India’s traditional mode of transportation, the “rickshaw bicycle”, is well known around the world. However, what many people don’t realize is that this old-fashioned method of traveling is long outdated. Nowadays, people get from place to place in a handy little vehicle known as an “auto-rickshaw”, but more commonly referred to as an “auto.”
I love autos. Coming from a small town where the only public transportation is a small bus called the “Green Mountain Express” that runs a few times a day, autos represent independence and adventures. They are small and cute and bright yellow, and conveniently squeeze through traffic better than a car. They take you to your doorstep or wherever you want to go, but are much cheaper than American taxis. They have open sides rather than doors, so when I’m in one I feel like I’m one with the city. I can smell everything, hear everything, and see everything that I pass. The multitudes of people going about their daily lives, the other vehicles honking non-stop, and the mixed smell of street food and garbage are just a few things that I love about this city. There’s no better view of Chennai than from inside an auto. I can feel the rush of warm wind as we speed down the highway and the creeping of lethargic humidity when we’re stuck in traffic. I never feel more connected to this city than when I am in an auto.
Autos represent my transformation into an Indian. The first time I took an auto, I shyly tried to bargain with the auto driver, although I had no idea what the correct rate was. These days, I unashamedly haggle with the drivers, and even pull out my Tamil auto-lingo when necessary. “Rombe adhigam, Anna. Kami pununge” I tell them. Translation: “It’s very expensive, brother. Lower the price”. Once in a while an auto driver will give me a good deal just because I spoke to him in Tamil. The first time I gave an auto driver directions back to my house, the accomplishment I felt was unrivaled. I was amazed at the fact that I could get home from anywhere in the city without having to call someone and ask them to speak to the auto driver!
I’ll never forget the auto drivers—the moody ones, the cheerful ones, the ones who blast music and the ones that think they can sing. The ones that have no idea where they are going and the ones that just won’t shut up. Some of my best Tamil conversations have been with auto drivers. They never fail to be impressed with the fact that I came to live in India, am wearing Indian clothes, and can speak (well, barely) Tamil.
When I first came to Chennai, I loved autos because of their novelty. Ten months later, the novelty has worn off (somewhat) and I still love them. This evening I took an auto back to my house for what felt like the millionth time. It is often when I am in an auto that I realize how at home I feel in this city. I belong here. I call this place home. And I really love autos.