Auto rickshaws are one of the prime forms of transportation in India. Whichever city you go in India, Autos are there. They are cheaper than taxis and easy to use. Easy to use because you just proclaim “Hey Auto!” or just clap your hands and say “Auto!” and then you are taken care of. They run on three wheels and an engine that is mostly used for mowing lawns in the western countries. Other characteristics are they have a very small turn radius and can be turned in circles at the same spot. They are also known for pugunthufying (entering) and going within a cycle gap (A Gap just as wide to let a Bike Go).
With so much interesting characteristics, it is the driver of the coveted vehicle that makes the experience of riding in an auto a complete one. Autos are the same everywhere, but the drivers are different people and that is what makes it different each time. Drivers also vary by cities, it’s the culture that makes them different in various cities. I personally have experienced auto rides in 4 cities in India – Pune, Bangalore, Chennai and Madurai.
How do they react? How do they deal with customers? Well, here they are:
I lived in Pune for about 6 months during my training days. The office was about 4 kms from my Apartment in Kondhwa and just over a Km from MG Road. Everytime you call for an auto to Kondhwa, the pan chewing Auto Driver gives the same excuse from the Universal book of Excuses for Autowallas, Vol 2 Part 1 – “Waapas Khaali aana hai !” ( I have to come back empty from Kondhwa if I have to take you there). But some autowallas are smart or rather irritatingly smart:
“Clap Clap, Auto! Kondhwa Jaana hai (Please take me to Kondhwa)”
“Kondhwa nahin, MG Road chalega? (I can’t come to Kondhwa but I can take you to MG Road)”
Yes, we were pissed several times when we got the same reply. For some reason they preferred to take us to MG Road rather than any other destination. I guess it wouldn’t have mattered even if we requested a ride to the Moon, he would have still said “Waapas Khali aana hai, MG Road Chalega?”.
But one day, we really wanted to go to MG Road. It was Friday and we planned a movie and we really really had to go to MG Road.
“Clap Clap, Auto! MG Road ?”
“Nahin, Kondhwa chalega?”
“Daaai … ennada Kalaikkireengala?” (are you teasing?). Me and a friend of mine stood there shouting in Tamil after an outrageous 2 line conversation. Of course the Auto driver was petrified, but we were super pissed after being shot with an arrow of O.Henry twist on our faces.
Bangalore autos are usually cut and right to the point. They rarely talk, they just nod their heads, sign us to sit and turn on the meter with the “Cling” noise and move on. But they are very notorious to not carry change. They also like to round things off. So Rs. 9 usually rounded off to Rs. 10. You never get your 1 Rupee back. You would be left to feel like Stephen Leacock in My Lost Dollar. As the inflation goes up you will lose more rupees to Bangalore auto than before.
BPOs are another story. The rise of BPOs has created a huge market for “Meter Top Money” (Meter Mela Pottu tharrathu) for Autowallas. BPO employees (with exceptions of course) do not think for a second time before giving away a huge tip along with their auto fare. Once, I was getting ready to climb an auto after a BPO employee was dropped off and I couldn’t help but notice that the BPO employee handed off Rs. 100 for a Rs. 65 autofare. The auto driver thanked with a wide open smile after getting more than 50% bonus. I slowly asked him if he was going to put the meter and he gave a funny stare as he “Cling”ed the meter. I guess I saw a bubble on top of his head that said, “Cheapo!”.
Perhaps Economic Times should write an article on this and NDTV should conduct a debate on “We the people” (Is this still being aired?)
“Ooyee, Kaidhei, Kasmalam, Kaila kedecha naariruva” (Donkey, “Kasmalam”, if I get hold of you, I will make you stink) are the typical (or probably the only) vocabulary of auto drivers from Chennai. Some sophisticated individuals yell “Savugrakhi, Ootla sollitu vandhiya” (Death Case, did you bid farewell to your people at home?). Fortunately it is not targeted towards the customer. “Nee kundhu paa” ( You please sit down) is what they say to customers.
They have a certain characteristic in the way they speak to customers. The correct word to describe it is “Thenavattu”, which I guess it means “arrogance” (or is there a better translation for this?). They don’t throw in a respect word as a suffix like “What sir, please sir”, they just abruptly go “Enna pa” (What Guy/Man) “Enna ma” (What girl/Woman). They have a unique property of identifying a customer. Within a few glimpses of their customer they can find out if he/she belongs to Chennai or is an outsider. If you are an outsider it is probably written so on your forehead (Metaphorically) and may be that’s how it is known to them. You will be taken for a ride in most cases. In order to extract more money on the meter, you may be shown around some sightseeing spots once, twice, thrice until you realize he is doing that.
But these days, Chennai is too crowded and Auto drivers are tired of taking you around for sight seeing, so they simply demand what they would usually get by doing that sight seeing. Either that or they just pre heat their meter in their brand new panasonic Microwave oven before heading to work for the day. The meter then keeps itself warm in Chennai heat. Rates usually start at 50 and they tend to demand multiples of 50 thereafter, negotiations are futile as you may be asked to take a hike. A trip from Mount Road to Chromepet costed me Rs. 300 recently. But I guess it was worth giving on that day because of a terrible traffic situation till Guindy.
Also, expect to see a Photograph of Superstar Rajinikanth in the front of the Auto Rickshaw or sometimes in the inside with a garland.
This is my favorite city for riding the Auto, not because it is my hometown but because the experience of riding the auto is much more pleasant. But again, you have to be either Tamil speaking or a friend of Tamil speaking or a Local to get the pleasantries.
Fares start at Rs. 20. Since Madurai is a small town and all your places to go are nearby you would not be spending much at all if you take the Auto. In fact it is so convenient that most people just hire an Auto for the day and pay a 100 to 200 depending on the number of trips.
If you are a local living near the auto stand, the auto driver will probably know you after a couple of trips. In such cases, fares are not negotiated. They just take what you give usually, they don’t ask for more, if you give them more they happily take it with a Thanks. The place where a Meter has to be there will only have Nitrogen, Oxygen, CO2 and rare gases.
Their cordiality is unbeatable. They are very respectful in their approach, they add the “Sir/Amma (Madam)” suffix when they refer you. They carry cell phones these days and they can get to you within a few minutes if they are in the vicinity, to pick you up for the ride. Luggage handling is not a problem at all, they are always there to lend a helping hand. These are some luxuries of being a local and using their service regularly.
As opposed to Chennai Autos, Autowallas in Madurai do not have a lot of Rajinikanth photos in their vehicle. You can see a lot of Puratchi Thalaivar (Revolutionary Leader) Dr. M.G.R photos with Garland and Incense sticks. Some of them were also spotted carrying Ajith or Vijay photos but M.G.R still outnumbers them. A recent re-release of the yesteryear movie of M.G.R – Adimai Penn was grandly celebrated by several fans including Auto Drivers with a 10,000 Wala Fire cracker on the road. Yes, the man is still alive there and he can still win the elections in Madurai.
Though they have all these differences, there is one thing that unites them everywhere. It is their driving style. This is a universal law for Autorickshaw drivers – To Drive at will and To Drive all over. It is their place, their road, their traffic, their Game and that is exactly how they will drive.
“The Journey may be rough, but the destination is always reached” – Yours Truly.