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.

The Venus Flytrap: “Domestic” Travel

I don’t have a driving license for any vehicle. Nor do I know how to drive, since the two don’t necessarily go arm in arm (the long arm of the law, that is). I’m always either shotgun rider (a far too cool term for the cowardly, lazy or bourgeois) or paying passenger.

In India, I’m a strictly autorickshaw person. They’re a fun ride and a shade of ochre which blinds anyone who isn’t in kindergarten or incurably kitsch (you can decide which category I fall under). Also, unlike other modes of public transport, there’s no jostling for space when travelling alone.


A few weeks ago, I was negotiating the usual morning rush, doing the bargaining rigmarole and then jumping into the first auto that quoted a reasonable fee. As soon as I got in, I felt distinctly uncomfortable. My instincts have gotten me out of various scenarios – everything from vengeful conspiracy to death by twin falling coconuts – in the past, so I shifted closer to the door.

So there I was for the better part of a fifteen minute ride, vaguely wondering what urban-legend-come-true story I might have become the protagonist of, when I suddenly noticed the plastic bag behind me, in the cubbyhole at the back of the seat, shift.

Wind, I figured. Then it shifted again.

And once more, violently.

I couldn’t ignore anymore that this plastic bag was dancing. “Um, what’s in this bag?” I asked the driver.

He turned around. “A chicken.”

Let’s just say that between my general ornithophobia and my general shock that a live creature had been suffocating beside my head the entire ride, it was a good thing we were in traffic at the time.

I asked friends what the strangest finds and sights they have encountered on public transportation are. Several people cited a man in his underwear who used to frequent the now-defunct pink (kitsch!) Bas Minis of 1990’s Kuala Lumpur. One person told me about finding a pornographic CD in the back of a taxi – with pregnant women on the cover. But he’s a good, unblemished virginal type, so he may have seen a breastfeeding instruction video for all I know, which I suppose would be equally odd.

A neighbour I knew at thirteen told me she had seen a couple having sex on a bus, but I’m pretty sure she was exaggerating. Still, someone certainly witnessed some gratuitous activity on a Singaporean train, because they braved some hefty fines to graffiti on one with white liquid paper, “No Humping Please”.

The last thing I want is to propagate stereotypes about marginalized communities, but one incident I was told of is too outrageous not to share. Somewhere between Bangalore and Kerala, a group of hijras boarded the train asking for money. When one man refused them, a hijra straddled him, raised her saree, shoved his head under, uttered a curse, and moved along. The man, by the way, seemed completely unruffled. The person witnessing this, however, was not.

Some finds, like the chocolate bar still shy of the expiry date a friend found on a city train, are nice. Some are plain nasty – I may not have liked my co-passenger in the auto that morning, but I’m really glad I wasn’t the one who found a soiled pair of women’s panties under her seat on a plane!

Still, since the chicken incident, I try to sneak a look behind the seat as I enter autos.

The only thing is, if I ever spot a plastic bag back there, I’m not sure just how to ask the driver if, by any chance, he happens to have a live chicken on board.

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