M elba Pria has a busy schedule, and to figure in a minuscule part of it, I have to hurry, and can’t afford to be late by even a picosecond. Realising four wheels won’t make it on time, I chuck the car and choose a vehicle one wheel less. The tuk-tuk wades boldly into narrow lanes, and wriggles smartly out of traffic knots, and hey presto, I am there ahead of time, waiting at the lobby of Radisson Blu in St. Thomas Mount for Pria to finish her lunch.
Call it coincidence or anything you like, the humble tuk-tuk is the chosen topic of my conversation with Pria, the Mexican Ambassador to India, who has made it her official vehicle. Forty minutes later, she has to be in Tambaram to flag down The Rickshaw Challenge — Tamil Nadu Run 2016, a 1,000-km rally on autorickshaws, and sensing the urgency, I keep my questions to the point — which means, nothing but the autorickshaw. “This interview is going to be entirely on ‘auto-mode’, right?” I begin.
She nods, her face glowing with a warm smile. Tresses tied together loosely and dressed casually, Pria comes across as an unusual diplomat, and seems to be defining her role rather than being defined by it.
Choosing the autorickshaw over a fancy car is one aspect of this approach. For months, her artfully-painted official autorickshaw has been making it to the headlines regularly, and given this, the challenge is to ask certain unasked questions in addition to the predictable ones.
“How do your chauffeurs like their job?”
Giving the background, Pria’s famous auto is chauffeur-driven, and has two drivers, Kumar and Jagdish, who operate it alternately.
Pria recalls how crestfallen they were on learning that they would not drive a glitzy car, but an auto.
She says they had to be reassured that it was not a step-down for them, and they were still official drivers of the Ambassador; only that the Ambassador had “chosen a different wheel” to travel by.
Both Jagdish and Kumar had not driven an autorickshaw before and had to undergo training.
Now, they bask in the limelight that follows the autorickshaw wherever it goes in Delhi. In some places, it raises eyebrows and is even stopped at gates, but these are part of what makes the job exciting for these two drivers.
I ask Pria about a widely-reported incident, in which the autorickshaw, despite bearing all the trappings of an Ambassador’s official vehicle, was denied entry into the premises of the India Habitat Centre, where she had been invited to deliver a talk on air pollution.
P ria clears the air of misunderstanding, saying the auto was allowed to be parked at the Centre, but it was at the Parliament House that the three-wheeler faced its stiffest resistance.
Apparently, there was nothing in the rulebook that would permit a three-wheeler into the premises of the Parliament House. Finally, after much confusion, the vehicle was allowed a backdoor entry, says Pria.
Of course, I ask the question I have to ask: Why the autorickshaw?
Pria explains that the tuk-tuk was the answer to a few questions, the prominent ones being “How do I promote Mexico in an Indian way?” and “How do I help a city like Delhi?”
The answer to the first question is obvious.
The second one involves a bit of statistics.
Quoting from a worldwide study on air pollution, Pria says, “In 2014, Mexico City had 16 bad air days and Delhi, 285 bad air days. In the early 1990s, Mexico City was among the international cities with the highest levels of air pollution, and it has done a lot over two decades to become a little better than what it was.”
She explains that many policy decisions have made this possible, which include installing a catalytic converter in vehicles. Running on CNG and “consuming a third of what my car consumes”, the autorickshaw allows her to contribute to the solution in Delhi. As a resident of Delhi, she says, she has to have concern for the city. I then ask her about the event that has brought her to Chennai for a day — The Rickshaw Challenge. “Are you planning to participate in the Challenge sometime in the future?”
Pria narrates how she once tried driving the official autorickshaw. “I told Jagdish, ‘You sit in the passenger seat, and I will drive the autorickshaw!’” she laughs at the memory. Jagadish went deathly pale and would not let her drive the auto, fearing for her safety and his.
Pria expresses her happiness in associating with the Challenge, due to its commitment to serving children. The Challenge raises funds for ‘Freedom Through Education’, an initiative by Round Table India, aimed at improving the infrastructure in schools that largely serve children from disadvantaged backgrounds. As a result of this, the Madras Midtown Round Table 42 has been the exclusive charity partner of The Rickshaw Challenge rallies since 2006, according to a press release.
I sense my time is up and ask the first non-auto question: “Is the Pria in your name a variant of the common Indian name, Priya?” “No. Pria is a very old Spanish name.”
She is aware of the meaning of Priya — beloved. “What does this Spanish name mean?” “Nothing.”
“Yes nothing. So, let’s just say Pria means ‘beloved’.”