may have driven a wedge between humans worldwide, but in this car, it hadn't affected the passenger and the driver. "Perhaps with the continued evolution of smartphones, emails, and video conferencing, we’ll find a way to keep people from ever being in the same room together. Won’t that be wonderful?" continued the lawyer in S4 E12. “Six years ago, isolation had brought me to the point I considered taking my life. I picked up the phone and punched out 411. So desperate was I to hear just the sound of another person’s voice. I got some automated recording that said, ‘What city and state please?' And I wept. We are living in such an increasingly isolated world, your Honor. We IM and text message and have virtual relationships online. It gets lonelier and lonelier while teenage and adult depression continues to rise. There are, perhaps, many things we can do about it. Banning the hug can’t be one of them."

I checked my belongings one last time before stepping out. That's when Moazzem asked, “Sir, photo?” And as he pulled out his phone, the potassium permanganate stains on his hands made me smile. At least one of us played Holi this year. ~ Tirthankar Poddar


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