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.