People: The Calcutta Auto-Driver

The Calcutta auto driver would have made George Orwell proud. And Arvind Kejriwal will identify with his methods. The Calcutta auto driver is not one to be tied down by the confines of traffic rules and general civic sense. No sir, not him. He is an anarchist. He is a firm believer in the principle of entropy, and does his best to instill randomness in the streets. Traffic moving slowly in a lane and stopping at the signal is such an eyesore for him. He will snake his way out of the lane, often blaring his horn at the startled vehicle coming towards him in the next lane, and park his auto-rickshaw at an odd angle at the zebra crossing, after giving a few pedestrians considerable fright and a disdainful grin. That’s the Calcutta auto driver for you. He cares not for order, not he.

The Calcutta auto diver, unlike his counterpart in taxis, likes ‘change’, of the monetary kind, not the one Didi talks about. In fact, so obsessed is he with change, that there was an incident in which a woman was punched and molested on the Taratala route when she couldn’t give change to a very offended auto driver. Granted, this was a one-off incident, but the little dirty cloth bag hanging from the steering handle bar, jingling as he stops, contains more change than ever happened in this city since the 1980s. The Calcutta auto driver gives two hoots to the environmental norms. Supposed to use CNG, some( or most?) auto rickshaws use ‘kata tel’ , a lethal cocktail of kerosene and diesel. He still paints his auto yellow and green while gleefully spewing black fumes from his vehicle as he zig-zags across the street. The Calcutta auto driver also has scant respect for your life, unless you happen to be his passenger, of course. If you happen to pass by a line of stalled autos, be careful, one of them might suddenly leap into life and jut out of the line, much to your indignation. But before you can castigate the man for his reckless ways, he juts his vehicle out further with a deft movement of his wrists at the handle bar and in seconds, he is gone, while you are scurrying still to get out of the way. Your safety is your responsibility, he reminds you sternly and silently.

There are autos associated with auto stands and some freelancers. Normally auto-stands are busy places. You might have to go and stand in a queue. If it is empty, however, the auto driver takes a well-deserved break from his dangerous driving. He lies down on the back seat, his shirt rolled up to his chest, his dirty vest clad belly out-a poignant tribute to the city’s humidity. But the auto driver rests like a dolphin does, one eye always open for passengers. As you approach the line of seemingly empty autos hesitantly, a head pops out of the back seat and asks you where you want to go. Meanwhile, a freelancer comes up, revvs up his auto, draws your attention and reminds you ‘stand’ autos will not leave until they are full, meaning you may have to wait. You hop on to the passing auto. The disembodied inquisitive head from the back-seat of the stand auto suddenly re-joins with the rest of the body and you find an angry face beside the driver, asking him to explain his behaviour. There is a perennial battle between the freelancers and stand-drivers. Union demands that freelancers cannot mess with the business of stand autos, and freelancers cry foul play but have to bog down to numbers, as unions are heavily membered. The casualty in this is always the hapless passenger, who has to sit back and watch the drama unfold. Often, sheepishly, he has to move to a stand auto after the freelancer is let off with a warning. Other times he has a reprieve with the grumbling freelancer. And sometimes, he has to make an alternative travel arrangement.

The Calcutta auto driver lives his life dangerously. He drives his vehicle under grand delusions, imagining it to be a sports vehicle instead of it being just an auto. Accordingly, he drives his auto so close to cars that they are forced to give way. He makes his own road, our auto driver. He puts his vehicle into congested lanes, waterlogged alleys and seemingly impenetrable traffic jams. He goes up on the footpath if need be, goes straight towards unmindful pedestrians on the side of the road and swerves away at the last moment when the poor pedestrian has had doubts about the auto’s murderous intentions. The Calcutta auto driver charts his own course. Neither the laid-back traffic police nor the general traffic rules can contain him.

Seeing an auto on the streets of Calcutta makes one wonder about the vehicle. In a city where only 4% of total land surface area is roads, it seems like the auto is the perfect transport. Looking at an auto in action seems like it is answering the city’s insurmountable road challenges in its own rebellious way. It’s a daily duel, between the city’s roads and the auto driver. Both are equally bad, and the battle is grand and is meant to last for decades. The auto driver may emerge victorious someday, but given the road conditions and their rapid rate of deterioration, it seems the city’s tricky roadways will have the upper hand for quite some time. Till then, the auto driver will live his rebel life. As Thermodynamics tell us, in this (economically) isolated city, randomness in the roads will only increase. The humble auto driver’s outlaw ways are just inspired by the universe.