The ‘ Auto- Rajas ‘ of ‘ Kudla Roads ‘….

There’s no place like home. And for me there’s no place like my hometown, ‘ Mangalore’ aka ‘ Kudla’ aka ‘ Mungaluru’ aka ‘ Kodiyal’ . And every time I come down from US for holidays, my only source of travel around the City was by auto-rickshaw. Now that I have bought a two-wheeler, it makes my life much easier to do all my errands. But my auto-rickshaw experiences still bring back my fond memories of my past travel spree around the city..

Before I immigrated to United States in 1990, my only source of travel in and around the city was by auto-rickshaw. I dedicate this article to all the dedicated and safe auto drivers who took me to school/ college; took me and my mom to church, market or hospital; took me and my girlfriend to Kadri Park/ local beaches; brought me home after my late night dancing spree at a City Discotheque,and also after my wee hours grub at Bombay Lucky restaurant. Being a regular customer, many of these auto drivers seemed to me like my personal chauffeurs. More than auto drivers, they were like my friends. They respected me, and I respected them.

Call them how you will- autos, auto-rickshaws or three-wheelers- this mode of transport is a super means  of weaving through narrow streets and getting along busy urban carriageways. Sometimes your auto ride may be like a roller coaster ride- all you have to do is close your eyes, cling on to your seats till you reach your destination. In terms of experiencing a city, what way of getting about could be better than a three-wheeler ?.

Auto-rickshaws are quick enough to cover significant distances in a short amount of time and their open sides mean that you really get to feel the city you are in. You hear people talk and yell at each other, and also the banter between locals. You even get to smell the city, more so when you drive by markets offering flowers or fresh herbs and spices; and also of stinky fish. And for that matter even the smell from those open City garbage dumpsters. It’s less attraction when you pull up at a junction though- the open side of the auto-rickshaw right next to the the throbbing exhaust pipe of a city bus. God only knows when is the last time that these buses had their emission test?

Love them or loath them, auto-rickshaws and their drivers are an integral part of the urban landscape. One day you might be cursing them for charging way too much, the next day you might find yourself praying for one to roll on by. Sometimes you might wonder why you’re meandering to your destination and swear never to trust another rickshaw driver. And then there are the times when the ‘ autowallah ‘ is your saviour; getting you to a vital meeting or function punctually or delivering you to the doors of that transport hub in time for you to catch your connection. You simply need these guys.

Call them ” Auto Raja ” or ” King of the road “- they simply are. For they can drive as they like; make U-turn whenever they want; pass you whichever side they decide; speed as they like or even park their vehicle anywhere, must they want to go for a leak !. No questions asked- because they rule the city streets. They think so !.

Sitting inside a auto-rickshaw you’ll enjoy various signs in ‘ English ‘ or call it ‘ English Vinglesh’ !. The sign says ‘ Call Bell ‘ , but to your surprise you’ll not find an actual call bell to alert the driver. ‘ No Smoking ‘ the sign reads, but could also surprise you to see the driver sneakingly puffing on a beedi or cigarette. Other signs that I came across- ‘ Have a nise day ‘; ‘ Tankyou Wery Muchu ‘; ‘ Dont Warry. Be Happi ‘; ‘ Make Love, Nat Wor ‘ Etc; Etc;. Then there is this sign- ” If the driver demands more, please report it to the nearest police station “. But how many of us will ever bother to report to the cops, knowing that nothing will accomplish whatsoever. After all everyone knows about our ‘World Famous City Cops ?.

Then it’s always nice to read some of the funny names these auto-rickshaws go by, like ‘ God’s Gift ‘; ‘ Vayudootha ‘; ‘ Infant Jesus’s Toy ‘; ‘ Air India ‘; ‘ Auto Express ‘; ‘ Auto Raja ‘; ‘ Kudla Express ‘; ‘ Miss India ‘; ‘ Big Boss ‘; ‘ Beauty Queen ‘; ‘ Romeo and Juliet ‘; Etc; Etc;. Some autos are even equipped with boom speakers that blast music tuned to the local popular FM station ‘ Radio Mirchi ‘. The driver doesn’t care if you like his kind of music or not- you simply have to bear with it.  And since many auto drivers are proud owners of mobile phones, and these days when you need to hire them is just a phone call away.

At night, if you chose to walk home after a meal or a cocktail meeting, auto-drivers sometimes like to pro-actively seek your custom. As they pull up next to you , at walking pace, the driver’s head sticking out of the vehicle’s side, you are inevitably asked, ” Auto, Sir!. Where are you going to ?”. This well-meaning attempt to get you to where ever you want to go is a win-win situation in the driver’s mind. But ” no ” is not a word that auto-drivers readily accept. Politely declining the kind man’s offer is often not enough. He may continue to accompany you on your way, at walking pace, trying to persuade you that one and a half or double-meter is fair for this time of the night. This can provide even the burliest of men with an experience that allows empathy of how it must feel to be kerb crawled.

Foreign visitors might also have the opportunity to experience one of those rickshaw drivers who have business agreements with handicrafts emporiums or mall managements. ” Only Rs.50-Rs 100 waiting charge, Sir ” said one rickshawalla to me when I was on a  shopping spree at City Mall. Wow-that’s less than a dollar or two for me. That sounds like a good deal, and a great opportunity to do some cost-effective sight-seeing. That’s a very good bargain- now I love these khaki clad guys more than ever.

Heard that there are a few auto-rickshaws plying in Southern England. Perhaps the phenomenon will continue to spread across the Western World, especially United States. In years to come commuters in New York or Chicago might clamour to have their photos taken with hefty Mike Smith and an auto-rickshaw, rather than a white or yellow taxi in the background. While now that there are quite a few Patels and Singhs as taxi drivers in Chicago, you never know someday the ‘Windy City-Chicago’ might see them behind auto-rickshaws. Meanwhile, closer home the bittersweet symphony on the roads carries on amid haggling, honking and hurrying. And, although that I do have a two-wheeler now, I sometimes still love to travel by auto-rickshaw, my good old travel companion.

Author: Alfie DSouza- Illinois