I was watching a Ted Talk ‘It’s OK not to have a plan,’ by Mithila Palkar, a stunningly beautiful and talented Marathi Film actress, a couple of weeks ago. Her cup song on inspired by Anna Kendrick’s cup song from Pitch Perfect on YouTube has became hugely popular.
In her talk, she gave a lot of credit to Mumbai Rickshaw drivers (auto as it is called in Chennai) for her success in life. She said the rejection by rickshaw drivers prepared her for the tough life’s journeys that were lying ahead. I thought, if Mumbai drivers prepared you for a rough ride in life, Chennai auto drivers would prepare you for your ‘after life’ as well. I will get to that in a moment. First, I suggest you watch the song even if you don’t understand one word of Marathi. It is mesmerising.
She walks so swiftly, her curly frizzy hair bouncing in the breeze
A strand of hair fallen on left eye
Like in the rays of the setting sun, in a garden of kewada(flower plant),
A female cobra wiggled.
When we migrated to Madras in the early seventies, the city had Taxis, mostly Ambassadors and some Fiats. There would be Taxi stands everywhere and the one closest to where we lived was in Ashok Nagar. Bombay (Mumbai as it was known then) had clear demarcation for Taxis and Rickshaws. Only Taxi could ply up to Sion from South Mumbai and after that it was open to both. This continues even today.
For a decade or two, Taxi disappeared from Chennai’s stands altogether. You could see them only at Central Station and the Airport. I can’t remember when did this exactly happen but I think it must be couple of years after OPEC oil crisis which increased the petrol prices. Affordability could be one of the reasons for Taxis to die out and the vacuum was filled by Autos.
From early eighties to the time Uber and Ola came to Chennai, the residents and visitors to Madras/Chennai bore the brunt of Auto drivers’ ambition to have an income level of Bill Gates or the Tatas and Birlas just by taking the passengers for a ride or two everyday (pun intended). While the local residents who spoke the same language as the Auto drivers (not just Tamil but Madras Tamil – a unique dialect spoken in Chennai), could negotiate a reasonable fare occasionally, the people from outside, almost always were cheated.
When we were young, we would argue, reason with the auto drivers and give out a threat or two to take a ride in Auto rickshaw. My friend was an expert in making the auto drivers obey his commands. He would tell an auto driver his destination (say a northern suburb in the city). The guy would say, ‘no sir, I have to go south.” My friend wold say, ‘no problem I will come with you and get dropped at some place and take another auto.” The auto guy would immediately say, “No sir I mean I have to go in totally different direction.” Pat would come my friend’s retort, “No issues. I have decided to go with you today. Wherever you go, I will come with you.”
The Auto driver would sense this is one battle he is not going to win. He would change tactics and say, “No I am going home and not interested in a ride.” My friend would then ask him his badge number and his ‘stand.’ He would continue, “I know this police inspector Mr. ——— in your area. I will make sure you can’t ply your auto from tomorrow.” The auto guy would end up taking my friend wherever he wanted. Of course he would indeed know the names of inspectors in most of the police stations.
After I migrated out of Chennai and visited Chennai on holidays, I had lost those qualities and dreaded talking/ negotiating a fare with them. In my younger days, I would use the public transport or borrow my friends’ bikes and later would hire a cab for the whole day just to avoid a conversation with Auto drivers.
Also Pune, where I lived, had the best rickshaws and drivers in India those days. The public bus in Pune were bad, to put it mildly and very expensive. It would be cheaper to take a rickshaw if there are three people (three bus fares would be more than single auto fare). And they behaved nicely, gave back change, even the tiniest amount and took you to the smallest distances. Even children of seven or eight years age would travel in rickshaw alone. They were always safe. So whenever I came back and saw Chennai Auto drivers I would invariably fly into a rage.
One major reason for this indifferent and arrogant behaviour of auto drivers, I was told, was that, the rickshaws were owned by the local politicians and policemen. So who would you go to complain about? Every now and then you would hear an announcement from the Police Commissioner that strict action would be taken against the erring auto drivers. There would be two or three days of good behaviour and then it used to back to square one.
