Hemanth Kumar


Beware: Friendly auto driver ahead

I felt a warmth as the train reached Basin Bridge, the last station before Madras Central. My wife, who grew up in Bangalore, insisted it had nothing to do with nostalgia or any such higher emotion. It was simply the heat.

I pointed out that we were in an air-conditioned railway compartment and, in case she had not noticed, it was raining outside. It was only then that she grudgingly admitted that Madras -- which, in her opinion, is a dirty, sweaty city -- can indeed have this effect on some quirky people who happened to grow up there. She would have been a completely unwilling co-passenger, but for her parents who had settled there after her father's retirement.

This visit to Madras was very pleasant, weatherwise that is. The usual heat and grime were missing. Instead, it was drizzling pleasantly when we got there.

In fact, the first sparks of heat were felt only after our interaction with the autorickshaw driver outside the station. He demanded a fare that would have bought me a one way, second class train ticket back to Hyderabad. We argued with him to no avail; he pointed to the drizzle as if it was the culprit. Finally, I lugged my bags and stomped towards the bus stop, determined to take the public transport to my home in the suburbs.

One look at the crowd in the bus was enough; my wife simply vetoed my proposal. We flagged a passing auto, whose driver assured us we could pay by the 'digital' meter. They were, he told us, newly prescribed and, as he showed it to us, he described how the auto unions had struck work in protest when the administration made these meters compulsory.

He even told us how the administration had to finally knuckle down. Digital meters are now fitted on new autos and on those that come to the RTO to renew their registration. And, much to my joy, he added that, within a few years, every auto would have one.

Little did I know what I was in for!

"Aren't autos in Madras better, saar?" he asked me next. Thanks to a peripatetic ex-job, I had been a sad victim of autorides in the metros and big towns of India. A ride in Madras, I had to admit, was much smoother. That, he explained, was because auto drivers here rarely adulterated their fuel. Besides, they took good care of their vehicles. "You have to pay a higher price for quality, saar." I was actually reminded of my professor's lectures on total quality management.

"It is all a question of demand, saar," he dropped, and began to explain, another management gem. Apparently, ever since public taxis limited their business to waiting at the railway station, the airport and the hospitals, the auto drivers have had a field day. The only challenge to their supremacy has come after a long time now, in the form of call taxis.

Then he let me in on a trade secret. "Never take a 'stand' auto, saar. Take a 'line' auto." Now this was something new, even for someone who had spent 22 years of his life growing up in Madras. He said 'stand' autos were attached to a location and worked as a group. You cannot bargain with them. In case you do, no other auto driver will come to your rescue. Since they are in a queue and no one can jump it, you can't shop around either. The 'stand' autos, he added, also fixed their meters so that one ended up paying the return fare as well. The logic was that they had to return to base after dropping their savaari (passenger).

The 'line' autos, he said, cruise the road and do not fix their meters as badly as the 'stand' autos. "Never take an auto in the stand at the railway station," came the next bit of sage advice. "If you are travelling light, walk out and flag a cruising auto."

That made me feel good -- it was exactly what I had done. I beamed proudly at my wife, but she was still furious about having had to walk in the rain lugging a suitcase. I decided it would be prudent to turn my attention elsewhere. I gazed at the passing scenery instead. There was a poster war going on out there. Jostling for wall space, among the posters for movies, politics, caste associations and news magazines, was a new variety -- posters for television soaps.

The television industry has indeed come a long way. I was to later learn from a newspaper report that the ads these soaps on private channels attracted is sounding the death knell for the regional Doordarshan channel. How the mighty have fallen! As teenagers, our lives had revolved around Doordarshan. This was an institution that had even spawned an atrocious new version of Tamil that was dubbed 'Junoon Tamil;' it went on to become the biggest joke in the city in the mid-nineties.

It so happened that the serial Junoon was dubbed in Tamil. Both the translation -- it was literal, with no regard for grammar or local idioms -- and the pronunciation were atrocious. As someone who had taken on the additional responsibility of translating my ex-company's regional ads -- I could not bear the outrageous agency translations done in Bombay -- I rejoiced at Doordarshan's fall. It exemplified what a little competition could do to an uncaring monopoly. I ardently prayed the new call taxis would do the same to the Madras auto drivers.

The city's landscape -- from whatever little I could observe through the flapping rain cover that guarded the auto's entrance -- also seemed to have changed. The place was dotted with shopping malls and flyovers. I could actually see one ahead. I was readying myself for my first ride over a flyover when the auto veered left and took the road below. I was rather indignant, but the driver told me with an air of finality, "These flyovers are one-way." I did not understand. If the flyovers were meant to ease traffic congestion at overcrowded junctions, how did it help to make them one-way?

The driver was rather patient, "Saar, it was not always like this. It is a case of bad planning. These bridges are narrow and have side rails that look rather flimsy. People were afraid of using them. So the city administration made them one way and moved the median to the right to ensure that people did not take the bridges from the wrong side by mistake. As a result, on one side, the roads have narrowed at exactly the same points that used to be overcrowded junctions before. So we are back to square one. The situation is slightly better than before, but it will not be long before these bridges outlive their utility. Only if only they had planned it better..." Another sound management lesson, I thought.

Meanwhile, we continued to bump over the potholes created by last night's incessant rain. We even crossed many a small rivulet before we finally arrived at our destination.

I looked at the meter. It was reasonable indeed. I took my purse out to pay him when he scratched his head. "Saar," he started, "nooru rooba roundaa kudunga saar." The meter read Rs 86.60; he was asking me to round it off to a hundred! This defied all logic. But then, this was the characteristic attitude of all Madras auto drivers. Still, I tried. I told him rounding it off meant Rs 87 or, at worst, Rs 90. The only round thing about Rs 100, in this case, was its two zeroes.

He grinned. And I reluctantly parted with the extra Rs 13, consoling myself that he had let me in on a trade secret and reminded me, at the same time, of a few management lessons on competition, quality and the need for sound planning.

By now, my wife was grinning from ear to ear. She was recalling another lesson I was supposed to have learnt, a few months earlier, from another auto ride. Which was: Never have a friendly chat with a Madras auto driver. It will set you back at least by a tenner.

Hemanth Kumar is looking forward to his next auto ride.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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