Lifeblood – India


Many tourists spend half of their trip visiting museums, monuments and galleries to get some kind of insight into the place they are visiting. However, a first rate indicator of what makes a place tick is provided by its transport system. It is its lifeblood. England has its black cabs, New York its yellow taxis, Saigon its cyclos and China its bicycles. And India, what about India, I hear you say. Well India has the growling predatory yellow and black auto-rickshaw pulsing through its veins. A ride in the ubiquitous auto is the ultimate travel experience for the adrenaline junky.

I love the auto. The auto is specifically designed to carry the passenger at the same level as the exhaust pipes of buses. And the exhaust pipes of buses are specifically bent outward from the side to blow their fumes straight into the face of the auto passenger. A lot of thought must have gone into it to getting things this perfect.

The wheels of the auto are relatively small and the engine is usually noisy, the perfect formula to provide the passenger with that heart in the mouth feeling. Even at full throttle the auto doesn’t move very fast, but how many feel like they are bombing along at 100 kilometers per hour, even though it is probably more like 20? The wheels move fast and the engine whirs at high pitch, deceiving the hapless passenger into thinking he or she is in a souped-up vehicle with the latest formula one driving sensation at the wheel.

Of course, a lot depends on the driver. Many drive like maniacs as if the world is about to end and they have to get the passenger to their destination before it does. Therefore, they will risk getting sandwiched between buses, driving into pedestrians, splattering dogs, mangling cyclists and wearing out the horn, which completely does away with the need for brakes. Using the brake is a definite last resort. Come to think of it, do autos have brakes?

Even today, after having taken hundreds of rides in autos, I still get a rush of adrenaline every time I get into one. It’s better than going to the fair. In fact, it’s all the fun of the fair. The typical auto ride is a dodge ’em, roller coaster affair that gets the pulse racing and the spine tingling. Actually, the auto experience is one of the things I miss the most when back in sedentary England. I must be addicted to fear.

The other day I spotted an auto on a street corner with the driver asleep inside. I approached him and he slowly woke. Rubbing his eyes, he smiled, yawned and tried to negotiate a fare that was triple the going rate (the arbitrary tax for foreigner had been applied). From sleepy, genteel person to hyperactive, risk taking road menace within 10 seconds. The transformation was astounding. I held the seat with a grip of iron and summoned my nerves of steel as we narrowly avoided head on collision after head on collision with other auto-rickshaws, trucks, barriers and any kind of street furniture you may care to think of. When the ride was over the driver changed back into lethargic slumberman and I exited still grateful to be in the land of the living. I handed over the fare thinking to myself that he should be paying me for the dubious service just given.

And what do I conclude from this? I remember my first attempt to cross a road in Beijing after having exited the train station. There seemed like a billion bicycles coming at me from all directions. I watched how the locals just stepped out into the road and walked straight ahead. There was a parting of the waves of bicycles. This must say something about the Chinese mentality. And I guess that the black cab can be said to epitomise Britain, with its chirpy driver who talks ten to the dozen proffering his one-sided opinions on adopting the Euro, immigration, crime and punishment and just about every political and philosophical question under the sun. Many think taking a half dozen rides will provide much better insight into the British mentality than any number of trips to the Victoria and Albert or Natural History Museums will ever do.

So what about the auto and India? Well its time to proffer my own British kind of black-cab-type-one-sided opinion. Think auto and think frenetic energy and the supreme practicality of a basic three-wheeled machine. Think auto-driver and think calm, languishing soul with hyperactive creature on the inside just bursting to get out. The auto speeds, jumps and jolts. Yes, the humble, unassuming auto-rickshaw is part and parcel of the lifeblood on India. When I first came to India many years ago someone advised me to go with the flow of India. I didn’t really know what he meant. I boarded an auto-rickshaw and went with the flow. It was only after that initial ride that I began to appreciate what he meant, even if the “flow” is somewhat less than smooth, jittery and at times downright heart stopping. Think auto, think India.