Excluding cops and politicians, could you think of another profession which is hated by most people?
Doctors are hated, mostly because people feel they are overcharging, and most Indians will never really hire a lawyer in their lives, so those don’t count. Cricketers are sometimes hated, but one good series, and you go from the national punching bag to the successor of Rajni Kanth. So that’s ruled out too. So which profession do you think is most hated?
I would say auto drivers.
There is generally a sense of mistrust about them. It’s like they are all charging four times their price and they will all take you through unknown routes, and finally kill you in a desolate corner.
Now, you could blame me for being overromantic about it. “You don’t have boobs,” you say. Yes, I am not a girl, so maybe I don’t have to face so many of the fears. I know for a fact that no autowallah is going to try to rape me, for one. So that’s half the worries gone.
But if you think about it, it’s a neverending cycle of distrust. People don’t speak to auto drivers properly, and so they don’t either, and both of you go on mistrusting and mistreating each other.
I have always had good luck with auto drivers.
If you speak to them a little, some small talk, you will see how well they come about.
Think about it, these guys have been riding the entire day, getting barked at by customers and pulled up, charged, and shooed away by lecherous cops, and being cursed at by co-commuters on the road. May be you cant blame the guy for not being polite to you. May be you could say something to him.
I have had countless number of experiences with autowallahs, but here I would like to narrate three of them.
The city without booze. For the reason that Gandhi was born there. The greatest bullshit story ever told and believed and not raised a glass to. Because you know, its illegal.
So since Gandhi is the father of the nation, as a sign of respect, no body drinks alcohol. Reducing possibly the most revolutionary thinker of the last century into a symbolic joke.
But anyway, I am just small fish. I have no reason to take up that man with the white beard who is going to become the Prime Minister. I have gone to visit my girlfriend, and am getting a look at the city for the first time.
There is something distinct about the autos of every city. There will be a style, a certain fashion that sets them apart from the autos of other cities. Like for example, in Kurnool, the front of the auto, to the right of the light, will have a painting of a star. One look at the auto and you knew if he was a fan of NTR, Chiru, Pavan Kalyan, or Mahesh. In the older parts of Hyderabad, there is always a quote written at the back of the autos. Like ‘Maa Baap ki Dua’, or ‘Hum Phir Se Milenge’.
In Ahmedabad, all the autos have a set pattern. From the outside, you notice nothing different. The usual yellow and black, with nothing to set it apart. But step inside, and to the left of the passenger seat, you will find a poster with a scenery.
One of those ‘God makes the world beautiful’ or ‘Live every day like your last’ or some other quote written on the top right hand corner of a picture with a waterfall or a house by the lake. That kind of stuff.
To the right, there will be a poster of an actress. No collage, no cut pasting, no wide variety of photos – just one poster. Of one actress. I guess they are really steadfast people, you know. Unlike the guys in Hyderabad who must be a little weird – there are pictures of at least three actresses, with two heroes thrown in for a wild fantasy.
But here, it’s just one poster of an actress, and that’s it.
So I have noticed this and one of the days we plan to step out to go sightseeing. Because anyway I cant booze or eat chicken, I might as well go watch some nature and shit.
So we are going to the place and we pull up an auto and ask him if he would go to the place.
He is not young, neither is he old. If I were to describe his face, I would do it like this.
Remember those pictures of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa that you saw as a child. Hollow cheekbones and a beard? Replace the black beard with a white one, and you have somewhat of an image of the man’s face.
He didn’t speak a lot, he didn’t switch on the loud music seeing a hot chick enter his auto. He just started driving.
It was a clean auto, well maintained. There were no odd sounds coming out of it – no odd tinkering symphony of undisciplined nuts and bolts that come from other autos.
I look at my left, and I find the poster of a scenery. The usual. I look to the right, and I find there is no actress. Its just blank!
I start making conversation with him, but he clearly isn’t the chatty person.
He grudgingly starts speaking to me, dealing in monosyllables and nods.
“Bhai saab,” I ask him, “Aap ke auto mein heroine nahi hai?”
He turns to me, and gives me a bored look. The kind of look Sachin Tendulkar would give Ajit Agarkar’s son if he asked him what ‘off side’ means.
“Meri heroine,” he says, “mere ghar pe hai.”
We eventually reached the spot. The sun eventually set on my relationship. But I hope wherever the man is, he is making wild, passionate love to his wife every night.
