Riding shotgun on an auto-rickshaw

Not promoted to co-pilot, but driven to desperate measures!

Not promoted to co-pilot, but driven to desperate measures!


There have been many volumes written about the epic voyages of lone sailors such as Francis Chichester and Helen MacArthur, countless books about the great polar explorers like Wally Herbert and Roald Amundsen. It is even possible to buy accounts of far less substantial journeys such as a ramble along the Pennine Way, or cyclists riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Why then are there no best sellers describing the adventures of the auto-rickshaw drivers of Bangalore?

Yesterday, I learned (alas too late) a most useful expression in Hinglish, that redoubtable hybrid comprising the butchered use of a combination of any Indian language and English. You can find Manglish spoken in Kerala, Tamlish in Chennai and Teleglish in Hyderabad, but Hinglish seems to be a collective term used to describe any linguistic marriage of the Indian vernacular and the old colonial tongue. “I should, ” I was informed use the expression “wrong roado;” definitely not “wrong roada?” which apparently is  a question directed only towards the most proficient auto rickshaw navigator, but specifically “wrong roado,” an assertive statement which translates roughly as “you are travelling in the wrong direction, you are clearly lost, where on earth are you going?”

Over the years I have experienced many adventures in these essentially Asian vehicles. I recall for example, my good friend and colleague Johnson advising me that an auto-rickshaw was undoubtedly the only advisable  mode of transport in which we should travel to a “local”special school in Kerala.  One and a half hours later, prising my battered form out of the cramped vehicle, having negotiated a thousand potholes, many muddy tracks and not a few hair raising manouvres in and out of traffic, I found myself wondering why a taxi would have proven a less efficient means of travel to this destination. By the time my body had re-established some form of equilibrium, several hours later, it was time to repeat the odyssey  in the other direction, an experience that I hardly relished throughout my visit to the school.

On another occasion, late at night, once again with Johnson (is there a pattern emerging here I wonder?), the auto in which we were travelling collided with a rather large dog. Sadly, the dog came out of this experience somewhat worse than ourselves and our driver appeared more concerned that we should recognise his skill in keeping the vehicle upright on the road than he was for the welfare of the poor beast. I could go on regaling you with tales of drivers who seemed to be auditioning for a stunt role in the latest Bond movie, or others who appeared to be a pale imitation of the racing driver Fangio. I could further bore you with recollections of vehicles that have broken down and others that have made stately progress whilst emitting a cloud of thick black oily smoke. But let me instead bring you up to date and explain why the expression “wrong roado” could have been particularly useful had I known it yesterday morning.

The journey from the hotel where we stay to the venue in which we teach is, theoretically straight forward. I have walked the route on numerous occasions and can usually complete my perambulation in less than half an hour. However, some mornings, with heavily loaded bags weighing us down, we choose to travel by auto-rickshaw. Yesterday was such a day, and having successfully hailed a passing pilot (not always as easy as it may sound) David and I climbed aboard bound for a day’s teaching. At first all was well, but then the driver took a turn down one of the narrow streets with which I am familiar  from my morning walks. In my naivety I assumed that perhaps road works or traffic difficulties had warranted a diversion. However, within moments it became clear that this was yet another example of a driver whose inbuilt satellite navigation system was dysfunctional. Very gently (at first) I suggested to him that we were not en-route for our desired destination. My lack of Kannada (or at this point, even the appropriate Hinglish) did not assist the situation. With an all too familiar head shake the driver ignored my comments and proceeded quite happily in what I knew to be totally the wrong direction. “Madhaven Park,” I politely suggested. “Madhaven Park,” the driver replied, this time nodding in affirmation, but still progressing away from the requested terminus.

Eventually we arrived at the gate of the Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens, a venue that under normal circumstances I would be delighted to visit, but on this occasion,  being  some considerable distance from our intended destination I was less than joyful. The time had come for affirmative action. Locating myself on the narrow front seat beside the driver I decided that sign language, and indeed using the boldest of gestures, was clearly justified. Thus it was that having gently pointed the driver in the right direction and indicating with a frantic waving of arms at each junction we finally arrived at the teaching venue. On arrival the  driver  appeared  even more relieved than ourselves. This may have been something to do with ridding himself of the Englishman who had elected to ride shotgun, though personally I was somewhat disappointed that he didn’t offer me a more permanent position riding as navigator to prevent other similar situations arising.

