At noon, if you want to hire an auto-rickshaw by my father’s apartment in T. Nagar in Chennai, India, you must gear up for a bit of a walk because all around our home, auto-rickshaws are lined up like languorous coaches in the railroad yard at Chennai’s Basin Bridge Junction. The drivers are asleep.

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Some sleep with the head falling out of the side of the rickshaw, their legs poking the roof. Some are snoring with head in, drool out, leg over the driver’s seat. Some have curled up in a ball with hands flailing out from their bodies. Some straddle and stretch, like Olympic gymnasts on a balance beam: head on passenger cushion, thighs over driver’s seat, feet on handlebar. Some are spread lengthwise on their seat, head hanging upside down, arms slack, dead to the world, like demon Hiranyakashipu on Lord Vishnu’s lap.

Once in a while, one driver may stir at the slightest movement and offer to give you a ride. He’ll dust all evidence of sleep from the mangy passenger seat while you stand there doubting that his discolored towel will snuff out sweat droplets, drool molecules and flies from the black rexine cover.

“Why do all of you sleep so much anyway?” I asked one auto-driver, Murthy, who ferried me to a building called “Chamiers” in R.A. Puram. “Our day is long. Some of us start at 6 a.m.,” he said. “Sometimes we end up working almost 16 hours.” He told me that some designated drivers carted a group of children to school and back; between school duties they worked for a few hours and snoozed after lunch.

Vinayagam, my father’s chauffer who hates sharing the road with an auto-rickshaw, disapproves of my striking up a conversation with auto drivers. He informed me that contrary to what I believed, they were a loose lot who plowed their earnings into drink. “Madam, these guys are good-for-nothings who couldn’t find anything else to do and hence chose to drive an auto,” he warned. “Auto driving is the last resort of the hopeless.”

He was not entirely wrong. Often, the decision to drive a rickshaw was driven by poverty. To the poor in developing nations, rickshaws promised immediate employment. Hand-pulled rickshaws became popular in Asian cities in the 19th century but they originated in Japan as a two or three-wheeled passenger cart, generally pulled by one man with one passenger.

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The word rickshaw-the term was first used in 1887 and is popular parlance in all Indian languages-originates from the Japanese word jinrikisha (jin means human, riki is force, sha means vehicle).

The auto-rickshaw, a motorized version of the traditional pulled rickshaw, is ubiquitous in India as an alternative to a taxi because of its lower cost. Besides humans and luggage, autos carry roosters, pillows, catered food, snacks, sugarcane, coconuts, just about anything, really, that can be squeezed into a seat about four feet wide. Some autos sport pithy advice on life: “Us Two, Our Two;” “A Woman May Marry at 21;” “Risk leads to Misery, Safety leads to Happiness.”

In the present day, an auto is despised for being an environmental hazard and for the erratic manner in which auto drivers often weave through traffic. Despite their recklessness, I discovered that Chennai’s auto-drivers were some of the smartest people in town. A handful of them were gifted orators. As we rode by hundreds of billboards on Mount Road on which the Chief Minister’s face was plastered, one auto driver passionately chastised “Amma” for her politics of convenience. On another ride, a driver theorized that Mrs. Indira Gandhi had plotted to kill her son Sanjay Gandhi when he became an inconvenience and an embarrassment to her. One driver asked me insightful questions about life in America. A wizened old driver, a self-styled historian, picked me up at Luz Church Road and gave me an earful about the history of the Anjaneya Temple at Luz and offered to wait for me in case I wanted to go in and pray. Another man worried about why the Madrasa on Vijayaragahava Road had such tall walls. He wondered what they were hiding inside. Yet another driver recalled having given me a ride home one evening from Amethyst Café. When I was skeptical, he told me exactly where my father’s home was located.

I never could convince Vinayagam that most auto-drivers were decent, just as any of us. But he thawed a little the morning I told him about Kumar, the auto driver who had given me a ride home the evening before.

As the owner of a college degree, Kumar had held a well-paid job at an IT firm when he decided to quit because his boss had begun making life very difficult for him. “I decided that I would never report to anyone ever again,” Kumar said. Unfortunately, a tragedy befell the family just as he was about to strike out on his own. At that point his savings ran out.

Kumar began driving an auto-rickshaw to survive. “I believe strongly in the dignity of labor, madam,” Kumar said to me in perfect English. “I only wish members of our Brahmin community would realize that.”

Kalpana Mohan writes from Saratoga. To read more about her, go tohttp://kalpanamohan.org and http://saritorial.com.

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