The one good thing about taking autos in Delhi – apart from not having to park them – is that you get to talk to some of the wildest people in the city. Autowalle. If you’re anything like me – a typical middle-class Delhi-ite – you probably count that as the biggest disadvantage. They’re not the most beloved lot, no. The first thing that comes to mind is probably the image of a pot-bellied, crooked-toothed, unscrupulous, greedy, smelly, horny bastard.
But after you get through the negotiation phase and slide into the preposterously designed vehicle with an exasperated look on your sweaty face, probably without realizing how much of your life you’ve cumulatively wasted arguing over 20 bucks, you promptly forget about them. It has always surprised me how people in this city can build a psychological barrier against those ‘other’ people, despite being within sneezing distance. We have the most intimate, personal conversations on that rocky backseat, as if another breathing, sweating stranger wasn’t sitting at an arm’s length. I don’t know what to make of it. Do we not care because it’s a stranger in every sense, removed from our reality; or do we refuse to recognize their existence because we’ve dehumanized them completely? Either way, I often find myself uncomfortable with these inferences.
Long ago, I used to fantasize about this movie. An auto driver who hears a couple’s conversation, starts following them around, gets involved in a tangled web of their mundane bullshit (which seems infinitely exciting to him), and kills himself in the end, obviously. The Lives of Others in South Delhi. Just not as good, even in my fantasies.
Yesterday, I found myself stuck in an auto stuck in a jam for an hour. Since we were in it together, I started a conversation. When you do that, you can often feel their joy as the dull monotony of being honked at by assholes in white SUVs is disrupted, and all kinds of shit comes flowing out. It’s shockingly interesting. The monologue went around Aamir Khan, the dignity of Parliament, Rahul Gandhi, the absurdity of stoning buses, diesel subsidies, greed and Delhi weddings. He was quite informed and talked objectively, without swearing much (we assume them to be illiterate fools, don’t we.)
Today, I had the good fortune of finding one who never, ever, not goes by the meter. He railed against the autowalla community in general, and told me how he starts work at 7 in the morning, goes wherever the savaari asks him to go – by the meter – and returns home at 5 with ice cream for his kids. Two days ago, I met one who told me he doesn’t just take anybody anywhere. He only takes the ‘good’ people. He can look at their faces and tell if they’re goonde, chor or haraami. And he only goes to respectable places – no ‘dirty’ areas. I admit I felt somewhat flattered and proud to have met these strict requirements.
I seldom spend more than 5 seconds haggling. It’s not about the ten bucks, we say; it’s about the principle. It’s about their greed. And we can’t just start giving away money to everyone who asks for it. We have earned it after all. We’re not greedy for more than we get, more than we deserve, are we? God, no. Why should they be? But whatever your principles may be, it’s slightly difficult to fight over 10 Rupees, when the dinner you just left unfinished cost more than half the country’s monthly wages.
Oh yes, there’s another thing. Some of them play crappy old Hindi songs really loud. The one last night played “Tere dar par sanam chale aaye”. Where else would you hear that?
“Chale aaye. Chale aaye.”