My autorickshaw rides: a smorgasbord for the senses

30 March 2021

Anandi Mishra

Last year in March, when the lockdowns were announced in Delhi, I knew a lot was going to change. But what I did not foresee was that among a host of more important, consequential things, my relationship with autorickshaws (autos) would also undergo a marked change. Unable to sit in autos for such a stretched period of time for the first time in my life, I started missing them. Before the pandemic, I took an auto to and back from work every day, for five days a week. This made my approach to them laced with mundanity. But once locked indoors for about three months, I came to realise that I did not just miss taking the auto to and back from work, but also the ways in which autos brought life to my every day.

The internet describes an autorickshaw as a motorized, three-wheeled rickshaw for public hire, but that doesn’t justify what all it means to me. The definition is bland, perfunctory even, excluding the warmth, mood and comfort that an auto brought to my life. Whenever I took an auto ride amid the rains, the bokeh print of the city, visible through the windshield would be my antidote to all things beyond control. It added a bounce to my step each time I saw the city lights coalesce with the evening sky through the visor of an auto in any part of the country. Listening to a particular love ballad on the earphones, riding in an auto, while watching the world whizz by was my way to relax after a day of long, tiring hours. Everything made sense, once I sat in an auto and looked out at the city presenting its best self to me through it. In this essay, I write a paean, a clichéd love letter if you will, to autos and how they electrified my mundane commute.

Autorickshaw rides as emotional rollercoasters

While returning home from a sour break up or taking a ride to the mall to meet with a long-lost friend, autorickshaw rides had often been my go-to option. The friendly neighbourhood auto-wala bhaiyas1 my key to unlock the city. As I lived and made my life alone through these cities, these rides were the sole witness to my unravelling, their constant humming giving my life the much-needed background music.

At times I would cry, thick tears rolling down my cheeks as I stared at the world passing me by outside the auto. I would sorrowfully dip and out of thoughts of how no one in the world cared for what I was going through, tightly clutching the auto seat. The smooth autorickshaw ride, allowing for a strong wind to dry my tears.

Crying in the auto, I felt was something peculiar to me, gleaned from the numerous Hindi movies I’d grown up watching. A private passion. I remember once I was mid-cry and the auto halted at a traffic light. The driver looking through “rare-view” mirror met my glance. I felt oddly seen, almost discovered. A silence ensued, and even that felt comforting.

These rides were my companion to all job interviews. Looking at the world outside gave me a breather, a novel kind of relief amid the sea of nervousness that rose and fell within. In 2017 when I was trying to make the best of a bad job, I remember crying in an auto almost every time I sat in it. Just being seated inside the vehicle caused a deep stirring of emotions hitherto unfelt, unseen and unknown – for a moment, it became a room of my own. In the hustle bustle of a busy city, a small space for myself.

Just being seated inside the vehicle caused a deep stirring of emotions hitherto unfelt, unseen and unknown – for a moment, it became a room of my own. In the hustle bustle of a busy city, a small space for myself.  

Looking back, I miss feeling my tears dry out at the speed of the gust as the auto whooshes its way through the city. I miss being able to taste the soot and grime of the city. I miss finding the greasy fumes of the city clinging to my hair with a resolution I have always been in awe of. Amidst the grease and grime, a small solace that this was also a way of making the city my own, of seeing and being seen; of belonging to a part of the world and of being able to call it my own.

Autorickshaw rides as physical healers

For a long time, these rides also acted as mediators, brokers of peace, agents of quietude. In 2013-14 taking the auto ride from one place of anxiety (my then home) to another one (work, the Delhi High Court), made me relish my time alone in these rides. It was almost as if I had found a quiet companion, who I could fall back on. A companion that wouldn’t speak, but just hum.

That summer, each time I left from the court premises to go to my senior’s chambers in South Extension, passing by Khan Market, I would always stop the auto and get an orange iced lolly for both — the driver and myself. However strange that behaviour might have come across as to the drivers, not once did they refuse, allowing us both a season of calm respite and cold relish amid the various, bustling, ruthless summers around us.

Autorickshaw rides as cerebral experiences

For my previous job as an editor, I would take an auto to and from work every day. On my way to the office, I would mostly sit with a book in hand. Reading would be an option, depending on the ride. On most days I would be so caught up in staring at the world passing through me, that I would forget about the book in my hand, awaiting my attention. On occasion, while stuck in unending traffic jams, I would flip open the book to continue reading.

I clearly remember the books I read on auto rides, because of the effervescence auto rides brought to them. Sumana Roy’s Missing and How I Became a Tree, Jerry Pinto’s Murder in Mahim, Bill Hayes’ Insomniac City and Gulzar’s Raat Pashmine Ki being some of them. Managing a book in my hands as the auto driver manoeuvred his way through the traffic, I would invariably fall forward or jerk back when he’d apply the brakes. In that moment, the book would slip out of my grip and I would be in the strange fugue state — somewhere between the book and the real world. By virtue of the motion, the real world outside not looking as real as I would imagine it to be, transporting me, albeit very briefly, to a third, new world. A place where only I existed in this auto, with a half sentence from the book whirling in my head and the real-world insisting on rushing in. In those moments, I would niftily race back my senses to the book, wanting to savour the fugue, trying to elongate those unprecedented moments of pleasure.

