I live in a city that has abysmal public transportation. So for public transport travel the choices are very limited. It is each person’s choice. However, a black and yellow option is most easily available, if you can ignore the sting in it’s tail. You might love it, or hate it, take it or leave it, use it or not. It is the scrouge of our city, as also sometimes its saviour. It is a lean mean fighting machine that it’s drivers think they have mastered. This road hog, sporting the humble bee’s colours, is that three wheeler, the autoriksha, or ‘auto’ as our city’s residents term it. A necessary evil………
The autoriksha driver is a breed apart. Many are not aware that once the documentation is complete, and the drivers are handed the licence to thrill, the aggressive Achievers among these, needs must go through the ultimate, unlicenced test of fire, the Autoriksha Driver Finishing School. This free spirited institution has its own unique set of rules, with a rigorous curriculum, which has to be followed to the letter. First the meek and mild starry eyed Freshers are singled out. The Senior pupils at this acclaimed institution take the wet-behind-their-ears, under their wing. Freshers with such alarming traits as adhering to lawfully drawn up traffic rules and speed limits, unrigged meters, of displaying politeness to passengers, and with good manners and acceptable social behaviour, are quickly identified. And taken firmly in hand. The qualities mentioned are ironed out forthwith.The lessons dinned into these bewildered newbies is that such traits will never take them down the path of financial success, or help them climb any transportation ladders. One must understand that many of the pupils enrolling for this Finishing School, usually are already mean, deceitful and dishonest. They cannot help it, as its in their DNA. Basically, these students are given the finishing touch. To break every road rule in the book, to be rude, selfish, and preferably ill mannered, towards fare paying passengers. If the Freshers have an existing criminal record, then they are given bonus marks. While connections to the slimy and the corrupt of the political class, immediately help them pass with a summa cum laude. The Autodriver is now ready to hit the road. Helas! As the Frenchman would say.
Can you fault me then, unless pushed, to try not to use an auto? However, there are those rare occasions when I am forced to. It was a hot and dusty typical Indian summer afternoon. I had been waiting an age for an auto to stop to pick me up. Every potential empty auto would cruise past me, as if I was invisible, or else stop briefly, and ask where I needed to go, in their usual sign language. Just as I would gather myself to gratefully get in, he would open throttle and zoom on, narrowly missing a few of my toes, with that typical click of the tongue and shake of the head indicating he would not oblige me. Quite at the end of my tether, there suddenly appeared another of these monsters. He stopped, I looked. He raised an enquiring eyebrow, but I was quick. Before he smoothly shifted to the next sentence of silent, sign language, I leapt nimbly into his vehicle. I had seen many news items put out by our city’s guardians of the law, stating that if an autoriksha refused to ply to the destination of the passenger, we could report him to the nearest police station, and he would get his just deserts at the hands of the police. But one had to first get the details of the perpetrator isn’t it, prior to filing such a complaint? I looked closely at the space where the driver’s details and photograph ought to have been clearly posted. Sure it was there, a grimy, much thumbed document, the relevant details all but obscured, with a photo that definitely bore not the remotest resemblance to the driver plying this vehicle. It was then I noticed that the driver had been staring at me in an impatient manner, with the enquiring eyebrow still enquiring. I shifted from neutral, and told him where to drop me. He shifted to first gear, noisily released a reluctant clutch, and told me to get off, as he was not going to take me to my destination, since he was going the other way. I sat tight, and resolutely told him to then take me in whichever direction he was going. He glared, I sat tighter. He spoke, I was overcome by deafness. He then started his auto, and I gave his uncompromising back a triumphant grin of victory. He spun his vehicle around, and with a mighty splutter, we were moving, in quite the wrong direction to my home. Within a few moments we had picked up good speed and were going at a merry lick. I told him that he was taking the wrong route, he was deaf to my words. With the wind whistling through my hair, the teeth rattling in my head, I had to make a quick decision. Whether I should, in true Bollywood style, scream, “Bachao!” “Bachao!” at the top of my lungs, to any or all of the passers by of a metropolis’ disinterested public, or throw myself bodily out of the auto. Evil Knevil must have been looking at my reaction in the rear view mirror, taken pity on me, or gotten plain bored with the game. I didn’t need to take a decision. He stomped on his brakes, surprised, I was thrown forward, and lay, a quivering blancmange, on the auto’s odoriferous floorboard. Before you could say, “Auto Raja,” I shot out of his vehicle, and showed him a clean pair of heels. Phew! That one sure was a close call…..! I left behind me an evil, grinning auto driver who had enjoyed taking me for that ride!
In spite of my no-autos resolve, once, at the end of a tiring train journey, in the days before “OLAs” and “UBERs,” I perforce had to take an auto home. I climbed in wearily, and wilted into a corner. I spun the driver my usual yarn about having a problem neck, in a vain bid to touch a sympathetic chord in his inner self. This was just so that he would not consider every pot-hole and speed-breaker on the road, an obstacle race to zig around or zag through. This driver was made of sterner stuff. He stuck to his guns and the gas pedal, and let his baser instincts take on the city’s abysmal roads, literally head on. As luck would have it, my city was in the throes of a Rally of political Rallies, with elections round the corner. Every short cut the auto driver took was jammed with honking, gas-belching vehicles. Even the ultimate dare devils, autorikshas, seemed vanquished. But, ‘Oh! Ho!,” “Oh! No!” not this driver. He could squeeze his machine through the slimmest of grid-locked openings. Between my unheard, weakly uttered, breathless, “Slow downs!” and “Look outs!” the bit was firmly between his teeth, and he seemed to be riding hell for leather. I scrabbled in my bag for my mobile, and speed dialed my daughter. And then looked up to see in front of me, what seemed like six lanes of traffic, on a two lane road to nowhere. The empty pavements beckoned, and I thought that I may as well get down, and foot it home, since I was near enough to my house. The driver seemed to have read my thoughts. To my utter horror, that very moment, with a determined and expert swing of the handle bar, he drove onto the pavement. And away we careened over the pave stones, swinging past lamp posts, letter boxes, dustbins and the odd terrified pedestrian. The squawks from the phone dangling limply from my fingers, reminded me that I had called my daughter, but for what, I couldn’t quite remember. Help maybe? Anyway, in a rapid and breathless staccato, as I hadn’t drawn up my Will, I told her that since I was surely on my way to meeting my Maker, I wanted to settle my affairs. Then, having fairly distributed my prized possessions between my children and grandchildren, I ended my call with, “Remember, my diamonds are only to be shared between the girls!” Satisfied, I resigned myself to my inevitable end!
In later years, my family never allowed me to forget the memorable experiences I had had on my autoriksha adventures. Thankfully, with the advent of the city’s Metro rail, those nightmarish trips were a thing of the past. Now if I needed to use public transport, I traveled in the clean airconditioned coaches of the Metro, or the city’s comfortable buses. And those autos? To keep my hand in, so to say, I sometimes do catch one, to be taken on the occasional ride!