In truth, I am a great admirer of the auto-rickshaw drivers of Bangalore. They have a refined spatial awareness, generally display a cheery countenance, and are paid very little for offering an essential service. Incidentally my latest excursion was with a driver who knew exactly which route to take, avoided many of the potholes and all of the dogs and delivered us promptly and efficiently to the door. Polar explorers, lone sailors, mountaineers, intrepid all – but let’s not forget these warriors of the roads of Bangalore.


6 thoughts on “Riding shotgun on an auto-rickshaw

  1. Richard, your sense of direction is pretty good too if you managed to navigate the driver to the destination!! right roada!!

  2. Lesson learnt and humorously executed…now we can move on to the next..coffee hotta, dress niceu ….
    Lovely write-up Richard ,beautiful vignettes of bangaluru.

  3. Hi Richard,
    Wonderful blog, as always! It reminded me of our trip to Johnson’s wedding, when Saneeya and I bravely travelled everywhere in Jay’rai’s auto-rickshaw. (I thought they were called ‘tuk-tuks’, hence the reference in the following poem:
    Rickshaw Space Race!
    If in India you get stuck, duck**, take a chance and hire a tuk-tuk;
    It may cost you several shillings; you might lose your loosest fillings;
    It will shake, but what the heck? It’s cheaper than a dental check.
    Please take note – the whole thing wobbles – like a roller skate on cobbles.
    The shaking is a major factor, in the wealth of the chiropractor.
    Who’s never likely to be poor, since tuk-tuks make the spine so sore.
    And if you ride one you will see, the level of their M.O.T.
    Their check is simple, and quite fast. If the horn works, then it’s passed.
    But in one sense it is sublime. Defies the laws of space and time!
    The ever fearless rickshaw chap can shrink his cab through any gap.
    When the nervous punter thinks, “THAT GAP’S TOO SMALL!” the auto shrinks
    We hold on tight and sweat inside, this quite unique white knuckle ride
    It’s not the place to feel aloof, as bouncing heads all dent the roof.
    When our side of the road gets rough; of bumpiness he’s had enough;
    So, since the other side is flat, he changes sides and drives on that!
    Be assured of many thrills, like overtaking on the hills;
    Surely life will swiftly end, as on two wheels we round the bend?
    Look what’s heading straight for us – LORRY OVERTAKING BUS!
    Hold your breath, we’re overtaking; now is not the time for braking.
    And is it in the Highway Code, to Skype your wife when on the road?
    He turns so we can join the chat. Why watch the road? No need for that!
    So how can I reduce our cares? I don’t know any local prayers!
    We might survive this traffic jam, if I could pray in Malayalam?
    I might even feel less windy – if only I could pray in Hindi!
    On steeper slopes it starts to baulk. Should we all get out and walk?
    Will we make it, will we not? Will the engine get too hot?
    He’ll reach the summit, never fear, if only he can find a gear.
    When it seems that we’ll slip back, then his answer is to tack!
    Driver has no fear of failing, uses methods meant for sailing.
    It’s a tuk-tuk, not a Jag, so first he’ll zig and then he’ll zag!
    We reach the summit; only then, can we start to breathe again.
    And ‘count our blessings’, if you like. (It’s safer than a motorbike;
    Dad with helmet, in a straddle, with 5 kids and Mum side-saddle!)
    Perspiring, you now need a pit stop. Mouth as dry as Gandhi’s flip-flop
    You take a while to wonder at, how the driver managed that.
    It has been said that pretty soon, an Indian will reach the Moon.
    Their space vehicle, to be sure, they’ll build around an old rickshaw.
    They’ll win the scientific race, since rickshaws can shrink time and space.
    Stop all research in the lab. Send Jay’raj in his rickshaw cab!
    **Term of endearment used often in Suffolk. October 2012
    Very best wishes,

    • Excellent Phil. Many have responded to my postings over the years, but this is a first in verse. I hope to hear more in the future.

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