Enthusiasms: Auto at Your Service!
A warm-hearted paean to the common man or woman’s conveyance in India—the ubiquitous, multitasking autorickshaw!
Planning a trip to India? Splendid!
Tell me, when in India, what is your chosen mode of transport within a city or town? I hope it is not always the choreographed scheme of cars and cabs. If you like the wind in your face and a first-hand feel of the place, then choosing to ride in that three-wheeled wonder, the autorickshaw, should top the list.
Available at nearly every street corner, even in the wee hours, all you need to do is wave the hand or call ‘Auto!’ and they are at your service. My relatives and friends who visit often find a ride in these woven into their itinerary, fondly addressing them as Rick (interchangeable for the man and the machine).
Need to go shopping, to the salon, or the sabzi mandi? Rick will ferry you. Want to catch the latest flick? Rick always shares your enthusiasm. Lost your way? Trust his directions. Rick knows the way like the back of his hand, zipping across the streets, evading traffic and bottlenecks. Long distance or short, you can count on Rick.
A thrilling ride
From the word go, the ride has the promise of thrill and adventure with an unmatched take-off: right across potholes and even the curb if they fancy! Rick is the only form of transport in India that can use the road along with other vehicles and deem it perfectly lawful to share the footpath with the pedestrians. The motto is clear: ferry the passenger as quickly as you can in the shortest possible route—a factor that I suspect has been copied by the GPS providers.
No traffic jam can intimidate Rick. Gauging it at a glance, he revs his self-designed gali-map, and zoom, you fly past side lanes, totally unknown till then, only to reach the destination without a bother. The rerouting is instant, putting Google maps to shame and the experience worth any number of bragging rights.
An ardent fan
My patronage of the amazing autorickshaw is so extensive that I hardly miss owning a vehicle! Commuting in my city, Bengaluru, has been a breeze, thanks to my handlebar wielding, khaki-clad annas (bros), who take me around, come rain or shine.
By far, my travels by the Bengaluru autos have been smooth: meters friendly, licenses neatly displayed, well maintained interiors (with catchy captions and hanging artifacts to match). I’m even treated to nonstop music of their choice. They are excellent local guides, too.
I rarely miss the opportunity to take a ride when I am travelling outside my city, too. The varied experiences across the states add an element of novelty.
In the city of Hyderabad, auto rides have helped me polish my soft skills. Here, they are men of few words and communicate mostly with their looks—a ‘take it or leave it’ policy. The deal is settled before the trip (despite meters indicating their fare), often saving a spat later.
In the north, a very casual and inviting “Aa jao behenji, zaroor zaroor” are oft-repeated words, as you are sped across to your destination.
When in Chennai, an inability to communicate in the local language worked to my disadvantage. It irked thambi (little brother) so much that he deemed it fit to teach me a lesson by taking me in circles before dropping me off at the destination. So now every time I visit the city, I practice a few sentences, days in advance, by tuning in to all the Tamil TV channels!
The rides in the villages and adjoining towns are glorious, too; the rough terrain hardly bothers me, as I immerse myself in the cool breeze blowing from green-carpeted fields and the sight of frolicking children.
Auto drivers receive a lot of flak for being tacky or curt. I was a skeptic, too, until an incident that happened a decade ago changed my perspective, warming me to the brethren.
An unplanned visit to Mysore—just on the brink of Dussehra—put us in a dilemma. With two small children in tow, we were overwhelmed upon arriving, by the thronging crowds and the surge of traffic all around. Our enthusiasm to glimpse the bedecked elephants in the procession was doomed to come to nought. As we engaged an auto to take us back to the hotel, the driver, sensing our consternation, offered his services if we so desired. Hesitantly we agreed, with the proviso to end the deal if things turned awry.
To our delight there was no need to abort our plans as Suresha, our chauffeur and guide with a gentle disposition, maneuvered through the backstreets, deftly avoiding many crowded pockets. Engaging us entirely for two days, he helped us see the pachyderms from a vantage point; a circuitous route led us to the palace, dazzling with lights; our hunger was satiated at eateries tucked away in the bylanes; and as a grand finale, he managed to seat us at the stadium to witness the rehearsal of the fireworks show.
Such was the eagerness he exhibited that he soon won our trust, converting our trip to a memorable one. Monetary compensations could hardly repay the debt of his kindness.
Over time, my travels by autos have been educative, enlightening, and adventurous—all woven into the routine commutes. I have had the pleasure of witnessing some colorful, tongue-twisting expletives directed at jaywalkers and hapless stray dogs on the street who dared to cross their path; the latest local movie gossip shared freely; some touching tales told and plenty of wisdom shared.
A popular choice
Originating as jinrikishas (Japanese for man-pulled rickshaws) in Japan, the industrial and mechanical revolutions saw them morph into motorized vehicles. By the end of 1957, Bajaj Auto not only imported them into India but began manufacturing the motorized vehicles, calling them autorickshaws—a name that has stuck. The company witnessed India fervently adopting this vehicle for its adaptability and economic viability. Soon TVS and Mahindra, too, entered the fray as manufacturers, introducing modifications and presenting autorickshaws in new avatars.
A report published in the papers indicates that autorickshaws make nearly 299 million trips a day in India. The maneuverability of a scooter, the multiple seating options, and adaptability to different terrains all make it a popular choice of transport.
The auto’s many avatars
The basic construction of this vehicle renders it quite versatile and rugged. The box-like broad metal frame is covered by a strong fabric. While in the cities it normally accommodates 2-3 passengers, in towns and villages the back of the vehicle is suitably modified with collapsible seats for 10-12 passengers. A fair amount of luggage can be stashed in the interior. Often, a basic auto module is converted entirely into a goods carrier, transporting vegetables, livestock, and other essentials to the market place.
Their services run into a long list: come national festivals, you can see them sporting the tricolor flag with great fervor; devotion to movie icons is on display by posters; local political parties utilize their services ardently to promote their announcements; they not only pick up and drop off school children but also chaperone them, striking a bond with parents.
By now you would have guessed I am a huge fan, and rightly so. But even I don’t measure up to the couple who purportedly decided to exchange marital vows in an auto! Such is the popularity of this humble vehicle that now there are finely crafted miniature versions on the display shelves of elegant shops in India’s international airport lounges. And wasn’t that an auto on the cover of actress Twinkle Khanna’s book?
That’s the magic charm Rick exudes. Long live the auto raja!
Freelance writer Susheela Srinivas relies on autorickshaws to take her around, whether she’s in Bengaluru or some other Indian city.
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