I have just arrived, and am still trying to figure out things. Where to buy cigarettes, where to buy groceries from, where to get some weed from.
It’s not like Orissa, where your friendly neighbourhood pan shop is going to give you a packet with a smile. It’s a new place and I haven’t yet met anyone who was smoking.
My friend and me decide to do the first that thing that great explorers do. Look up Google.
We are told that we need to speak to an auto guy, and he would take us there. To this place called Dhoolpet. It was also mentioned that we better be careful about the guy we choose, to avoid being reported or fleeced.
How would we go about it? We spoke about some strategies. We would first ask him to take us to a place nearby, and then slowly ease into the conversation about some weed, and see if it works out. But wait, what if he throws us out of the auto, and we are stranded in a new place, having paid two hundred bucks?
May be we should ask from the beginning. Feel around for ourselves, say the place, and then ask him if he wants to go there. Then speak nicely to him, may be offer a cigarette, and then he would warm up to us.
After considerable time spent in strategizing, we walk downstairs to the place where the autos stand. The first guy we see, has his hand stretched out, and is filling up an empty cigarette.
We both point out like excited children, “Woh chahiye”. He smiles, and asks us to sit.
We wait and watch as he fills up the cigarette, taps it on the nail of his left thumb, folds the open ends and runs his fingers along its length. When he is done, he lights it, and we start off.
We speak to him. More out of curiosity than ulterior motives this time.
He speaks freely, looking at us in the rear view mirror while speaking. He speaks of the things most auto drivers speak about. Cops, and what assholes they are. Rising petrol prices, and how much of the daily rent he needed to give to the owner everyday. Or bitching about people who zoom across on bikes.
“Subah subah ek maaru toh set hai,” he explains. Neither sheepishly, nor with pride. Matter of fact.
We ask him why he doesn’t drink instead, since everyone seems to do it. “Daaru mein dimaag ko rest nahi milta saab,” he says, holding his right hand to his head. “Jumjumjumjum hota rehta. Chala nahi sakta main.”
For about ten years, alcohol was prohibited in the state. The people of the state were denied their 650 ml of panacea because it was seen as a social evil. Then in 1997, Chandrababu Naidu rolled back the prohibition. Since then, the people of Andhra haven’t looked back.
Andhra Pradesh is the largest consumer of alcohol in the country. In just these ten years, it has been a short but meteoric career by the state in liquor sales. On any given day, you will find one man sprawled across the road in front of the shop. At 10 am.
The journey is long, but fun. The man is smiling, and after a long conversation we reach the place. It is a shanty basti, full of ashanty. There are children running about, dogs walking like they own the road, water flowing off some of the houses.
The man asks us to stop at a distance. “Aap logon se zyada lega. Main laatun.” We followed him.
The way to the house went through allies and shops. We peeked into the dimly lit houses. Some of them had idols that were being prepared for a festival. In others, we found women boiling something in a huge pot, its white fumes rising, without a smell.
The man wore a blue lungi and had a beard. There was a little bit of heckling, but the price was settled. We walked back into the auto and sat.
While we were driving back, new doubts sprang up in our mind. Would he blackmail us for going the extra mile? He knew where we lived, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to lodge a complaint in our name.
We drove back to our homes, from the coloured tiny streets to the broad, grey strokes of the offices and malls. It was a Sunday morning, and the roads were secluded.
The summers had set in, but it was rather pleasant. Like the sun was reluctant to work on a Sunday. There was no one visible as far as the eye travelled, and he took out a cigarette. He stopped at the curve of a road and pulled up to the right of the road.
I was prepared for it. I knew he would stop and ask for some money.
He put his hand into his pocket and took out a small piece of paper rolled into a ball. We stepped out to look at the road. We spoke as he emptied his cigarette, and blew the brown dust away. He crushed with his right thumb on his left palm, and filled it up, and tapped the butt against the nail of his left thumb. He then held it out for us.
We sat and spoke. And smoked.
Most auto guys will give you their phone number and ask you to call them. This brother didn’t give no fuck. He dropped us off at home. We never saw him again in that area.
If one were to make a list of Germans who left an impact on India, Max Müller would probably be the first name that comes to mind. Adolf Hitler could be the second, considering that Mein Kampf is considered a management guide in India. Otto Königsberger will not be a name you will hear, even though he impacted directly many lives in our country.
