Auto-wala

Me: Anna, Whitefield.

The auto-driver was staring at the sky, with a philosophizing look on his face. He looked at me and looked back, up. I knew he was unable to come to a decision between 250 or 200.

Me: Actually, Mayura Bakery se pehle, Whitefield tak bhi nahi. (Drop off before Mayura Bakery, not even Whitefield)

He brings his eyes down and glances at me, probably judging how much I’d pay, based on what I am wearing. I was wearing a black sweat-shirt and a maroon trouser (yes I have one of those!) He looked back, up. Meanwhile, another auto-driver came from behind.

Me: Anna …

He_0: 180

Me: Kis liye 180? 100 Rupees bhi nahi hota meter pe. 150 le lo. (What for 180, it won’t even be 100 rupees with the meter on. Take 150)

He_0: 30 rupee mein kya bhaiyya. (What’s in 30 rupees?)

Me: 30 kam nahi, 50 extra de raha hoon (it’s not 30 less, I am paying 50 extra)

His friend joins him and asks what’s going on. They start talking in Kannada. The first one explains the second one situation. The second one tells him something like — 150 is good, no? Now, the advantage of being a Telugu guy, who understands a fair bit of Kannada, yet starting conversations with auto-walas in Hindi is – they think you are a Hindi guy and almost always talk to each other in Kannada or Telugu, and then you can pick up points from their own conversation for your arguments, and boom! They wouldn’t even know what hit them.

He_1: Kitna savari (How many people?)

Me: Sirf ek. Aur thoda luggage — 3 bags. (Just me and some luggage)

I point in some direction and make an effort to show him, even though I know he can’t see anything from where we were standing.

He_1: Luggage hain to 180 (If luggage: charge == 180)

Me: Dekho, 150 mein aana hain to aao. (See, if charge == 150: come())

He_0: Nahin… (No…)

He_1: Ok. Chalo (Okay, let’s go)

And we drive-off with the luggage to Whitefield. I did want to pay him Rs.20 extra, but I had no change, so I let it be.

This weekend was quite a hectic one for me as it posed my most feared challenge — house shifting. Now, anybody who has ever swapped houses knows how painful a job it is; first the packing and then the actual shifting part. Luckily, for me, packing was never an issue. Changing hostel rooms every year in my engineering college taught me enough tips to live a packing-friendly life, but even in a small place like Pilani campus, shifting rooms was cumbersome. So, when the time came in Bangalore to move from my current place, I was ready to do whatever it takes to make the process smooth, of course, within the bounds of reason. As the place I was moving to was an unjustified expense for cabs, I wanted to pick an auto, which was another issue for me.

See, since I was a kid, I loved taking the bus. Autos were a big no for me, because 1. They were expensive and 2. What if they kidnapped me!? Now, as an adult, though I don’t have a great fear of being kidnapped, I still fear being robbed blind by the auto-drivers. Especially in places like Bangalore, where auto prices fluctuate like the stock market, based on the appearance of the passengers, the time of the day or the weather conditions, I detest taking autos. Finding auto-walas who are ready to go on meter fare is like searching for chicken in a veg pulao — you might find it once in a while, but you don’t expect it.

After the Saturday stint with he_0 and he_1, I went back to the same auto-stand on Sunday, to take an auto for the same destination, to shift the remainder of my luggage.

Me: (looking around and stopping near the first auto) Anna, Whitefield.

This time, there were about three people sitting in the auto. The driver gave me the same look as he_0 on Saturday. (Seriously, do these guys have a coaching center somewhere that teaches them all these techniques!?) He looked towards another guy and looked back at me.

He_2: 250.

I broke out laughing.

Me: 250? Whitefiled bola, Majestic nahi. (250? I said Whitefiled, not Majestic – the central bus stand)

He_2: (without a second thought) 200.

Me: 150. Kal yahi se auto liya 150 mein. (I took an auto yesterday from right here, for 150)

He_2: Kitna Savari.

Me: Sirf mein, aur thoda luggae – 3 or 4 bags.

He_2: Nahi bhaiyya. 250. (He points to an auto in front). Kal ek savari ko 250 mein leke gaya wo.

By then I was walking away from him, to another auto, and to my surprise, I saw he_1, sitting and chatting in the next auto. He looked at me and smiled.

Me: Anna, Whitefield. 3 bags, smaller than yesterday.

He_1 looks at He_2.

He_1: Arey, takkuva luggage anta ga, vellu. (Dude, go. There’s less luggage it seems)

He_2: Ninna vaadu rendu noorlu ki teeskupoinadu. (Yesterday he took them for 200)1

The moment I heard them talk in Telugu, there was kind of an evil smile on my face. He quoted 250 to me, but told his friend 200. I took over the scene.

