Friday, 27 April 2007

Fancy auto-rickshaws and the feeling of freedom


Who hasn't set foot in an auto-rickshaw in India?

It was the ultimate symbol of luxurious drive for middle-class until the 80s when the Maruti car arrived on the scene.

Until then an auto ride was something every family member cherished. The three-wheeler auto is a unique vehicle, made to suit Indian conditions and the great Indian family.

Kamlesh, 30, has a small television set fitted in the auto apart from a three-in-one stereo and speakers. The mini TV runs on a 12 volte battery.

"I have to take extra care of my auto as things can be stolen", he says. The purpose is to entertain the passengers and also attract others. 'Earlier I drove a minibus but auto gives you immense satisfaction and a feeling of independence'.

Most auto-rickshaw owners decorate their autos and waiting for passengers, often sleep on the seats. The front seat is large and in some cities two persons sit on either side of the driver.

All autos are unique and this particular auto in photo (a coach it claims itself!) is no exception. Many auto-rickshaw drivers are quite well educated. 'After graduation I tried hard to get a job but nothing worked for me and I decided to drive an auto as I don't have to listen to any maalik's orders', says Balbir, another auto-rickshaw driver.

'Anyday I can enjoy a holiday as I am both the owner and worker', he laughs. Also traffic police rarely challan an auto. They focus more on buses, trucks and taxis.

Auto-rickshaws are safe for women compared to taxis because they are quite open and don't have doors. (I won't take anybody's crap about auto-walas being criminals).

The back side serves as advertising board for companies in many cities and also for putting up messages by local politicians.

Yes, issues about Meter remain. The ubiquituous complaint is that the auto walas charge more than the meter or that it is tampered. In Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai, I have found autos don't over charge.

In Lucknow they are cheap because it is like the tempo. They take five to six persons rather than taking you alone. Here is the photo of an auto with a heart on the back. Is it Kannada? And there is the other auto that informs you about a strike.

Kannada, is it? Clearly with the number plate KA. Of course, Bollywood is a language we all understand. And nobody needs to be told about the message given by an auto-rickshaw driver who is the fan of actress Kajol.

And nothing is more fascinating than the horn. Most of the autos still have the age-old rubber horn which the driver presses and ...does it sound pon pon!

The best thing about auto-rickshaws is their Indian-ness. The auto drivers are great talkers, they are somebody are streetsmart and still look like 'family guys'. They can tell you everything about the City.

They are the first to rush an injured person to the hospital, much before a police van comes after several phone calls to the control room and they are as ordinary as most of us.

At least, the auto gives a person the confidence that he can eke out a living, honourably, and the possibility for a poor man to aspire high and get into the middle-class.

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