Motoring

Tales from a rickshaw ride

On exchanging views on politics and gauging public sentiment on the road

Journalists quoting chauffeurs, cab or auto-rickshaw drivers has become a bit of a cliché. After the last election, there was a fair bit of eye-rolling about it and part of me agrees: it would be nice if political ideas were formed outside of a car.

Yet, I also understand that taxi and auto drivers are a reasonable indicator of public sentiment as far as governance goes. Three big issues that have traditionally affected Indian elections are bijli-paani-sadak. Electricity supply, water supply, motorable roads.

This might be changing, especially in rural areas, where farm income, debt and employment have become urgent questions. But in cities, bijli-paani-sadak remain some of the most important issues, along with housing and food prices.

Auto-rickshaw drivers are likely affected by shortages and inflation like everyone else.

But they also have the advantage of being outdoors a lot, listening to several other people in public spaces. They have access to a wide range of viewpoints and listen in on conversations. Some of the drivers also develop a rather unique style of political commentary.

The other day, I was in an auto-rickshaw and the ride was on a very bumpy road.

I exclaimed at one particularly bad stretch of road. The driver responded by saying, “Isn’t this great?”

I thought I had misheard him. But he said it again. “This road,” he said. “It’s terrible. Isn’t that great? It’s good for everyone.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of him. So I cautiously pointed out that it wasn’t so great for the human spine.

He let out a short laugh. “So? Aren’t you happy for the nation?” he continued. “Everyone gets something to do if the roads are bad. If you hurt your back, you are supposed to go get a massage. That helps the economy too.”

I said I had to disagree. Back injuries can last several years, even incapacitate a person, put them out of work and so on.

I couldn’t see his face, but I imagine that at this point he was rolling his eyes. “That’s what I’m saying,” he said. “It works out for everyone, doesn’t it? Before I picked you up, I was going to stop near the pheriwalas (cart vendors), some friends of mine. I just wanted to call out a greeting and remind them of how awesome life is these days. They’re still paying hafta (protection money), and they’re also being told that they’ll soon be driven out of this area.”

My destination had arrived. I got off the rickshaw. The driver said, “Madam, I was joking. You understand?”

I said, I understood. Then he said, “Do you know the latest? Some of the municipal engineers don’t come to inspect the roads after the repairs are done. They sit comfortably in their office. The contractor takes a photo of the potholes he claims he has filled, sends it over WhatsApp, and he gets his work approved.”

Before I could get out of the way, a much bigger car, an SUV, swung dangerously close and honked sharply. I turned around to glare. The driver, a woman, wasn’t looking at me. She was glaring at the auto instead.

After he was gone, I wondered what he would say to the next passenger, how he’d say it. Perhaps, he would say, “Isn’t it great that so many people are buying big cars these days? It’s the best thing to happen to a city. Now, if you had had an accident back there, think of how many people would have benefited. What? You don’t want your country to progress?”

The author is a writer of essays, stories, poems and scripts for stage and screen

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 3:33:21 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/tales-from-a-rickshaw-ride/article22280481.ece

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