The best irony you could ever see was during Sabarimalai season. Sabarimalai was in international news recently so readers can connect to it. Devotees would observe 45 days of fasting, would wear black dhotis and shirts and shun tobacco and drinks and would behave at their best before taking the trip in Sabarimala. The devotees were always addressed as ‘Samy (God) by everyone and they would call everyone ‘Samy.’ Auto drivers thought this was the best way to take the gullible public for a fare. So most of them would sport a beard, wear the black dhoti and shirt and would tell passengers politely, “Samy what are you saying? How would I cheat you? See I am observing this fast for the trip to Sabarimala!” and continue their wicked ways, only this time their talks would be polite.
Even Rajnikanth who played the role of a forthright, large hearted auto driver in his best blockbuster to this date, Baasha, could not change the image of Chennai auto driver. His song ‘Naan Autokaran’ – ‘I am a rickshawala’ became a huge hit and was played in the rickshaws for few years. But they were not inspired by their Hero to change their ways. (At last the connection to title of the blog). You can watch the popular song here:
The closest someone ever came to taming them was Ms. Jayalalithaa when she was the chief minister few years back. She brought in some tough guidelines and made the autodrivers display helpline numbers. It worked, I think for probably six months, the longest success anyone ever had with Chennai auto drivers.
I would not have remembered anything about the autos or the ubiquitous drivers but for an incident when Google Map goofed up. Rachna was in Chennai for her USA Visa interview and we booked a cab. First the cab showed five minute arrival time and then this happened.
73 Minute waiting for Uber to arrive from Bay Of Bengal.
The Uber showed 73 minutes arrival time from somewhere in the middle of Bay of Bengal. The Consulate was a just short distance away from I liver and I decided to take the Auto. The driver was so good and well informed, he advised Rachna as how much time it would take in the consulate and how should she answer the question from the Visa officer. When I told this to Mohan, my brother, he said he could probably hire this guy for a particular job.
The euphoria of finding a good driver passed soon when I waited outside the consulate for Rachna. There were hundreds of visa applicants standing in the queue and hundreds of attendants as well (parents and relatives who accompanied the applicants). And then there were a hundred auto drivers waiting to take the applicants who were coming out of the consulate. The attendants and the auto drivers were mobbing the consulate gate and the security was driving them away every few minutes. While the security (the local policemen) was successful in driving the public away, they were not so successful with the auto drivers. Every few minutes they would go near the gate (as close as you can get to the visa applicant) and coerce them to get into their autos.
They would talk, argue and fight as to who should get the next passenger. The decibels would go up every few minutes and the policemen would come and shoo them away. It was a such a farce I could not stop laughing. Their fights most of the time would be more sound than substance, a typical Madras fight. The act put out by the drivers and the policemen, was well, an act. In Tamil, we have a saying – நான் அடிக்கிற மாதிரி நடிக்கிறேன், நீ அழற மாதிரி நடி, meaning ‘I wold act as if I am beating you and you act as if you are crying.’ This would describe what I was observing.
I first failed to understand why would an auto driver wait for two hours for a single fare. After all, it was morning hours and Mount Road (or Anna Salai) is the busiest road in Chennai; it should be possible to get as many as rides one could do. So why would anyone waste all the opportunity to make money and wait for one ride in the queue. Then I remembered my ‘Madras Auto Driver Syndrome’ theory. They would wait for a whole day and fleece one passenger to the maximum instead of driving the auto for six or eight hours and earn a fair wage during the day. Whenever I was fleeced by a vendor anywhere in India, I would say “You have the Madras Auto driver disease; you want to make your monthly profit from a single customer!” and would go on to explain my theory.
Anyway, this helped to pass time while waiting for Rachna’s arrival. I texted Mohan what I observed in the past couple of hours. He texted back, “They (auto drivers) have improved a lot Ramesh. Initially they used to charge six times Uber would charge. Now they are asking only for 2X.”
That should be a huge relief to the Chennai residents. With this change in auto drivers’ attitude, they should be able to breathe a sigh of relief and live happily ever after.