Otto Königsberger will not go down in history as a legend. Books will not be written about him, nor will he be played by Robert Downey Jr. in a Tom Hooper adaptation.
During the years of the World War, Mr. Königsberger left Germany when the Third Reich rose in power. He travelled to different countries, offering his services as an architect and town planner, till he was signed by the British government to design buildings in India. He designed towns and cities, and a testimony of his many skills was the fact that after partition, he continued to work with the new India’s Ministry of Health. He later went on to teach at the University College, London, and finally at UN.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because somewhere in his illustrious career, he was asked to design a new capital for the state of Orissa. Cuttack, the erstwhile capital, could not be extended any further as it was surrounded by water on all sides, and a nearby temple town was chosen as the capital. Königsberger saab must have gotten a tad lazy on that project.
For many years, the entire of Bhubaneswar existed on two sides of a single road. The road from Utkal University to Rajmahal Square like a gigantic snake, divided the city into two halves. On the right, you could find the official buildings – offices, government quarters, schools, party offices, and a Ram Mandir thrown in. To the left, you had the private spaces – private residential colonies, newspaper offices, and showrooms that sold clothes when much of the town’s fashion came from a handful of shops.
The town has expanded since, like a blotting distributary heading in every direction. This road is still the busiest road of the town, and if you woke up at six (which is highly unlikely if you actually live here), you will notice the municipality workers sweeping the roads.
It was on this road that I found myself one night, returning home. It had rained in the evening, and the lights of the buildings shone off the wet roads. Red, orange, and purple, the reflections added a colour splash to the picture, like God discovered that he had been Van Gogh all along.
This was about 10 PM, the time when you board an auto knowing fully well that he wasn’t going to start till the auto was filled with at least double the number of passengers it could take. You were at the mercy of the auto guy, no matter how urgent your need.
There was one other person in the auto and as we waited for more customers, two blind men walked into the auto. They had their white sticks and their slow, unsure movements drew attention.
I moved a little to the right and after about ten minutes we started towards Vani Vihar. People got on and off at places, and the auto guy pulled up at Kharvelnagar to the left. The two blind men got out, and turned towards us.
“Bhaina, could you walk us to the other side of the road?” they asked. To each of us, and yet to no one in particular. It was already ten and waiting for another auto was a pain in the ass. Plus, the guy could charge whatever he wanted.
The man next to me made a ‘pltch’ sound and turned away. I got down and held one of their hands.
The one at the back held the shoulder of the one in the front, who held my hand, as we walked across the traffic policeman.
“Leave us in front of Big Bazaar,” one of them said. “Are you sure? I could drop you ahead of Big Bazaar,” I offered.
“No, no. We can go from there,” he insisted. This was odd.
Big Bazaar was the city’s first official mall. On the opening day, it looked like an avant garde gas chamber designed by Hitler – people were crammed into every imaginable space. The crowd has reduced since then, but it still remains a fairly busy place. It was difficult for a pedestrian with eyes to cross. How would they manage?
When we reached Big Bazaar, he slipped his hand out of mine curtly, saying thanks.
I stayed there to see what they’d do.
They turned left, 90 degrees and walked a little. There was a chhenna seller, his metal vessels gleaming in the night, a chhennapodo resting heavily on one of the vessels. The man looks at them, takes out a small, circular tiffin box and with two fingers, brings out a green, gooey paste.
He makes two balls of this paste, and places them on the rims of two steel glasses. Like a cherry on the top.
The two men stretch their hands out, feel the glasses, and raise them up. They open their mouths and the balls plop into their mouth, as the drink up the water. They pay him in coins, and turn. They hold each other’s hands, and slowly walk ahead.
I feel a little guilty – like I had peeped in on someone’s private moment. As I walk back, I wonder what sort of a high would the two blind guys get from the bhang. Most of us have ‘visions’, or ‘trips’. What sort of a trip would a person have, if he has never seen anything? It must be a more powerful high. A pure flight of fancy – unbridled by any imagery.
As I walk further, I look to the right, then to the left, and then to the right again for the psycho biker, and cross the road. To my luck, I found an auto waiting on the other side of the road.
As I crossed the road to reach the auto, I peeped into the auto to find it was the same one I had gotten out of.
The driver smiled, waited for me to sit, and started off. The man next to me wasn’t pleased.