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Monday, January 30, 2006

And then the autorickshaw driver said...

I decided to head out for lunch in the afternoon, and so what better place to go than somewhere near a friend's place. How's that for a detailed description, eh? Being the sort of distance that one cannot really walk, but at the same time, if one really considered all the possibilities, was not worth taking an autorickshaw (auto) to cover, it took me a few seconds to figure out my next move.

So, as I walked down the street I decided to see if there was a bus at hand, but no sooner had I completed that thought I pushed it aside. It would take too long to travel by bus. So, the next best thing was the long-standing, ever-faithful Bajaj autorickshaw to the rescue. And there's this thing about catching an "auto-fellow" as he (because most of the ones I've seen, in fact, all of them have been men) is commonly known. That is, you have to be aware of the psyche to some extent. Now I don't claim to be an expert or even an amateur because it's not the kind of "study" one should boast of, and it means I spend too much of my life in these three-wheeling machines. Yet, it must be said that as you interact with them more and more, and if nothing else because we are all 'human beings', you begin to discover a pattern in the kind of things that they will or will not do in a given situation. I guess it's like second guessing them...or attempting to.

Now back to the story, and pardon the digression, there are some 'fundamental' truths that exist when interacting with the average autorickshaw driver.

1) When appoaching an auto at an 'auto-stand', it is important to remember that unless the distance you wish to travel exceeds about five kilometers or is otherwise 'busy' assuring him of a passenger once you get down/out, the driver will either refuse you or he will try his luck and 'name his price'. Bangalore has attempted to address this issue by setting up a couple of 'Pre-Paid' auto-stands...which, apparently it is still up to the auto-driver to participate in; the effort at standardization, that is.

2) To address the issue raised in the previous point, you should try and catch an auto that has either just dropped its passengers right in front of you, or one of the guys who is 'slowly rolling by'. However, and you have to apply your mind to this one, if you're asking to go in the opposite direction then be prepared for the consequences listed in the previous point.

3) Always expect auto-drivers to politely inquire as to where you want to go, but expect them to break eye contact and treat you like a pariah (check out this word...it's comes to us from Tamil) when they refuse you. It's annoying for a person to not make eye contact with me when s/he says no...and I'm not even asking for an explanation dammit!

4) Like snowflakes or finger prints, or even lightning, which for the most part never strikes twice in the same place, no two 'meters' will ever give you the same reading. That is to say, no matter how many times you travel the same distance using the same exact route as the day before, you will end up either paying more or less because, as we like to say here in India, "It is like that wonly."

5) As with anything else in this life, prepare to be surprised by the one auto-driver who is actually a nice guy, doesn't ask you for any more than the meter shows, and has a surprisingly honest meter. A diamond in the rough, no doubt, but there is always this possibility...that's the 'hope' that leads us to live another day in spite of what horrors took place the day before.

Oh, and this list isn't exhaustive. Just a few observations, that's all.

So there I was trying to catch an auto to go the place-near-a-friend's-place, as I mentioned at the beginning. And sure enough, I saw a couple of autos just 'hanging', which meant they immediately fell into the 'last resort' category. In a matter of seconds, an auto pulled up right in front of me, and the passenger jumped out. As he paid the driver, I slipped in and asked him if he was willing to take me to my destination. He considered the name of the place and its relative distance momentarily, and then nodded with a half yes-half "get in" gesture. Occasionally, such a gesture is accompanied by a Neanderthal grunt. But not this time, thankfully.

And he was pretty fast too. And there are times when I appreciate the use of speed with good control, especially when it comes to driving...like when my man Oz is at the wheel. And there are times when I will engage the auto-driver in a seemingly inane topic of conversation. But I find that it helps ease their nerves, unless of course the topic is a hotly debated one, or one that has several emotional strings attached, so to speak. An example of the second kind of topic? "What's wrong with the traffic in this city?" However, there are those guys who prefer to drive than talk, and I totally respect that too. So, "our man" who seemed to be the very focused type was trying to get me from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible and in one piece. And we arrived at my destination most promptly, so I paid him a 'round' number and told him to keep the change, like they do in the movies. Then I said "Thank You." Now, doing this goes back to the whole 'decency' thing that I talked about in the previous post, where I do make a sincere effort to treat people around me as human beings as opposed to objects, or in some way confusing their role/function/job with who they are. You know da kine...people who say things like, "All these servants are alike..." or "These auto-fellows..." as I said at the beginning... ;-)

So, like I was saying, I thanked the guy. And it's usually been the case that the driver will appreciate (or not) the few extra bucks and flash you a toothy grin by saying "Thank You" in return. Or sometimes they seem to fold over and die in some sort of mock embarassment, and in doing so hardly a sound escapes their lips. But, and much to my pleasant surprise/astonishment "our man" responded with a most professional sounding, and impeccably pronounced "You're welcome". My reaction? I took a step back to take another look at him, and because I was so overwhelmed with this most unexpected example of politesse, all I managed was a guffaw of sorts. I was smiling though, but I was in a hurry otherwise I swear I would have shook his hand and asked him if he wanted to grab some tea or something...you know, get to know this guy a little better.

And that's all I have to say about that. Maybe I go looking for surprises in all the wrong places. But believe you me, if you were there it would have knocked your socks off too! So, there is hope after all...and human decency isn't a myth.
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