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.