Dear Automan …

 ‘Auto and automen are an indispensable part of our lives. Right from the childhood they are there for us. From helping  people out in dire straits to taking care of the little ones, the automen are omnipresent today. A warm letter to an automan from a Puneite.’

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The earliest memories that I have of you is of when I was barely five and you picked me up daily and deposited me at my school’s doorsteps. I used to approach you with my book-laden bag and my water bottle, which you took from me and then you used to make me sit like a King. I used to be late at times but you would always wait patiently. I used to meet many of my young friends in your Auto and while driving, you used to tell us stories and crack jokes.

My parents trusted you with their most precious treasure – myself and you too never betrayed it. Like once while playing at school I twisted my ankle badly and it was very painful, tears streamed down my face. You were concerned and took me to a doctor on our way back home. It was very late when we reached home that day. My mother was naturally very anxious but for all sorts of wrong reasons and you put her mind to rest. I ‘out – grew’ my bond with you and those auto-rides but the past memories of our joyous association, I will always treasure.

As I said, I grew up but my friendship with your creed didn’t end. I can still recollect an incident which dates back to ’91 when one of our acquaintance’s daughter came to Pune in the dead of the night as her train was delayed. We didn’t know of her plans and she could not speak Hindi fluently. It was an auto-rickshaw driver, who sensing her dilemma, came to her rescue and took her to her destination.

I had asked him then why did he take so much trouble and his answer was one which truly moved me, “I knew that the lady wasn’t well versed in Hindi and was a stranger to the city. How could I leave her just like that at such an unearthly hour. It was my duty to see her home safely.”, he replied in matter-of-fact manner. And finally he parted with a proud salute, “No baksheesh please.” turning down the money I offered him.

Next time it so happened that I and my elder brother were stranded on our way to Fatima Nagar as the petrol tank of our vehicle ran dry. We were into doing acrobatics like tilting the scooter (to draw on whatever little petrol that remained) and proceeding further as far as the scooter would go before it stopped again. I was lugging a heavy suitcase as well. Somehow we reached a petrol station, tired and weary. Imagine our plight when the attendant said that the station was closed and he wouldn’t allow us to ‘buy’ petrol even if we had run dry.

I refused to proceed an inch further but my brother prodded me on. So it was a fine sight, I hugging the suitcase which seemed to weigh a ton and my brother dragging the wretched scooter. It was going to be a long trek to our destination. Luckily a rickshaw wallah, who was passing by, stopped and asked as about our problem. He was kind enough to give us some petrol; enough for us to make it to the next petrol pump. I can’t re-summon the intensity of emotion with which I thanked him that night as I wearily lay on my bed.

Furthermore, only about two months back, I had a very important appointment. I was about to start when it suddenly started to rain heavily. I hired an Auto but the trouble lay ahead. If the automan dropped at the chowk, I was sure to be drenched to skin and spoil my chances. I told him about my predicament. He waved it aside. Instead he braved into a ‘one-way’ and dropped me right at the place where I wanted to go.

Automen can be very interesting people to talk to. You learn a lot from them. Many are in fact very good philosophers and it is very stimulating to have a chat with them. Once I met one fellow who talked a great deal about what life was and the importance of ‘good education’. Time just flew and I reached my destination. After giving him the money, he told me that he was short of some change.I asked him to forget about it. His parting remark was that we should try to understand the needs of one another and work out a solution, as antagonism helps no one.

When the ECF espoused the citizens’ cause, it didn’t wish to be unfair to the Automen. The ECF was right while implying that the price hike is a social issue with emotional tie strings for we trust you with even our kids. But you took a tough stand, deserted us when we needed you the most and made our children suffer hardships. Even now there are stray instances of rude behavior and poor service. You manipulate the fare meters and charge us extra money.

Many of you seem to carry a feeling that we all are dong an injustice to you but pray tell us how? All the big reports and surveys reflect that there is no justification for a hike and you yourself have made us doubt your credentials by issuing absurd statements. Answer me, “Is this hike in fare fair?” Everyone says it is not. I suggest that we settle this issue amicably. For truly antagonism helps no one and if our relations sour the society will be the biggest loser.

It is rather difficult to describe an Auto that is such a common sight in Indian cities. It represents a somewhat ‘affordable’ means of transport to the Common Man in India and is so structured that  it can easily navigate the small, twisted by lanes of our cities. You can of course search for its multiple images on the net by punching in ‘Auto-rickshaw’.

This article appeared on August 17, 1995 in bi-monthly magazine called ‘Citizen’, that was published by the Indian Express newspaper in Pune. ECF stands for ‘Express Citizens Forum’ – it was active in Pune in the area of addressing Citizen’s grievances and also supported a variety of social causes. This article appeared in the backdrop of a unilateral fare hike demanded by the Automen which evoked a face-off between the citizen’s group and the rickshaw wallahs.

I was in my first year of college when the article appeared and I remember having met the sub-editor who had edited the story. The lady was a bit surprised to meet a youngster – the tone of the article seems to have suggested to her that it was authored by a relatively older writer.

Photographer:INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / Staff Collection:AFP Credit:AFP/Getty Images
Photographer:INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / Staff
Collection:AFP
Credit:AFP/Getty Images
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