For the most part, I have had a “hate-hate” relationships with autowallahs. I have sworn against, and been sworn at, I have stopped the ones with excessively rigged meters (they are all rigged, just to varying degrees) midway, and walked away after paying a few rupees less, I have come close to being manhandled on at least 2 occassions, out-screamed and frightened a driver at 01:00 hrs at Begumpet (it of course helped that I had company), I have even walked away without paying on one occasion, and then there are all those times when they simply refused to take me where I wished to go. I mean, imagine you go to a salon, and the barber says, “Sorry sir, but I am not cropping your hair. I don’t quite dig it”. In that respect, autowallahs are a breed apart. They are truly free-willed. If they don’t want to go, they don’t want to go.
Still, in my zillion auto journeys, I suppose these experiences only make up the odd parts, and surely I exaggerate when I describe my relationship with autowallahs as “hate-hate”. But you see, these are the only ones that stand out, and that’s all that matters in making your memories. There aren’t any special memories of wonderful, funny, humane, and gracious auto drivers. And do I know even one auto driver by his name? Of course not. So there.
But when you spend 2 months tied to the same hotel in a place where you have to rely on autos as your primary means of transport, these things change. The same band of fellows drive you to your workplace. Every single day. Their familiarity gets to you, their under-handed tactics no longer seem as under-handed, their protestations are funny as opposed to irritating, why, you even get to know their names. And so, while they might still be rogues, they are now adjectivized as charming rogues. And you know you have been suckered. But you can’t help it.
And that’s what’s happened to me here at Vizag. Raju, Murthy, Laxman, Simhachalam – names arranged in descending order of likeability, have suddenly made me empathize with their lot a great deal. I know they still over-charge me, but I don’t mind, at least not so much. I bargain a little, but I let them get away with the minor concessions they throw my way.
It wasn’t that way to begin with actually. When I got here first, I was wise enough to bargain hard, and they ended up grudgingly accepting the Rs. 60/- I agreed to pay them for the journey from Green Park to INS Circars. It’s a fair distance, and I suppose if the autos were metered, it would cost me Rs. 50/- or so. But then, autos aren’t metered here – the meters are there of course, but they are there because Bajaj Auto has a scheme like – Buy one auto, get one meter free. So, it’s anybody’s guess what’s the right fare. Could be Rs. 40 for all I know, but since I prefer deluding myself, let’s just keep it at Rs. 50/-.
Anyway, the thing is, for the first couple of weeks I was here, I paid them Rs. 60/- everyday. And they weren’t too thrilled with the whole deal. Raju would look at Murthy, Murthy at Laxman, Laxman at Simhachalam, and Simhachalam at Raju, before someone would unwillingly concede to take me along for the ride. Ah, I had them. (Insert smiley). I was mighty pleased that I had struck a good deal. All’s well that ends well? Nah, not quite. I went off to Bangalore for a couple of days. And I don’t know whatever happened there, but when I got back, I had suddenly turned a good samaritan. Going against the logical part of my brain, the second day I got here, I ended up paying Rs. 70/- instead of Rs. 60/-. And he hadn’t even asked. I don’t know what got into me, but that’s what I did. I had raised the benchmark, I had set a precedent. Mark that word – “precedent”. Never ever set precedents that don’t make economic sense. You have had it. Particuarly, never ever set precedents with autowallahs. For the next thing I knew, I was paying
Rs. 70/- to all of them, every single day. It just happened. They didn’t quite demand it, it was just that I tanked the “keep things professional” exam.
But, pray, How does one keep things professional when you see the same face everyday? The same forced smile suddenly seemed genuine, and the person himself went from being an ingratiating pain in all the wrong places to a guy who had to suffer the pollution and the heat while I sat in my AC room. And besides, I had come to know these guys a bit as well. You travel everday, conversations happen, and you get to know a few stories.
Take Raju – he’s been driving for 20 years now. Was in Mumbai for a year in 1983, but apparently, the one year was bad enough, and he figured he would much rather live a happier life than a richer one. And he’s the fairest of them all. Relatively speaking. Murthy – tall, mildly beefy chap, whose stories I don’t know because he speaks only in Telugu and I, in Hindi/English/Tamil, and so we never get past our idiotic arguments about the fare. But he’s got this innocent look, like so many beefy chaps do, and so I think, surely he won’t harm a fly, will he? Laxman, now here’s a special case. He English is almost flawless, and so one day, I ask him how come his English is so good. And he tells me he was a lecturer in a polytechnic. That was a few years ago. But the pay sucked – Only 2000 or so, apparently. And he would much rather drive an auto and earn more, than teach morons. And oh, he also writes. A published writer, in fact. His stories, he tells me, appear in “Jothi”, a Telugu monthly. 10 published this far, he proudly informs. He only writes
real stories, not imagined ones, he tells me. How cool is that, I think. High five, dude. You rock. His latest is on the Tsunami. As for Simhachalam, he seemed like a nice enough fellow too. But then, I gave him 30 rupees credit, and he didn’t bother to return it to me till I screamed, and I don’t like him anymore. So we will leave it there.
Their stories apart, there’s something else charmingly unbusinesslike about them that totally gets me. I haven’t seen a more contented lot. They are quite willing to sit idle for hours together, least bothered about making an additional 50 odd rupees. When I take an auto to the beach at around 8 in the night, Raju is quite happy to wait for me for 45 minutes, an hour, or however long it takes for me to return from the beach, where I sit asking the sea and the self pointless questions. No waiting charges whatsoever. That is too weird for me to accept, and so I tell him, “Hey, you don’t have to wait, I am not going to pay you to wait anyway.” And he replies, “No sir, that’s ok. I will just wait. No problem.” And it’s not once or twice. And it’s not just Raju. All of them. All the time. When I take an auto to INS Circars at around 3 in the afternoon, the guy is quite willing to wait till 7:00, for me to finish my work. No waiting charges again. I warn him “Look here, forget about waiting charges, in fact, I am going pay you 10 fewer rupees for the return journey” (because the return fare is always less). That doesn’t please him too much, but whatever mental accounting he does in his head still seems to make it an attractive offer. And he is quite happy to wait anyway. Never seen anything like it anywhere. Damn, I have paid waiting charges for even 5-10 minutes in Bangalore and Hyderabad, and here you have these guys waiting for 2-3 hours, quite content. I think they are all rich farmers driving autos for cheap thrills. Who knows.
But I am still a sucker. So I feel bad about his waiting and all that, and I don’t pay him 10 rupees less, at the end of it all. Who cares. I feel better, so does he. I guess, as things stand, I have reason enough to call it a “love-hate” relationship now. That’s all.