He yanks up a long, black-handled lever beside his seat, and the engine splutters awake with a sharp phut-phut-phut (hence called a Phat-Phatti in parts of North India), and dies. Another yank and it spits and stammers into life, and off we r-r-roar into the traffic. I am in an auto rickshaw, a ubiquitous mode of getting around on Indian streets.
The rickshaw, minus the auto, is a rickety two-seater pulled by a bicycle in front. The auto rickshaw is the motorized version of it, capable of seating three at the back, albeit in a snug fit. Like the duck billed platypus, the auto rickshaw has an identity crisis. It can't seem to make up its mind whether it is a scooter, a motorbike, or a mini car.
A fairly rudimentary 3-wheel contraption, with no pretensions of ever wanting to be photogenic, looking distinctly like a dung beetle assiduously going about its business, a rexine covered passenger seat thrown over the engine along with two wheels at the rear, with the driver perched on his single seat on the single wheel in front, which is protected by a curving windshield―the auto rickshaw can at best be described as a basic mode of transportation. The entire effect is completed with black sheet of plastic pulled taut on a wire frame on top, to protect against the elements, with the sides left open, with the rest of its body painted either yellow or black.
While not exactly a Merc experience of travel, nevertheless, the humble auto rickshaw can be one of the best ways of taking in the rich sights, sounds and smells of an Indian city or town, if you are willing to ignore a few details.
It's the law of the jungle where this plucky little 3-wheeler operates. Constant skirmishes are fought for every inch of road space, with the biggest, meanest, and the strongest usually the uncontested king of the road, every other lowly vehicle scrambling out of the way. Except for the feisty little auto rickshaw!
With scant regard for life and limb (and it could be you, helpless, trapped in there), blithely ignoring all admonitions of road rules, definitely not built to break any speed records (a fact the auto driver seems to be blissfully unaware of, with every self-respecting driver fancying himself a Schumacher in the making), the auto driver pushes his flimsy apparatus to dangerous feats of valor and courage. Cocking a snook at the snarling big-heavies bearing down on him, he weaves in and out, staying just a whisker out of reach of being turned into a little mangled heap of plastic and metal (not forgetting the tender flesh, which could well be yours), with utter nonchalance. The auto rickshaw, in fact, is a veritable law unto itself!
Garrulous, more often than not multi-lingual, with strong opinions on just about everything in life, the auto driver can hold forth on subjects as diverse as the politics of the country, the rising prices, the falling stock markets, the declining moral mores of society at large, and so on and so forth. Not always adherent of the 'honesty is the best policy' notion, he will try to make a quick buck off the unwary or the naïve by 'fixing' the fare meter. Even so, every now and then, one hears stories of an auto driver returning a stuffed wallet left behind, intact, to its owner.
Survival dictating loyalty to each other, auto drivers have organized unions. And whenever matters such as hiking up the fares or keeping its pesky rival, the 6-seater, out of their precincts, they come together as one strong force to fight their case.
Though most auto rickshaws remain basic, as far as creature comforts are concerned, yet, it's not uncommon to come across one where the upholstery has undergone aesthetic touches in the form of extra cushioning, snazzy velvet covers, the pictures of the latest Bollywood bombshell or hunk plastered on the sides, a stereo system blaring the latest hit in film music―the works!
Cheap, quirky, and always available, a ride through the city in this little lord of the tarmac jungle is an experience all by itself. With the wind whistling in your ears, blowing through your hair, the city opens itself out to you in all its immediate vibrancy―a feel that no insulated Merc ride can ever give you.