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.


Long live the classy auto-rickshaw

King of the Road - in Bangalore at least!

King of the Road – in Bangalore at least!

Negotiating travel in Bangalore is an adventure for which one needs a certain amount of fortitude. No matter how well prepared the traveller may be, and how many times a particular route may have been traversed, it seems almost impossible to get every detail right. Let us take for example the journey from Kempegowda International Airport into the city, a distance I am reliably informed of 42 kilometres or 27 miles. I have on one occasion travelled in a taxi that completed this journey in considerably less than an hour. This, however, is exceptional, and whilst the three hours once taken on this route might have been atypical, times exceeding two hours are common. Whilst it had become somewhat run down, the location of the previous airport positioned quite centrally in the city was much more convenient than the splendid new facilities located in Devanahalli.

Within Bangalore, as in other Indian cities, and I am assured elsewhere in South Asia, one of the most reliable, if not always comfortable means of getting around is the omnipresent auto-rickshaw. These ubiquitous chariots of the city byways, for the most part manoeuvred skilfully through the traffic by khaki clad charioteers often provide the quickest means of getting between any two points. They have become an integral part of the cityscape and for short journeys are the preferred mode of transport. These noxious smelling yellow and black vehicles, (though they are being gradually usurped by the more environmentally friendly LPG yellow and green models), can be seen ferrying people and goods on any Bangalorian street. Six children aboard on the way to school, ladies overburdened with bags of shopping, business men with briefcases and even on one occasion an elderly man with two goats, all depend upon this simple means of getting from A to B.

Most of these three wheeled buggies are notable for their simplicity of design, but some of their custodians take a particular pride in turning their vehicles into functional works of art. Plush upholstery, flashing lights, clocks, jasmine garlands, even a thunderous sound system pounding out the latest Bollywood beat, provide an indication of the pride that some of the drivers take in their machines. The rear of the vehicles are often painted either with tributes to moustachioed actors, simple advertising or religious iconography, each personal to the proud owner. Yesterday I noted one with an old fashioned bicycle bell carefully positioned for passenger use, though I cannot imagine that such a contrivance could be heard above the ever present din of the Bangalore streets.

Weaving a path through the traffic, seated in an “auto,” one cannot help but admire the spatial awareness of the driver as he squeezes his way into gaps that are seemingly far too small for a vehicle of this size. They may be low on the Indian traffic food chain, but they remain the most effective mode of travel on the congested, and fume clouded roads. Two minutes as a passenger leaves one in no doubt as to the character and demeanour of the driver. I recall a couple of hair raising excursions with erstwhile racing drivers whose imitation of Fangio on a race circuit left me hanging on for dear life, and relieved to exit in one piece. On one occasion in Trivandrum, whilst travelling with my friend Johnson, we collided with a large dog. Somehow the driver kept the auto-rickshaw firmly adhered to the road as the dog bounced along the potholed tarmac. Our pilot barely flinched and carried on as if nothing of note had occurred. The fate of the poor creature remains unknown.

Thinking about this, I realise that many of my most “interesting” auto-rickshaw experiences have been in the company of Johnson. We once travelled together to do some work at a special school in Kerala. Not knowing its location I was happy to take Johnson’s advice on mode of transport. Twenty miles later, having experienced the kind of ride for which children pay excessive amounts of money at a modern theme park, I tumbled from the overheated machine feeling somewhat queasy,  and spent the next half an hour rearranging my skeleton and feeling the bruises. It was not with unalloyed joy that I greeted the smiling driver at the end of an afternoon of working in the school ready to return us to Trivandrum.

Navigation is not necessarily a forte amongst the auto driver community. It is often only after boarding and setting forth on a journey that the driver reveals his lack of knowledge in respect of the hoped for destination. Frequent stops to ask directions, shouted requests to other auto-rickshaw drivers, and regular changes of direction do not always inspire confidence. However, I must say that I have never failed to reach my terminus under the charge of one of these fellows. Incidentally, all drivers do appear to be male – are there any female auto rickshaw pilots I wonder?

Whilst the auto-rickshaw is certainly the vehicle of choice for many journeys during my stay in India, it is not always easy to persuade a driver that he needs a passenger. I am yet to understand why it is that on many an occasion these bucaneers of the road decline a fare, dismissing me as if I am simply wasting their time. At first I thought this was something personal, possibly a dislike of foreigners in the city, or the result of my lack of local language. But I soon discovered that local travellers often suffer this same frustration. I have come to the conclusion that the easily taken for granted drivers of these astounding three wheelers, occasionally like to assert their authority by indicating that whilst we need them, they can choose whether or not they need our fare.

Strangely, I have at times heard people complaining that the auto-rickshaws are a nuisance on the road, as more cars clog the streets of the city,and  drivers of  larger exhaust belching monsters demand more space on the road, this humble form of transport is often looked down upon by those in their air-conditioned gas guzzlers. The auto-rickshaw remains the only option for the common man; they are also a colourful part of the character of the crazy roads of India. Long may they rule!