Me: Anna, ninna nenu vellindi itani thone. 150 iccha. Moodu pedda baglu unde. (Yesterday he was the one who took me for 150, with three big bags)

They whispered something amongst themselves and finally he_2 decided to give me the ride. We had a conversation, some of which I will present below. Note, though our conversation was in Telugu, I will give you the translated version of it.

Me: How can you even ask 250 for this distance? How do you think anyone would take your auto if you start off your bargain with such insane amounts?

He_2: No, sir. We start with 250, but we know people will bargain, so it settles down to 200 or less.

Me: See, that’s the problem with you guys. If you just randomly start with a bizarre number like that, no one will even consider bargaining. This was the reason I stopped taking autos in Bangalore. Why don’t you guys just come on the meter?

He_2: Sir, meter is very low. That will not be enough, sir. For long distances we put meter, but within city, it is not enough.

Me: You should at least put the meter on, so that we can get some sense of the reading, then we will pay more. You try that. Next time, put the meter on and I’m sure people will pay you 10-20 more than the reading.

He_2: Sir, you are saying this, but believe me, not many are like you. We see so many people every day. Even if we say meter+20, they ask why they have to give extra.2 Sometimes I go on the meter and after dropping them, if I ask 10 rupees also people do not give one rupee also sir.

There was some silence, after which I continued talking to him.

Me: So, did you take this auto on rent?

He_2: No sir. I borrowed money and bought this auto. In this city, if we take auto for rent, we can never get by. We don’t know how much we will earn every day, and most of it will go on rent. This way the auto is mine, I can keep as much as I need and pay the rest to the lender.

Me: Nice. How many passengers or trips do you get every day?

He_2: In the morning every day we get about three trips. There are 30 autos there, and everybody gets around three trips to ITPL or nearby places. ITPL, Vydehi, Shantiniketan, these all are 150 rupee zones.

Me: Hmmm…

He_2: After that, dying in that traffic and all, it becomes really difficult by afternoon for us. At that point when we get passengers who ask why they have to pay over meter, we just don’t take them. We ask them to take a different auto then.

Me: I have seen autos taking people on meter too.

He_2: I too take people on meter, without asking for extra sir. When I am returning from ITPL or some other place, I will anyways return empty. So, if someone asks for a ride in the same direction, I just turn on the meter without asking anything. Sir, I am speaking honestly, if someone comes to me or anyone of us, and says that they will give meter+20 or 30, we will definitely go on meter.

The rest of the journey, I just sat, thinking about stuff. A few minutes later, I reached my destination, got down and paid him 160. He said thanks and left.

Sitting in the auto, thinking about the conversation raised a couple of interesting questions. Every single person in the city acknowledges that there is a problem with autos. We all know how the autos are the villains of the city, who are trying to rob the innocent penny saving people in the society. But, who is responsible for encouraging this behaviour? Pinning some points back to the superscripts in the conversations above —

  1. Yes, sometimes people don’t bother how much they spend on transport, especially during odd times or emergencies. But 200 bucks for a 2 km ride!? Isn’t that too much? I have seen people pay insane amounts – even thrice the price of the regular ride in autos without questioning – for various reasons. Once I was tired waiting in the bus-stop and asked an auto driver, who had noticed me waiting for a while, for a ride to a less than 2 km destination. He said 100 rupees. I laughed on his face and walked away to the bus stop. Moments later, he passed me, with a group of three girls, laughing on my face as he passed by :\.
    I believe people should actually understand how much they are paying for a ride. This way, they can keep the prices from jumping for other people. If you do not know an estimate to bargain around, be smart enough to check the distance of your destination on your smart phone and multiply it around with the standard fares in your location.
  2. The second is more a fundamental behaviour change that is required. When I was in the US, I payed tip, like everyone else, maybe out of politeness or out of peer pressure. My first cab tip was a whopping $5 (250 bucks at that time). I can’t imagine tipping an auto driver even one fifth of that. That’s the thing that makes me feel guilty. There are many others I know who fall in the same category. We spend hundreds of rupees on VAT, 30 bucks for container charges on home deliveries, and unimaginably inflated prices for Starbucks and Baskin Robbins, then why ask this silly question – why do I have to pay you more than the meter? Consider it a tip for the service rendered.

The conversation and the afterthought made me look at auto-drivers in a new perspective. Next time, before just running to the bus-stop, I will ask around and try to negotiate a reasonable price, maybe a meter+10 or 20 with the auto-driver. I suggest you try that too, instead of paying as much as he demands or just arguing.

Note – After the entire episode, I took a picture of Rajesh, the auto-driver, but he was pretty hesitant. He said he was afraid I might give it to the police. He said if police even had their photo, their License and auto would be seized and their life would be ruined. I told him I’d do no such thing and it was just for a blog post. But I think I will not use his picture. Instead, I will use my favourite auto-driver’s pic.

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