February 18, 2012

Down with Autocracy

When you say ‘auto’ in the west and when u say ‘auto’ in India, there is a ‘wheel’ of a difference. If it stands for the 4 wheeled wonder called automobile there, here it stands for our very own Autorickshaw – short of a wheel, yet nothing short of a wonder . No matter who you are or which part of India you hail from, you have been a part of it. An orthodox Mallu may call it ‘Oto’ while a typical Tamilian may say, ‘Aato’. A quintessential Mumbaikar may simply refer to it as ‘rickshaa’ only to be told by a Delhite that ‘auto’ and ‘rickshaa’ are 2 different things! (auto is the mechanized one while rickshaa is the cycle version. Lol!). Even the colors vary from place to place. Yet, India is the living embodiment of a cliché called Unity in Diversity. So no matter how differently we call it or paint it, we are all united by the fact that we are at the mercy of the animals who drive them. The fact that we have become victims of what I like to call an ‘Autocracy within a democracy.’

The prospect of travelling in an autorickshaw scares the hell out of me today. My BP goes up. I freak out. I get paranoid. Even delusional sometimes. And ever since I’ve set foot in Delhi, my condition has just got worse. Personally, I have no problems with the vehicle per se. I am okay with its engineering which allows it to wade through the thickest of traffic almost seamlessly. But what I do have a problem with is the cunning foxes who drive them.

And boy..They come in all kinds, don’t they?! 

First of all, there are those who wouldn’t give a shit about your urgency and just zoom past you irrespective of how long you stretch your hand from the roadside. Even if your hand was as long as a check post you wouldn’t be able to stop them. They would race through the roads as if they are racing against time to answer an emergency call. Whose call? Wife’s or nature’s? I don’t know. But certainly not yours.

Let’s say after several failed attempts at stopping these Michael (Rick) Shawmachers, you happen to be lucky and God answers your fervent prayers. I doubt if prayer is the right word. Coz though it starts off like one, it usually ends with the unspeakables. (Something like, “Oh God..please send me an auto..(vroooom!)..f***! son of a *****! ). So God has answered your ahem..’prayers’ and sent you a man with the basic courtesy of slowing down his auto at the sight of a desperately stretched hand. You look at him all tired and say, ”Green Park” expecting an approval. This is where I introduce you to the 2nd  kind of the lot. 

This guy would scan you from head to toe and give you this look. As though you are some sort of a fly that accidentally went fishing in his rice plate! (Gosh..I’ve seen it. Even the meanest of my professors never gave me that look .) You then try to put up your signature face (you know, the one with pity written all over it) But doesn’t work. He would just look away with cold disdain and buzz off never to come back again. Waah! Kya style hai. He could be the next Kancha Cheema.

Now you are battered and bruised and have given up hope. Your arms are aching from being stretched and are crying to be left alone. But still, you muster some courage to stretch a weak hand although strong enough to make an (apparently) interested auto driver to stop by you. The man greets you with a smile lighting up your expectation all the more. And you tell him, “Bhaiyyaa, Green Park chalo” And then.. the smile starts fading away. Before it fades away further, you tell him, “It’s nearby only bhaiyya”..Still fading…Now you panic ”Par bhaiyya, You will get return fare from there too easily”..all the more fading..”Arey yaar! It’s in Delhi only damn it!”…aaand.. the smile’s gone!.. He nods, pulls the stick up with a flourish kicking the engine to life and puff! Off he vanishes. into thin air .And you stand there.. having just faced an invisible yet the most agonizing middle finger of your life!

Alright. By this time, it’s understandable if you have lost faith in your luck, your institution, your system. You have even started questioning the very reason for your existence. But being an Indian, you still haven’t reached that level of desperation yet. The kinda desperation where you just take out your cell phone and dial out to the local call taxi number. Coz, Miserliness, you know, is in our blood . And you still want to gamble. So this time you pass the previous stage and actually start discussing fares. Enter the 4th kind.

“Bhaiyaa, Green Park chalo”. The man then quotes a price. You fire back, “We are not making a deal here man. Turn on the meter (yes they exist in this part of the world, that too, digital!)”  He expresses his hesitation to use a meter in different ways although the underlying message is loud and clear . ”I am not leaving until I take you for a ride mate.” Now if only he meant ‘ride’ in the literal sense and not figurative. But you are just as adamant as him. All the bargaining goes in vain and the deal falls flat leaving you to wait for the 5th kind.

Now these guys are the so called good guys. They would stop by you, smile at you, politely ask for your destination and obediently turn on the meter and start driving. But the fun starts after that. You’ve had a long day at work, your boss has been screaming at you, you haven’t been able to call up your girlfriend, you have just put up with 4 different kinds of scumbags. How you wish you could just sit back quietly on the rickety cushions of the auto and relax for a few moments. That’s when the ‘dhikchik dhikchik’ radio nearly throws you off your mental cliff! All pissed, you ask your driver to turn it off for once. And he does. But the ‘good’ man that he is, ain’t likely to give up on his goodness yet. He’d look at you through the mirror and start narrating stories of his escapades as an autodriver. He would start bitching about the grueling traffic, honking horns and lack of discipline among the young autodrivers of today even as your own auto narrowly misses a truck coming your way! And you are left with no choice but to continue to look at the mirror and nod at the load of crap he is throwing at you with a sheapish smile. You are actually saying, “Could you please shut the f*** up?” But it unwillingly comes out of your mouth in the form of “Haan ji..sahi hai bhaiyaa..jee bilkul..”

Finally you do reach Green Park. However this guy isn’t done yet. Now starts the real deal. You look at the meter and it says Rs. 42. Fine. You doff him a 50 rupee note and stand there. But then all you get in return is a blank stare. “Give me 2 rupees change” he says. Which you obviously don’t have. Only to realize that it’s time for the dreaded DADS to come into play. By the way, DADS is just a term I coined for a system which exists in this city. Not in theory but in practice. It stands for Delhi Auto Decimal System. The auto drivers resort to it to settle disputes such as these. To give you an example of the norms of DADS, if your fare is Rs.42, it will be rounded off to the nearest multiple of 5 greater than or equal to your fare. Slow at Math? Okay. It means 42 becomes 45. Plain and simple. And an unspoken rule of DADS is, as a passenger you have no right to even wonder why 42 can’t be rounded off to 40 instead! Howzatt for a system?! Cricket fans would call it ‘Duckworth Lewis ka Baap’. No? J

The next day, things have gone well in your life. You’ve had a good day at work. Your girlfriend is happy with you. And to top it all, God has promised to send you the 6th and the last kind of auto drivers. The noble kind. You hop into the auto, the meter is turned on..The radio’s off..the driver’s not saying a word. Total silence. All good? No No. How could it be? After all you are in India and even worse, travelling in an auto!

Slowly, fear creeps in. You start looking at the meter. Your auto is rushing past gorgeous girls, your favorite SUV. But you have no time for all that. All through the journey, your eyes are transfixed on the meter. tracking its movement and thinking, “What if it’s tampered!” However, you reach Green Park   with no fuss and gladly get the 8 rupees back in return for the 50 rupee note. And that is when you sigh and regret wasting what could have been your first truly memorable auto ride in Delhi. But the very next minute you consider yourself blessed. Coz even if the meter was rigged, you'd only have to pay 10 more bucks. While in Chennai, (where they've heard of meters only in fairy tales), your friend would be paying 10 times the amount for the same distance!  Aal izz well. ;-)