Some call it shared auto and some say it is ‘grameen seva’, and there is yet another group that makes things much simpler; they call it ‘auto’. They don’t care whether these vehicles have three wheels or four wheels, a steering wheel or a handle fitted with clutch and gear. What is there in a name? Whatever be the name these vehicles ferry people from suburban rural areas to the arterial roads or metro stations. They are too many in number and their strong fleet itself is an indication of government apathy. They ply in places where the authorities have not provided public transportation. It also implies that the state of the art metro rail system has not yet fulfilled its promise of giving feeder services from the metro stations to interior localities where public transports have not started their operations. There used to be small denominations like five rupees at some point of time and now there is only one rate, that is ten rupees. The distance that you travel may be a kilometre or eight kilometres but what you shell out is rupees ten. An auto at a time take average ten people but the aim of the drivers/owners of these vehicles are to accommodate fourteen people in them which have been designed for carrying eight people including the driver. But the inflation is so much that they are hard pressed to accommodate the maximum number of people (at times even fifteen) so that they could get one hundred and fifteen rupees in one trip.
I call them autos and prefer travelling in them. The small republics that form within these rickety vehicles are insular as the constituent individuals though adjust themselves for squeezing in more people remain unconnected with the other people sitting next to them, mostly involved in telephonic conversations or listening to music through ear plugs. No eve teasing or molesting happen in these vehicles, at least during the day time, because everyone is so cautious about their body movements while in it. Your body may be stuck to that of a man or a woman but that is it. You just cannot acknowledge it; acknowledgement is a dangerous invitation to trouble because your involuntary movement of a limb could be mistaken for an act of insult of the other person’s sense of dignity. One interesting thing in these operations is the honesty that people show in paying the fare. As there is no conductor or cleaner to collect the fare from you, once you get down, you go and pay ten rupees to the driver. None runs away with the money. I remember reading one small essay in fourth standard. It was titled, ‘Uncle Krishnan in London’. In late 1970s, as people were bound to their own locales, seeing less and imagining more, London was a mystery land though the British had left us with our own devices of rule hardly twenty years before. In the school essay, Uncle Krishnan talks about the wonders that he saw while visiting London. Two things he notices; one, there is something called escalator, which is a moving staircase. Two, people pick up newspapers from the news stands and put the exact amount there in box. And Uncle Krishnan tells us that people in Britain are really honest. In the class we were asked to repeat a particular question and answer: What is an escalator? Escalator is a moving staircase. When I travel in auto and then in metro I remember Uncle Krishnan and the London he had seen.
As people are quite disinterested in others’ affairs, I should say, even if the trip is very short, you get terribly bored. I do not speak to people over telephone when I am in an auto mainly because I just cannot concentrate on what I am talking. What I do is looking at the same scenery, the busy street, the dusty food stalls and the machines that squeeze juices out of various fruits and sugar cane. It is not good to stare at the faces of the people who sit just opposite to you; modesty of people is very brittle. But I am very keen on listening to what others talk, if at all they talk. Recently I intently listened to a conversation between three young men (fresh in the job industry or fresh from the colleges). One of them was holding a copy of Gandhiji’s ‘My Story of Experiments with Truth’. I noticed him because of the book. The other young man asked him how the book was. My curiosity grew. The one who had the book was a bit intelligent, it seemed, as he answered in the following way: “It is Gandhiji’s autobiography. So how can I say that it is not good?” The other man was obviously dumb as he queried: “Still, it is old stuff, no?” “I am interested in autobiographies.” “Oh, where did you buy this one?” “I bought it from the Delhi Book Fair.” “Which other books do you read?” Now, there were three pretty young girls sitting next to them. Obviously their conversation now had a different dimension. The one who acted dumb wanted to tell these girls, hey look, I just don’t care. But the man of autobiographies was not far behind. He wanted to say, look man, I am not your type, I am one of those people who ‘read’. “The other book I read is Mein Kampf.” I could understand his library. Mein Kampf, surprisingly is one of the best sellers in the world, like Ayan Rand’s Fountain Head, Mario Puzzo’s ‘God Father’ and ‘Catch 22’, three books that you see in any book stall as eternal best sellers. However, some of my friends had persuaded me to read the latter two books, I never felt like reading them. I am sure, many who suggests these books also might not have read them. I have read Mein Kampf. I was nineteen years old then. Every evening I took this book to a public park in Trivandrum and read it there. I liked Hitler and more than that I disliked him. Reading Anne Frank’s Diary at the same period intensified my hatred towards Hitler. It was lightened up when I watched Chaplin’s ‘Great Dictator’. Hitler was comically justified by Heinkel in the movie.
“I do not understand many of the words,” the dumb one said. The erudite was now in control of the conversation as he knew it was benefitting the pretty girls and some shy smiles were playing hide and seek in their lips. May be he read it right, thinking that the smile came as disparage for the dumb’s lame questions or assuming that the smiles were an appreciation for his scholarship, he continued. “That is not a problem. You can read it in ipad or mobile,” he said. There was no answer from the other side. “For example,” the scholar took out his large screen mobile phone with various ‘apps’ displayed on the screen, “you could download books from Torrent or X or Y sites. And while reading if you find any problem with a word, just put the cursor on the word and the meaning will pop up,” saying this he gave a quick demo to the dumb one but I knew by that time he was just an excuse for the reader to flaunt his abilities not only as a reader but also as a person who reads from his mobile. I was quite amused. I was waiting for the list of books that he had recently read. But the other person was not interested. And now he was talking more about some competitive examinations and how he had miserably failed in it. I saw six kohl lined eyes shining with suppressed smiles. He was lamenting on his bad luck. However, before he left, he said, “Gandhiji is too old to read.” I wanted to tell him, if you read Gandhiji you could win any competitive exams because he was the best problem solver, negotiator and strategist available at that point of time. Even Gandhiji is interpreted by corporate heads for their purpose. Soon there will be an adroid that facilitates a Gandhiji apps, who knows. I wanted to tell him so but by that time they had got out of the auto and left.
Later in the same evening, I walked into a medical shop looking for a body spray. There in the shop, two young boys, apparently who worked as sales people there, were engaged in some heated discussion. One of them at the counter asked me: “Uncle, here is a problem. We want to know your opinion.” I was willing to participate. “Suppose you get ten thousand rupees per month as salary but in stringent working conditions and you are offered another job in a comfortable atmosphere but the salary is a thousand less, which one would you take up?” I did not take a moment to answer and I said, “I would go for nine thousand rupees in a comfortable work atmosphere.” The boy who raised the question was triumphant. But the other boy was dismissive, he said, “Uncle, today everyone needs money.” He gestured counting notes with his fingers. “What if the conditions are tough?” I said, “It depends on who takes up the job.” The boy at the counter was jubilant as he could find a supporter in me. But while I walked out after paying for the spray, the other boy asked from behind, “Uncle, what if one finds those stringent conditions comfortable?”
I think I did not have an answer for that other than a vague smile.