Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Autorickshaw Diaries

Auto - rickshaws are those ubiquitous three wheeled juggernauts that run around Indian roads ferrying passengers from across the farthest points of a city or a town. These black and yellow machines which recently change colours to a more environmental friendly green and yellow run by private operators act as vital supplements to the burgeoning issue of public transportation. 

In some parts of town where public transportation operated by Government is inefficient or just not enough to cater to people's needs, these little automobiles come to the rescue and are most suited to cover short distances on routes that generally do not appear on the bus map. 

These 3 wheelers are spacious enough for 3 average sized adults to travel in relative comfort. Its 150 CC petrol / CNG fired engine is powerful enough to pull you through some really steep roads. When it comes to air conditioning, you are in for a pleasant surprise as you are privileged with fresh natural air in 360 degree surround. 

Although, these common man's transport do have an excuse of shock absorption in built in them, please do not keep your expectations high when you travel India's famous pot hole ridden lanes in these. 

These 'Autos' come equipped with a customised Made in India taxi meter which runs much faster than these autos themselves. Of course, one might say that a ride in relative comfort comes with a premium.

All this, was about the machine. A machine is incomplete without a man. An ride on the autorickshaw is made most memorable by the experience one derives from the interaction with the rider or the driver. Like most men, autorickshaw drivers range from downright obnoxious to interesting and sometimes even inspiring. 

I recall an incident when I was just a boy of 11 - 12 years. I had just collected my marks - sheet from my school and my mother had kept me company. We were on our way back home in one of those spacious BMTC buses & while disembarking the bus my shell shocked mum suddenly realised that her vanity bag had been flicked off by some extremely stealthy pick pocket. Unfortunately for us, that bag had money, keys to our house, my mum's credit & identity cards and other stuff. My mum somehow got us both home with her presence of mind. Those were the days before the mobile revolution took India by storm. So there was no one we could contact on emergency except for dad. After convincing a nearby shopkeeper that we had really been victims of a smooth criminal, we could call and inform our dad from a pubic telephone and we went home to just grumble over the day's happenings. 
The next day my mum was in for a very pleasant surprise. While at work, she received a call from an acquaintance of ours from whom we regularly bought items for the kitchen. There was good news on the other end. Her stolen purse was found and they were in its possession. Most of the things were in place except of course for some petty cash. Apparently, the thief had used an autorickshaw after the successful 'heist', took out the money and abandoned the bag for which he found no real use. This honest autorickshaw driver who found the bag lying on the passenger seat, took the pain to thoroughly search the belly of the bag and found an invoice belonging to a shop from whom our family used to buy regularly. Though not in his regular route, this good samaritan traced this shop and handed over the bag after much assurance from our acquaintance that the bag would be handed over to its true owner. Mum finally got back her bag with everything intact. Her only grouse was that she could not personally thank this guardian angel. 

This is one of our fondest memories of an autorickshaw and I sincerely wish this honest human being a good life.

There are several other incidents that we would have all heard of how gentlemen autorickshaw drivers have come to the rescue of pregnant women, answered to calls of distress by people being mugged by robbers and even have provided vital leads to police investigating cases. The autorickshaw drivers spend more time on the road than at home and they come across practically all genre of people making use of their services. Most of them would have developed a skill set that enables them to identify the true nature of a person just like the cops have an aptitude to sniff out a criminal from a crowd.

It is also quite interesting the topics that these autorickshaw drivers pick out for discussion. Usually on people's road sense, the harassment they face from the police, deadly affiliations some of their colleagues who have deserted the path of hard work and righteousness that have tarnished the names of their entire fraternity, politics and of course movies. You get more friendly with them and generally they open up their lives in front of you. It is surprising that this 'career' is taken up mostly out of a need rather than out of choice by men belonging to communities and from family backgrounds that stand in stark contrast to the life one can lead by becoming an autorickshaw driver. One often hears about many graduates and even post graduates who believe in leading an honest life becoming rickshaw drivers when society could not provide them with a deserving job.

Autorickshaws provide a respite to many criminals on the path to rehabilitation. The police takes it as a moral responsibility to put back convicted outlaws into mainstream society and tie up with banks & NGOs to sponsor such schemes to help them lead a respectable and honest life.

The professional name of an autorickshaw driver has taken a royal nose dive before the public eye because of the unscrupulous ways of a few wrong doers who believe in holding passengers to ransom, purposely mislead tourists and newcomers to town, flex their muscle & might before the government and threaten to go on flash strikes quite frequently to force the authorities to meekly accept their demands. Today, the public in general have stopped sympathizing with this fraternity as a whole due to the drastic shift in the majority's attitude and dipping servitude, though a few - very few good samaritans still continue to work old school i.e. in the honest way and earn a well deserved livelihood.

I would appreciate if you could all share your best or worst moments in / with the autorickshaw. Maybe a few more good stories will change our bespectacled perception about this class of working men. 

All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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