The Venus Flytrap: Petty Change


I like auto drivers. I really do. I’ve met some very nice ones, and employ the services of the yellow brigade on an almost daily basis. Three years of quarrelling, fleecing and one slightly infamous incident with a live chicken in the backseat have neither made me learn how to drive nor kept me homebound unless chauffeured. (The bus? Another story.) I’ve long accepted that I live in a mafia town – and while I can ignore the sambhar mafia, the maami mafia, the bad restaurant music mafia, the Tambrahm Twitter mafia and various other such coteries, the auto mafia has, if not my loyalty, at least my cooperation.

But not without grumbling.

The trick to negotiating life in a mafia town is to claim the small victories. Particularly the hard-boiled ones. Those warm fuzzy moments when the auto driver bypasses the haggling repartee and accepts your first quote, or doesn’t charge you at all and attains moksha immediately are either (a) rare or (b) fantasies you invent to drown out his bitching. All that is just petty change. Fine if it suits you, but it’s fun to just let him keep it.

And let him have it, too. Some people enjoy the victories that end in a blaze of cussing, working out suppressed aggression, or working it up, so they stay edgy and cutthroat for the rest of their office hours. Some like a spot of intimidation, some rude mudras and grimacing perhaps – nothing like a shot of mock macho to start the day. For some, if it doesn’t end in a movie-style chase, it’s not even worth it.

Because, let’s face it, no one who can afford to take autos at all needs that ten rupees enough for that much drama. He knows it, and so do we. The time-waste tango takes two. All that effort for a matter of principle – wouldn’t it be interesting if we applied the same in situations with more at stake?

Personally, what I claim as a victory is having the last word. I have a standard line for when I’m refused the change I’m rightfully due. It loses its histrionic imperiousness in English, but retains its underlying intent to shame philosophically: “If you lie to and cheat people like this, the money you earn won’t stay in your hands”. And with that I saunter off on the moral high ground. My karmic smugness gets further boosted by giving the same amount I was ripped off to the next beggar I encounter.

In my imagination, the auto driver’s conscience is a prickly one. This isn’t wishful thinking. As I said, its bad apples aside, I like the auto mafia. They work hard, stay loyal to each other, have inspiringly syncretic dashboard pantheons – and no one else north of Pondicherry loves that yellow ochre as much as I and these guys do. In a city as harsh as Chennai, they are my intrepid navigators. Holidaying here once years ago, I looked over my photographs and noted how ubiquitous autorickshaws were, noting in a journal entry how they “enter frame after frame of my pictures like seashells caught in a net for fish”. Love it or loathe it, they are the city’s spine. Its ethos – ours – owes more to them than any small change can adequately convey.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

8 responses »

  1. Maami mafia and Tambrahm twitter mafia?
    Next time you find yourself in Triplicane, watch out for the “puliyodarai packet” missiles. You’re in trouble, lady!

  2. A few casual references to Rajinikanth during the trip also tend to decrease haggling times at the end, I’ve found.

    New reader here. Really enjoying your blog so far; you write brilliantly. That said, I would rather like to hear more about the live-chicken-in-the-backseat incident :p

  3. Barath – Hahaha!

    Arjun – Thanks! I actually did write about that incident for The Venus Flytrap. Look in the page (linked at the top of this blog) where I archive the column; if I remember right, it’s called “Domestic Travel”. Please keep dropping by!

  4. really funny. and sweet.

    since my blog was off all this while, i think i read your column after a few weeks. had missed it, of course and so good to know it still makes me feel the same way: sure to have a good read.

  5. The only column I read in The new Indian Express is yours. Your writing is brilliant and its always great to read them. Keep it up.
    Will try to buy and your books sometime when in Madras. And why are you so obsessed with Madras, there is an interesting world beyond that city in this state you know. Do try and explore more.

  6. Abhimanyu – Thank you! :)

    Sandeep – That is high praise – thank you! As for the question of Madras – it’s only because I hate this city and feel chained here. In the past year and a half I’ve travelled extensively within the state – it’s always a pleasure to get out of this town. Some of my columns have reflected these travels; otherwise, my poetry has. Do keep an eye out for some poems that will be published soon, inspired by my time in the Cauvery Delta and the Pondicherry border. I will update this blog with the link when they are published.

  7. last week, after an unpleasant ride in an auto I thought ‘now, i’d really like to know what Sharanya would have to say about something like this?’

    uncanny human circuitry, i suppose, Sharanya. thank you.

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