Managing a book in my hands as the auto driver manoeuvred his way through the traffic, I would invariably fall forward or jerk back when he’d apply the brakes. In that moment, the book would slip out of my grip and I would be in the strange fugue state — somewhere between the book and the real world.

On other days, the autorickshaw would become an adda. I would find myself sharing auto rides with compatriots who I had just met at a party or at a film or a friend’s house. Suffused with the heady smell of fuels on the road or with the overwhelming stink of open garbage dumps nearby, we would waver between speaking in long and short sentences. Our voices enveloped by the noise of the traffic wafting over, or the incessantly blaring horns of nearby vehicles, we would discuss politics, music, love for the city, cinema and all such things – all the while allowing the auto to permeate the air of our conversation.

Autorickshaw rides as love nests

There are very few things that can match the high that comes from taking a well-thought through auto ride. For me traveling in an auto from one point of the city to another, however close or far, has always been akin to a treat. In my hometown Kanpur, autos were a big deal in the 90s. With my father’s love for driving us everywhere we had very few occasions to use public transport anyway. With the spare number of autos in the city, rides in it spelled comfort. Tempos, vikrams and cycle-rickshaws were the other counterparts of commute that were more accessible. Till date, I carry with me a trace of smugness when riding in an auto.

Over the years I have not only come to love these rides, but also associate them with a singular sensual experience. The vehicle’s innate metallic smell, the grime gathering in my hair, the rusty Delhi air lacing my mouth, what’s not to love about them! Especially on rainy days in any part of the country. Tearing its way or chugging slowly along, an auto ride in the rain is a pleasure to behold.

While in college in Lucknow, auto rides with my then boyfriend meant dreaming of the chance to canoodle. In the absence of public spaces to hang out in, we made frequent trips in autos to different places in our university city. The occasional knuckle brush, arm rub or him merely putting his arm around my shoulders would be monumental feats. All made possible thanks to the auto ride. Later on, I came to see those rides as a rite of passage that every small-town girl in India has to go through.

Autorickshaw rides as modes of building communication

During my time as a journalist in the three cities that I lived and reported in, autorickshaws served a two-fold purpose. They were not just the mode of convenience used to look for stories but were also sometimes become the point of emergence of stories. Talking to autorickshaw drivers helped me better understand cities, neighbourhoods and the sociological contours of places. The steady availability of autos that could be hailed from the road as opposed to the ones booked via ride-hailing apps like Jugnoo, before Ola and Uber, etc., became my personal parameter for judging a place in terms of liveability.

Talking to autorickshaw drivers helped me better understand cities, neighbourhoods and the sociological contours of places.

While looking for a place to live in, I would measure time and distance in auto rides. How long from here to office, or how long from here to the nearest alcohol store? The possibility of being able to hail an auto right off the road, from the middle of the road was something that always excited me. Sharing autos with friends or colleagues who lived in the vicinity was one way of getting to know people. The fact that we were on the move, inside an auto that was almost a public space, would help me open up more in front of these acquaintances. While commuting, as women we were all vulnerable, bearing our hearts, having a big hearty laughter at the drop of the hat. Nervousness communicated in a new language.

I miss being able to take the auto twice a day though I don’t miss bathing in the cake-y dust of the city. Texting while in the auto going to work in the chilly Delhi January mornings; the thrill of making plans for after work, while on my way to work; listening to music that is of the same pace as that of the auto; the cheap, stolen thrill of gazing at a potential lover from one of the rear-view mirrors; surreptitiously taking swigs of just bought beer in the auto; looking out of the fast moving auto crossing Lutyens Delhi; thinking about something or nothing; searching the space for a moment of rest; finding the city and in effect, finding myself: these snatches were my self-made private moments, purloined from the crabby hours that commute usually entails.

Zigzagging their way through the streets of the Capital, to me these auto rides are not a mere mode of transport but an ongoing way of developing a relationship with the city. On most days I love them, and on the off chance that I don’t, I find a silly, small way to relish the experience, chalking it up to “one of those things in life”. Since now I’ve been working from home, there has been little to no occasion for me to take autos. Yet, there is no denying that auto rides are an inherent part of my being, they make me even on the most mundane rides. Even on the most weather-beaten, rickety rides I find a way to call them my own, just like the city I live in. Slower and often uncomfortable, I realise that auto rides for me are synonymous with freedom and a sense of belonging. Whenever inside one of those multi-coloured autorickshaws, blaring cheesy Hindi songs through the way, dazzling seat covers, plastic flowers and posters of Rani and Aishwarya and (other famous Hindi film actors) adorning their insides, I feel my life tuk-tuking its way to a new destination.

When I pitched this essay, I had dryly titled it “Modalities of missing auto rides in the pandemic in Delhi”. But as I was writing it, I began to see how the dryness of that title came from the fact that I have been parched for an autorickshaw ride. My autorickshaw rides are the perfect antidote to Delhi’s traffic blues and post-vaccination I can’t wait to get back to them.

[1] “Auto waala bhaiya” is a colloquial way of referring to autorickshaw drivers in parts of India.

All the photographs in this essay have been taken by the author.

Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional who has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. Her writing has been published by or is forthcoming in the Chicago Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, Aeon, Popula, Brevity, 3:AM Magazine, Transformations, Rejection Letters, Berfrois, Multiplicity Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essay, “A Satyajit Ray Lockdown,” appears in the anthology Garden Among Fires (Dodo Ink, July 2020).

She tweets at @anandi010.

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